The Game

The Game


Elizabeth Kolbert won the Pulitzer Prize for her book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History in which she demonstrates the Earth is in the midst of a modern, man-made, sixth extinction. If she is right, and we are in the midst of an irreversible ecological decline (and all the science seems to be on her side) then modern human civilization is doomed and casualties will be in the billions. It seems clear to me, within the logic of orthodox textbook science, that there is no way forward, and the fat lady is singing. Fortunately, much of what is considered orthodox science is simply bad philosophy. According to whom?  According to three of the best analytic thinkers of the past two hundred years—logician Charles Sanders Peirce, mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, and physicist David Bohm—who all denied the scientific validity of materialism and dualism, and embraced the idea that a synthesis of science and esotericism was possible and necessary if we were to make sense of our existence.

In the introduction that follows I ask questions about: the relationship between mind and matter, human and universe; the nature of self or agent and what drives behavior; and the possibility of a Truth irrespective of human opinions. I touch upon the possibility of a way forward.  Such questions involves a branch of philosophy known as epistemology: an investigation into what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. Western philosophy has undergone an epistemic collapse in that postmodern philosophers such as Derrida, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Quine, Searle and Sellars are united (despite their diversity) in the denial that knowledge can have a firm foundation in anything–not in sense data, intuition, nor divine revelation (E.D. Hirsch, London Review of BooksDerrida’s Axioms, Vol. 5 No. 13 · 21 July 1983, pages 17-18).  Everything we know is already theory-laden, imprinted with foreknowledge, already an interpretation rather than a given. If those at the very apex of the rational order agree there is no way to distinguish justified belief from opinion, then it might seem inevitable we would one day have large numbers of citizens who would elect a leader with no regard for facts.  Sorting out this mess seems to me a pressing issue. 

An equally pressing issue is what I call the myths of materialism:

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built…How in such an alien and unhuman world, can so powerless a creature as Man preserve his aspirations untarnished?…such, in outline…is the world which Science presents for our belief.    (Freeman’s Worship, Bertrand Russell)

That such sentiments were prevalent at a moment in time is not surprising. What is surprising is that a brilliant man like Russell could be so blind as to imagine such ideas to be carved in stone for all time (these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand)–because that’s utter mindless twaddle.  I attribute the utter chaos of this moment in human history (9/8/2018) to epistemic collapse and the mindless embrace of a materialistic ethos that maintains we can make sense of the world through a pure quantitative analysis that strips existence of all sentience, feeling, aesthetics and morality.

Materialism: The denial that the most pervasive processes of nature involve any such psychical functions as sensing, feeling, remembering, desiring, or thinking. Idealists assert what materialists here deny (Charles Hartshorne, Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers, p. 7).

The materialistic claim has been that the paring away of sentience, sentiment, aesthetics and morality is demanded by scientific logic. I try to show, using the logic of the three above thinkers, that this is a baseless claim, and when such errors are corrected science can be seen as aligning with specific esoteric elements, and the human is again made whole.



The Eternal Questions

What is this?”/Ah, the eternal question./Figuring out the object of the game/is the object of the game.”——The Game, 1997 film

Another eternal question is: Is the cosmos actively supportive of our well-being as humans (sentient life)?; actively hostile to our well-being?; or simply indifferent?  To be “actively” supportive or hostile would imply the cosmos is, in some sense, to some degree conscious, while indifference might mean the cosmos is simply mindless matter. If life reduces to materialism—lifeless matter—then there’s no point asking about the meaning of life, as there is none. As I mentioned in the abstract, perhaps the best definition of materialism is that of Charles Hartshorne (Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers, p. 17): “The denial that the most pervasive processes of nature involve any such psychical functions as sensing, feeling, remembering, desiring, or thinking.” Idealists assert what materialists here deny. But to simply state one is an idealist or materialist is, to my mind, to say nothing at all. To me the point is why one is an idealist or materialist.  What commits one to one’s metaphysics is a different question from what one’s metaphysics commits one to.

In the Christian era St. Augustine presumed a philosophy of history where a system of divine reward and punishment applied to individuals and whole peoples. But this left him unable to explain why Rome thrived as a pagan state, yet fell after it converted to Christianity. In the modern era the German philosopher Hegel proposed that a gradual realization of human freedom could be discerned in history, even if much tyranny and suffering are inherent in the historical process. Philosophical positions like St. Augustine’s and Hegel’s, in which it is presumed life is in some fashion designed with an end in mind posit a teleology—a reason or explanation for something in function of its end purposes or goal. Western prophetic religious teleology presumes a transcendent ego as supreme architect of the universe, whereas a natural teleology posits a spontaneous, highly stochastic, yet ordered process of evolution. Natural teleology contends that natural entities have intrinsic purposes, irrespective of human opinions. Conversely, purposes imposed by humans are considered extrinsic.

At first glance it seems humans have ample evidence the natural world is indifferent to our well-being. A tsunami, avalanche, or boiling magma flow from a volcano never adjusts its trajectory to account for human well-being—it never actively seeks to harm or protect us. And then there’s the truly catastrophic events that wipe out 98% of all life.  On this count it seems clear there are natural forces that are “mindless” in sense such forces are indifferent to our personal well-being.

And as for finding evidence of high intentions in human history, for anyone familiar with human history it seems easier to defend the opposite side of this argument. As French philosopher Foucault read Nietzsche, Nietzsche viewed human history as:

The story of petty malice, of violently imposed interpretations, of high-sounding stories masking the lowest of motives. To the Nietzschean genealogist, the foundation of morality, at least since Plato, is not to be found in ideal truth. It is found in puenda origo, “lowly origins,”—catty fights, minor crudeness, ceaseless and nasty clashing of wills. The story of history is one of accidents, chance events, lies—not the lofty development of truth or the concrete embodiment of freedom…The faith on which our science rests is still a metaphysical faith…The Christian faith, which was also the faith of Plato, holds that God is Truth, and Truth divine. But what if this equation becomes less and less credible…if God himself (Truth) turns out to be our longest lie? –Peter Leithart, Cambridge,

What the above quote asks is; Is there such a thing as Truth, that is, is there a teleology where entities have intrinsic purposes irrespective of human opinions? As Foucault reads Nietzsche, this sort of Truth is what both Plato and Christian’s mean by the Good and God, respectively. So when Nietzsche asks if God is dead, he’s asking if this idea of truth is, in fact, our longest lie.

While I ultimately agree with Hegel, I also agree with Nietzsche. Think of self or agency as a nesting doll. On one level of the game a self (avatar), seemingly moral and free, is now seen to be operating from a surreptitious program driven by an ethos of exploitation (see below). But awareness of this level of programming lifts the avatar to another level (higher player status) of the game. Nietzsche’s philosophy lends itself to different interpretations. A constructivist interpretation of Nietzsche (as opposed to a perspectivist–more on this later) that denies any possible ground for Truth irrespective of human opinion is, more or less, what I’m arguing against (in Nietzsche and his postmodern acolytes).

But if human behavior us not (initially) driven by a quest for truth, what is it driven by?

In an article in titled I Nanbot Alan Goldstein commented…

A system does not have to be complex to be transcendentally, transformatively powerful. After all, we and everything we’ve created are nothing but the product of chemical imperialism—carbon being the element all known life is based on—nothing but the power of pure chemistry. Living and non-living materials, everything that exists in the physical world of our experience burns with that same electron fire of the chemical bond.

What is chemical imperialism? Chemical imperialism is a phrase coined by Bertrand Russell that describes the need for matter to assimilate (exploit) other matter into itself (for its own needs)—exploitation of the outside for benefit of the inside. In this view evolution and human civilization is nothing more than chemical imperialism. Chemical imperialism and its implementation in carbon’s edict being nothing more than matter wishing to make other matter into, or rather part of, itself.

Every living thing is a sort of imperialist, seeking to transform as much as possible of its environment into itself and its seed…We may regard the whole of evolution as flowing from this ‘chemical imperialism’ of living matter. Of this, Man is only the last example (so far). He transforms the surface of the globe by irrigation, cultivation, mining, quarrying, making canals and railways, breeding certain animals, and destroying others; and when we ask ourselves, from the standpoint of an outside observer, what is the end achieved by all these activities, we find it can be summed up in one very simple formula: to transform as much as possible of the matter on the earth’s surface into human bodies. Domestication of animals, agriculture, commerce, industrialism have been stages in this process. When we compare the human population of the globe with that of other large animals and also with that of former times, we see that ‘chemical imperialism’ has been, in fact, the main end to which human intelligence has been devoted.. An Outline of Philosophy, Bertrand Russell, pp. 21-22 (Psychology Press, 1995)

Carbon has a natural affinity for bonding with itself and, because of this, carbon can create rather complex and extensive geometric structures with a wide array of properties. These properties in turn facilitate emergence—the organization of simple entities, such as a hydrocarbon chain, into fantastically complex patterns, like that of a ribosome. The end result of this highly stochasitic process is the inevitable emergence of intelligent life. Emergence then is a collection of simple entities whose action’s side-effects result in the creation of incredibly complex patterns.

But why intelligent life? Intelligent life is the most efficient method for carbon to acquire more matter. What is civilization but the passing down of information from one generation to the next? And as we find more and more efficient ways of storing information, we are fighting the dreaded entropy.

What is entropy? Entropy is a thermodynamic quantity representing the unavailability of a system’s thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work, often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system.

What is thermodynamics? Thermodynamics has to do with energy transfer, and energy transfer is studied in three types of systems: (

Open systems Open systems can exchange both matter and energy with an outside system.

They are portions of larger systems and in intimate contact with the larger system. Your body is an open system.

Closed system Closed systems exchange energy but not matter with an outside system. Though they are typically portions of larger systems, they are not in complete contact. The Earth is essentially a closed system; it obtains lots of energy from the Sun, but the exchange of matter with the outside is almost zero.

Isolated system Isolated systems can exchange neither energy nor matter with an outside system. While they may be portions of larger systems, they do not communicate with the outside in any way. The physical universe is an isolated system; a closed thermos bottle is essentially an isolated system (though its insulation is not perfect).

Energy can be transferred between open systems and between closed systems, but not between isolated systems.

In A Brief History of Time Stephen Hawking says entropic decay is what we mean by time. He uses the example of a broken plate. After the plate is broken the pieces have exactly the same amount of energy as before it is broken—it’s just no longer useful as a plate. As carbon-based life depends on information coherence, entropy is a force that breaks down that coherence, just as dropping a plate breaks down the utility of the plate.

But let’s back up and ask: if we assume human behavior to be driven by the edict of carbon—an anti-entropic force—how would we explain the wildly incoherent state of 21st century human civilization? German-American psychologist Kurt Lewin, a pioneer in the field of social psychology, made a distinction between what he called current (biological) needs (water, food, shelter) and quasi (social) needs (a certain type of water, food, shelter). Current needs have an actual point-of-content in that, when thirsty/hungry/cold/ wet, satisfaction of that drive extinguishes the drive. Conversely, quasi needs, having no actual point-of-content are never extinguished. As the drives that determine human behavior shifted from a biological to a social nexus, behavior rooted in homeostasis of the natural world gave way to behavior driven by phantom social drives perceived as real, but profoundly damaging to ecological homeostasis.

The next question then is—what caused the shift from a natural existence as hunter-gatherers to what has become that supremely destructive existence that is modern human society? My answer would be what seemed a supremely anti-entropic development—the emergence of that amazing information gathering artifact called the cerebral cortex—an area more developed in humans than in any other animal. Yet it seems it is this very artifact that led to written language and distinctions such as the Greeks made between techne (skill) and tuche (luck, in the sense of those elements of life humans do not control).

Written language, it seems, is both humanities supreme achievement and enduring curse.

Derrida linked language to alienation because it is inherently a naming that separates “self” or consciousness from proprioception—our felt self—by inscribing that self within a system of linguistico-social differences. Derrida defined the proper name, in the sense of consciousness, as precisely the inscription of a (human) being within the abstract system of language. For Derrida, language as such produces alienation, and human consciousness as such “is” the experience of alientation, the split between proprioception and perception.              –Experience, Representation, and Difference, Gwen Gorzelsky

Proprioception refers to “one’s own” position-movement sensation, or sense of “locomotion.” What French philosopher Jacques Derrida is implying is that becoming inscribed within an abstract system of language alienated humanity from a felt connection to the natural world.

21st century society seems the realization of humanities initial dream of control of all we felt we did not have control over. That plan hasn’t worked out exactly as we had imagined. In trying to control life we seem to have done little more than turn ourselves into some mechanical dog chasing a mechanical rabbit around a circular track—with each trip around the track bringing us closer to an ecological armageddon.

Man is the only animal who creates the environment that creates who he becomes.                 –Frank Smits

Hindsight is 20/20. Much of this book is a quick glance in the rear view mirror to try and glean mistakes we’ve made and how we might do better if we had a second chance—but, is it possible we might get a second chance?

To answer this question we need to revisit a basic premise of the laws of thermodynamics, ontological naturalismthe thesis nothing can have any influence on events in space and time except other events and conditions in space and time. According to the ontological naturalist, there either are no causal influences from such things, or they have nothing to do with us and our world–which means space/time is an isolated system.

Why should we question this premise?—Bell’s Theorem. Bell’s Theorem seems to disprove the thesis that local hidden variables might explain the non-local properties of entangled particles—entangled particles being entangled pairs of subatomic particles (like electrons) where changes to one particle (like spin) results in instantaneous (faster than light) changes in the other particle irrespective of the distance between the pairs.

This seems to imply that either Einstein’s absolute speed limit is being violated (which no physicist believes) or, at the most fundamental level of matter, matter behaves in a manner inconsistent with the known laws of space/time. This lead one physicist, David Bohm, to suggest a need to overhaul our fundamental scientific categories. The author of the standard model of quantum physics, Niels Bohr, took a different position.

Basil Hiley: From my position, and also David’s position (David Bohm), this (non-locality) was just sort of average behavior of a deeper underlying process. And that’s what we were aiming to understand…We were interested in the undivided whole. How do you describe wholeness without breaking it up into pieces? Bohr said you can’t analyze any further, don’t make the division between the subject and the observing apparatus, because everything is a whole, and as soon as you break it into pieces, you’ve lost it, you’ve changed the phenomenon. I took a lot of insight from Bohr. If you read our book, we never say Bohr is wrong, whereas most other people say Copenhagen is nonsense. What we disagreed with is that he couldn’t analyze it any further. What we’ve been trying to do is analyze it further…We didn’t get very far…it’s a difficult thing…there’s something still missing (but) our idea was to say, yes, you can do it.                                                                                                        –The Wholeness of Quantum Reality: An Interview with Physicist Basil Hiley, Scientific American, 11/4/2013

Bohr’s response seems peculiar as, if the most successful scientific theory of all time is considered unanalzable beyond its instrumental utility, this seems to undermine scientific realism—the premise that: a) our scientific models are theories and models of a real world; and b) Scientific methods tend, in the long run, to increase our stock of real knowledge.  Bohr’s position seems tantamount to abandoning the whole scientific enterprise as, once we reduce science to instrumental results, we’ve stripped it’s authority, which rests in its claim to be a method for distinguishing mere opinion from justified belief.  Science construed as a mere instrument for manipulating experience, or merely as an autonomous construction of our society without reference to Reality, tells us nothing about what kinds of things really exist and act.

Non-locality threatens conventional notions of space/time. How so? Bohm and other physicists (like Basil Hiley) have suggested it is because non-locality calls into question the mathematics of the Cartesian manifold of dimensionless points, from which physics derives the laws defining and governing the particles and fields that constitute space/time, and which quantum physics is an extension of. So there are really only two moves here. One is to try to rethink all the basic categories behind physics (Bohm’s move), the other is to deny quantum physics is analyzable beyond its instrumental results (Bohr’s move).

Bohm felt non-locality implied that matter at the microlevel did not arise from within space/time (which he now categorized as a secondary or “explicate order”), but from a more primary, generative order that transcended space/time (which he called an “implicate order”). And as the claim there is a primary generative order transcending the physical world is the near universal claim of all religions, this induces another type of panic—as the western analytic enterprise of which science is the exemplar arose as a (Kantian) critique of religious belief.

But to return for a moment to ontological naturalism—if space/time is not an isolated system, and if there is a force or energy within a dimension beyond space/time that is not an isolated system, then it is rational to theorize that higher (implicate) dimension might impact entropic forces in the lower (explicate) dimension.

Bohm envisioned the implicate order as a realm of pure energy. Currently we cannot measure energy down to the planck length (10 to the negative 33 centimeters) but, if we could, Bohm estimated the amount of energy in one cubic centimeter of what we call empty space would be more than we would find in the entire physical universe. This suggested to him that 3D-space/time (an explicate order) is but a bare ripple on the immensity of an implicate order of pure energy.

Entropy is energy loss. Time is entropy—add enough energy to space/time and time should reverse—a not insignificant fact if you happen to live on a planet that might have passed an ecological tipping point. Within the logic of orthodox science mind-matter interaction (tapping into the energy of an implicate order) is impossible as mind is seen as a flaneur without causal efficacy even regarding itself. But if, as Peirce, Whitehead and Bohm posit, there is a continuity between mind and matter, then mind-matter interaction is feasible (which explains experiments that seem to prove mind-matter interaction).

Certainly there is something like matter and, I would argue, our mentalistic conception of ourselves as conscious, free and rational agents is, for most of us most of the time, illusory. And while it seems childish naivete to posit the cosmos as a parental figure enforcing a system of reward and punishment, it’s less clear exactly where to draw the line between matter and mind, free and determined, sentient and insentient, outside and inside, religion and science, self and cosmos, the possible and the impossible—the devil, as they say, is in the details.

In what follows I intend to make a case why it is rational to presume natural entities possess a natural teleology; that there is such a thing as Truth, at least with reference to some questions; that there is such a thing as an external world or reality which is, independently of its being represented to be, however intimately one may be connected with it, or it with oneself; and that there is Truth, and it is a great (transformative) power.

What I’ve posted here is the first five chapters of a work in progress. Chapter One is on science and esotericism. Chapter Two is about the dreams and visions that made me aware of the nature and parameters of The Game.  Chapter Three is an analysis of a high school unit on The Grapes of Wrath where I ground the wider discourse of the book in what I call “the reader’s dilemma”–how young and naive readers go about making sense of a story set in a different time and place.  Chapter Four is an introduction to the philosophy of American logician Charles Sanders Peirce.  Chapter Five is a overview of Peirce’s philosophy.

Chapter 1 Science and Esotericism

“What is this game all about?”/ “John 9:25″/”I haven’t been to church in awhile. Could you explain that reference?”/”Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know/One thing I do know:/That though I was blind—now I see!”                                                                                               –The Game

1.0    What have we learned?

Even if it is possible to “turn back the clock” to a point in time before we reached a tipping point, if we haven’t learned from our mistakes we’ll simply repeat them.

In the movie Marathon Man Dustin Hoffman plays a graduate student/marathon runner named Thomas who has a brother (Doc) who is (unknown to Thomas) a government agent chasing down a Nazi war criminal. When his brother is murdered, Thomas gets enmeshed in his brother’s case. In a classic scene the Nazi (Szell) kidnaps Thomas to find out what the authorities know regarding his identity and whereabouts. While torturing Thomas he repeats the same question over and over—Is it safe? This is a darkly comic existential question from someone who has no reservations about kidnapping and torturing an innocent person to cover up his own hideous past. The dark humor in this scene lies in the situational irony that Szsell is precisely the sort that makes the world unsafe.

In The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert, Kolbert chronicles previous mass extinction events, and compares them to the accelerated, widespread extinctions during our present time. She also describes specific species extinguished by humans, as well as the ecologies surrounding prehistoric and near-present extinction events. After researching the current mainstream view of the relevant peer reviewed science, Kolbert estimates flora and fauna loss by the end of the 21st century to be between 20% to 50% “of all living species on earth.”

Kolbert equates current, general unawareness of this issue to previous widespread disbelief of it during the centuries preceding the late 1700s; at that time, it was believed that prehistoric mass extinctions had never occurred. It was also believed there were no natural forces powerful enough to extinguish species en masse. Likewise, in our own time, the possible finality presented by this issue results in denialism. But scientific studies have shown that human behavior disrupts Earth’s balanced and interconnected systems, “putting our own survival in danger.”

Consequently, the Earth systems currently affected are: the global atmosphere, the water cycle, the ocean’s heat absorption, ocean acidity (and its effect on coral reefs), soil moisture and drought conditions, plant destruction by pests/non-indigenous fauna or heat stress, heat regulation by the Earth’s ice, and so on.

Like Szell, we humans move through life with near total disregard for anything but our narrowly circumscribed interests, regardless of the consequences to the rest of the planet or even our children’s future. But it seems naïve to play the scold calling humanity to task for its sins, as if it were possible to stand outside the text that is evolution and pass judgment. I feel more like the CIA chief at the end of the movie Burn After Reading when he asks his assistant, What have we learned Palmer? Palmer: I don’t know Sir. CIA chief: I don’t fucking know either. I guess we learned not to do it again. Palmer: Yes Sir. CIA chief: But I’m fucked if I know what we did.

This scene is, for me, equal parts hilarious and terrifying, as it pretty much sums up the human condition as well as any scene from classic literature. But that brings us back to the first question—Is it safe? I’d suggest this begs another question—For whom? Who is posing the question? An individual ego? the human race? Is it safe? is, I’d suggest, a question about existential equanimity. This is not an original thought. It’s the same issue Buddha contemplated while meditating on the cause of suffering. If we’re convinced we’re nothing but an individual, skin-bound ego, or merely some molecular machine as science tells us, than there’s nothing more to be said.

I’d suggest there’s much more to this topic than ego or 21st century scientific dogma. The issue of safety seems inextricably entangled in questions of identity and response-ability. In dealing with the world the human race too often employs what the logician Charles Sanders Peirce calls the method of tenacity—meaning we simply tenaciously hold to whatever beliefs we already hold, and reject whatever beliefs we already reject. This makes us blind to the possible fallibility of belief, making us non-adaptive to any change in circumstance. And this puts us in harm’s way, as does behaving with total disregard for whatever is considered not-self—which again raises the issue of identity. As the sheer scope of what we’ve done becomes so obvious even the thickest among us can’t deny it, the panic we’ll feel needs to be weighed against how long we’ve blithely followed this destructive path, unconcerned as long as others (indigenous people, wildlife) paid the price. Karma’s a bitch.

The opposite of tenacity is neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections in response to learning or experience. The brain’s job is to make sense of the world by focusing on those environmental details it deems most salient for survival. It filters out what it considers extraneous data. Such mapping of reality means there are dimensions of reality cloaked by these maps. When features of this hidden dimension somehow slip through the filter, they appear to us as Black Swan Events (BSE)—a novel event with a major effect often inappropriately rationalized after the fact.

If life suddenly takes an inexplicably bizarre and disastrous turn we might consider this a sign our beliefs are failing us. Given such a scenario where our very survival is threatened, it would serve us to stay alert for and open to novel patterns and possibilities. But once our brain maps find their way into textbooks, such texts act as a secondary line of defense against novelty.

Current scientific orthodoxy, for instance, denies any reality or efficacy to the subjective mode of experience. The experiential or existential mode of being is considered delusional—which raises the question—is it possible to conceive of an objective mode absent a subjective mode? And as esotericism east and west is experiential or existential in nature, it too is dismissed as so much mystical mumbo jumbo. The rationalist embrace of materialism and technoscience is an orthodoxy antagonistic to any form of esoteric spirituality that does not fit current models of skeptical, atheistic humanism or biocognitive “epipenomenal” theories of mind or consciousness. Of course not all scientists dismiss esotericism. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould felt there was a place for both religion and science. He suggested we needn’t see them as agreeing with one another, that we could view them as non-overlapping magisteria.

But are these magisteria “true”? If not, of what value are they? If so, can there be contradictory truths?

The esoteric tradition in the east and west is viewed as contradicting the western scientific tradition (if you assume esotericism is held in high enough regard to be taken at all seriously).  But the eastern philosophic tradition predates the scientific tradition by thousands of years, and esoteric proponents are not uneducated rubes from the heaths, but often (as you’ll see) among the most prominent citizens of the day. To simply dismiss this tradition entirely because it is experiential rather than analytic seems little more than parochial hubris.

The materialistic reductionism of science is fantastically successful in a fashion that seems short and narrow. Short in that our short term successes seem to lead to long term catastrophe (science enabled technology has fed human progress to the point we have unleashed an ecological armageddon). Narrow in that while science can tell us how to build the best oven, it has nothing to say about what should or should not put in it. Can science be considered a triumph if it puts powerful technologies in the hands of children? Materialistic science presumes self to be a mere flaneur, without determinate force even regarding itself. It asserts logic has no affective or ethical dimension. My argument is that such presumptions are not rooted in good science, but dubious philosophy; not grounded in hard data, but suspect logic—and once we apply the proper logical corrective, science and esotericism can be seen as complementary rather than contradictory.

One thing true beyond a shadow of a doubt is that human existence is radically out of balance—koyaanisqaatsi is the Hopi word—and what’s needed is a restoration of an existential equanimity that makes us feel safe and at one with, rather than estranged from, existence. My argument in this book is that only some combination of science and esotericism, the experiential and analytic, can give us that.

The adventure culminating in this book began with a series of dreams and visions in my early twenties—experiences that seemed both profound and profoundly contrary to the scientific and philosophic logos and ethos of the culture in which I grew up. I found a spiritual teacher and immersed myself in esotericism, which convinced me of the veracity of those experiences. But as my consciousness now ran against my culture, it seemed clear the postmodernist ethos that reduces consciousness to culture needed to be revisited, especially in a 21st century global village. And given the noetic content intrinsic to esoteric experiences, the belief that anything that seems sentient and mindlike reduces to lifeless matter is a direct contradiction of esoteric experience. In time I learned that some of the best western analytic minds of the past two centuries sided with the esoteric tradition on both these points.

The basic structure of this book then is to introduce the reader to the idea of esotericism east and west, share my experiences, then use the philosophy of three great western analytic minds (logician Charles Sanders Peirce, Mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, and physicist David Bohm) to demonstrate the possibility of a (careful) scientific and esoteric synthesis.

The Spectrum Wars

More specifically, my thesis is that science, mysticism and the paranormal are overlapping magisteria, that what we call the paranormal (experiences like “remote viewing”) constitute a range of experiences sparked by changes in states of consciousness, granting access to wider ranges of a universal spectrum of experience. Within the schemata of current textbook science this proposition is considered false—so my primary task is to demonstrate the flaws or limitations of textbook schemata and offer new ones to take their place. So, ultimately, I’ll need to show how science, mysticism and the paranormal might be seen as part of a single spectrum of experience.

I do this by suggesting all three domains are different aspects of a single spectrum we call “universe.” Contemporary science considers paranormal and mystical experiences delusional, an indication of abnormal or irrational states of mind. I argue such events take place within deeper ranges of a spectrum which scientific critics have never accessed. I feel you can make a case that the logical positivist approach to science began in analytic philosophies rejection of 19th century idealism, precisely because idealists (like Hegel) made claims about supra-rational access to deeper levels of reality. This was felt as a slap in the face by analytic philosophers. You might call this the first skirmish in the spectrum wars. I ground my discussion of this spectrum within the context of physicist David Bohm’s attempt to reexamine categories of thought inherited from classical physics, by changing the emphasis from fields and particles to process and movement.

But one might ask, “Why are some able to access broader reaches of this spectrum?” My answer is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity routes the brain around what’s called proactive interference—past memories or schemata that prevent an agent from forming new schemata derived from a BSE. My guess is that this quality, or lack of it, is a dispositional feature that can, to some extent, be learned.

1.1 Myths Of Materialism

Consensus reality concerning the nature of the common-sense self now seem as wildly absurd as our most nonsensical ideas of God (such as the Augustinian morally perfect deity who randomly assigns his creatures to either an eternity of torment or bliss). This common-sense self implies an homunculus—some midget on a throne somewhere in the brain (in the modern age) who gathers neutral facts that comprise the beliefs that drive behavior. But what we call “our” body is, according to evolutionary theory, the product of (on earth) 4.5 billion years of evolution.

What’s the actual identity, what’s the actual inner person? Is there an inner self? Anybody’s identity problem is the entire universe. –Alan Ginsburg

A human being is part of a whole called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish it, but to try to overcome it, is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.                                                                                  -Albert Einstein, The New Quotable Einstein, Alice Calaprice, Princeton University Press, p. 206

Our normal approach to security is to cling to the known, to (in Alice Walker’s words) “the temple of my familiar.” But Einstein seems to be suggesting that only by transcending the familiar to include that whole we call “universe” can we find the inner security (peace/safety) we seek.

Of course, according to textbook science this actual identity is insentient, mindless matter in motion—as anything appearing mind-like is, at bottom, insentient matter. And while this ethos is, for most scientists, unassailable dogma, it leads to such intractable logical conundrums that consciousness researchers like philosopher Alan Chalmers (Chalmers Refutation of Materialist Concepts of Consciousness, OSR Journal, Vol 15, Issue 5) have begun to doubt materialism can ever explain consciousness. I’d suggest the first problem with materialism is no one has ever come up with an adequate definition for what is meant by “physical” (Stephen Priest in Theories of the Mind, p. 98). And as materialism is the claim that the mental supervenes on the physical, this seems a grand-canyon size hole in the materialistic paradigm.

For most physicists the “matter” that comprises the universe is derived from a space-time manifold of dimensionless points. This differential manifold, a coordinate grid that is an elaboration of the Cartesian coordinate system, is meant to explain the nature of particles and fields that comprise our world. But the construct we call particle is, in turn, derived from a Cartesian notion of substance, which was itself derived from Aristotle. The Aristotelian idea of substance (Theories of Mind, p. 22, Stephen Priest) is 1) is that something is a substance if it is the bearer or holder of properties or characteristics but not itself a property or characteristic and, 2) something is a substance if it does not depend on the existence of anything else for its existence—that is, it can exist independently.

Ay—there’s the rub. The continued belief by scientists like Hawking in a theory of everything depends on finding some original, independent substance. But as Bell’s Theorem seems to prove the veracity of the non-local nature of the quantum realm, the entangled nature of the most fundamental level of what we call physical reality seems to call into question the idea of anything like an independent particle or field. In fact, it calls into question the word “mechanics” in quantum mechanics, as a non-local reality seems more like an organism (where parts are internally related) than a mechanism. As all the mathematics behind relativity and quantum mechanics is derived from a local Cartesian coordinate system, it seems time to give a physicist like David Bohm a hearing, as he has done the most to reexamine those categories of thought inherited from classical physics.

Then we have Alan Chalmers hard problem—explaining how, why, and when the water of mindless matter miraculously transforms into the wine of phenomenal consciousness—how and why sensations acquire subjective characteristics like color and tastes. No one has come up with an explanation demonstrating it is at precisely this juncture that insentient matter becomes mind. This problem extends to human ontogeny. At what juncture in human gestation does matter become mind? Is an egg or sperm conscious? Does this event occur during embryogenesis? fetal development? And, most crucially for the purposes of this book, materialism contradicts the noetic content of the non-dual, transcendental experiences at the heart of much of the 3,000 year old Eastern and Western esoteric traditions . Of course, scientific dogma simply brushes aside such claims as so much mystical mumbo-jumbo, as they condescend to any philosophy not a purely logical exercise conducted strictly by rules of (so-called) rational argumentation—whatever is not translatable into argument being deemed irrelevant. Fundamental questions we’ll explore in this book are; is it really “logical” to divide cognitive from affective? logos from ethos? to suppose there can be an object without a subject? Is textbook materialism as “logical” as it claims?

Stephen Hawking, a prominent scientific fundamentalist, pronounced philosophy dead. If it is, it is probably because he and his kind killed it. What made philosophy so endurable was that it engaged not only our cognitive faculties, but our imagination and emotions, our aesthetic and religious sensibilities. If philosophy is endangered, and I think it is, to regain its integrity it needs to account for wholeness.

We need a conversation on the way mainstream Western philosophy and science treats both non-traditional analytic philosophies and non-analytic philosophies as insufficiently philosophical.

I suggest this bias is a symptom of a parochial, purest philosophies misunderstanding of itself. In Being and Time (Sein and Zeit, SZ) Martin Heidegger offered a critique of what he felt to be a fundamental misunderstanding of Being and time in the western philosophic tradition. (I’ll devote a chapter to the specifics of this critique). And in what he called his “pragmaticist” philosophy, Charles Sanders Peirce uses the logic of evolutionary theory to deconstruct the materialism, mechanism and dualism inherent in western thinking (I devote chapters 4 & 5 to explaining Peirce’s philosophy).

While Western philosophy at first seemed unsure what to make of SZ, Eastern philosophers were excited by what they perceived as a profound shift in Western philosophy that, in their view, opened the door to an east-west dialog (see Zen in Heidegger’s Way, David Storey).

Such an interface has always been problematic, as the 3,000 year old Eastern philosophic tradition of non-dual transcendentalism is not analytic, but experiential. But once such non-dual experiences are broken out into natural language, Eastern philosophy seemed in fundamental contradiction with Western science. It’s my suggestion that, while it is generally held such conflicts are rooted in the empirical data of the western science, they are in fact rooted in flawed schemata driving the interpretation of such data. I legitimize this claim by invoking three non-traditional analytic western thinkers, all giants in their fields, who all eschew atomism, materialism, and mind-matter dualism—logician Charles Sanders Peirce, mathematician and physicist Alfred North Whitehead, and physicist David Bohm. All three thinkers sought a synthesis of the the scientific and the esoteric modes of experience.

1.2   Esotericsim: Sympathetic Empiricism

(What follows is drawn from a PhD dissertation, Esoteric Quantization, by Gustavo Orlando Hernandez)

The noun esotericism has its origins in the much older adjective esoteric found for the first time in Lucian de Samosata’s (125–180) satire Vitarum Rustio to mean “seen from within.” The term was used by Clement of Alexandria (150–215) in his Stromata to contrast public or exoteric doctrine with secret or esoteric teachings. The much more recent noun is the English translation of the French l’esotérisme first used in 1828 by the French scholar Jacques Matter (1791–1864) to refer loosely to secret knowledge. This obscure academic word was later popularized by the French magician Eliphas Lévi (1810–1875) who used it in his influential books on magic. Subsequently, the theosophist Alfred Percy Sinnett (1840–1921) introduced the term into English in his Esoteric Buddhism (1883).

Six Characteristics of Esotericism

In the early 1990’s an important milestone was achieved by French scholar Antoine Faivre regarding a definition of esotericism. According to his model, Western esotericism is a form of thought identified with the following characteristics (Faivre, Access to Western Esotericism, pp. 10-15).

  1. Correspondences: “As above, so below,” meaning there are levels of manifestation, from the subtle above, to the concrete below, in a sympathetic correlation. These correspondences are both symbolic and real, visible and invisible, and include the entire universe—in particular, the microcosmic human reflecting the majesty of the macrocosm.
  2. Living Nature: The natural universe is alive, and through it a hidden and subtle living energy circulates. This and the notion of correspondences establish and ontology in which the universe is seen as a single whole: anything done in a certain place and time has energetic reverberations everywhere. Different levels of the world are inhabited by living creatures.
  3. Mediation and Imagination: “Imagination” meaning an insight into the subtle worlds. The “mundus imaginalis” is seen as the organ of the soul through which humanity can have access to the inner levels of creation. It functions in conjunction with mediation to make possible the use of symbols, and to profit from the inhabitants of the intermediary levels—angels, spirits, symbols—to access higher levels.
  4. Transformation: Parts of nature but also human beings can be transmuted. This is a metamorphosis, a change in nature, a second birth subsequent to a mystical death. In humans, it is the achievement of gnosis, individuation.
  5. Concordance: The search for common denominators in different traditions, or in all traditions.
  6. Transmission: Reception of new knowledge from a mentor who has accepted the receptor as a disciple.

The first four are mandatory in that they must be present to fulfill the definition of esoteric thought. The last two may or may not appear.

The texts and traditions used by Faivre were post-medieval and located in the Christian west, and refer to those traditions scholars term modern western esotericism.

Faivre’s framework helped establish Western esotericism as a recognized academic field, now appreciated on its own terms with no need to justify its existence by the role it may have had in the rise of science. This gave rise to the conviction that no comprehensive understanding of our culture can be complete without including esotericism.

Regarding methodological approaches to the study of religion, the contemporary form in which this issue is articulated is characterized by the use of the terms emic and eitic, which refer to the points of view of an “insider” and an “outsider” respectively (Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior, Kenneth Pike, 1954).

Dutch scholar Wouter Hanegraff argued (New Age Religion and Western Culture; Hanegraff) that all such distinctions are scholarly constructs, and therefore the only answer to the question “Is movement x esoteric” is “movement x qualifies as esoteric according to definition y.” Hanegraff attempted to overcome this weakness by demanding stronger historicism, stressing transformations and discontinuities in the use of the concepts related to the esoteric tradition. He imports the emic/eitic construct. He emphasizes the importance of an etic approach as essential to make it credible to the academic community as, for him, the issue of acceptance will remain a fundamental preoccupation. Hanegraff articulates his view according to which esotericism is an academic construct that is not “discovered” but “produced.” For Hangegraff esotericism has an exitence only as a construct that enables a scholar to articulate the forbidden aspects of Western philosophy and religion.

By aiming at compliance with an academically approved method, Hanegraff’s roots his approach in a post-modern world view that directly contradicts the grand narratives characteristic of the esoteric worldview, and this constitutes an a priori judgment on its content, in line with contemporary research in Religious Studies that claims the locus of academic research is created by the research itself. Such relativism views esotericism as a purely ad-hoc construct. Such an approach is designed to comply with an academic status quo that aims to ensure academic acceptance.

But this has to do with the politics of research and the economics of scholarship, not with the actualities of understanding the specific contents of esoteric material—an approach based on the assumption of an academic consensus. However it is precisely the nature and extent of this consensus that is being debated in regard to the definition of esotericism.

This approach reduces esotericism to a set of texts, a form of literature, with little interest in the actual experiences which esoteric texts relate. Such an approach ignores the gnosis, altered states of consciousness, the embarrassing subject of the paranormal—all valid esoteric dimensions that need to be included in any definition of esotericism.

American scholar of religion Arthur Versluis proposes a different perspective he calls “sympathetic empiricism.” He argues a purely historical approach that seeks only to trace genealogies of influence results in a total denial of the esoteric phenomenon itself:

We must acknowledge there is a phenomenon to be considered that is not merely a written object—rather, behind the written work is a mystical phenomenon itself that the mystic experienced.                                                                                                                                                –Methods in the Study of Esotericism, Versluis, p 29

Versluis considers the rejection of an emic approach as an arrogant dismissal of the actual philosophic content of the esoteric text, constituting a reduction of culture to something else—economics, politics, gender, class, race, etc., and this amounts to a failure to believe in higher meanings, which reflects an imposition of some form of ideology upon the subject of one’s study.

I feel Versluis’ sympathetic empiricism provides the best basis from which to proceed.

As indicated above, this topic quickly becomes ground zero in cultural identity wars. To avoid any nasty clashing of wills, it helps to realize that any topic as complex as the nature of reality should be approached humbly. If we date the scientific age from the lifetime of Francis Bacon (author of the scientific method), and if we put those 500 intervening years within the 300,000 year timeline of our species and divide those 300,000 years into a 365 day calendar, then science begins in the last 15 hours of the last day of the last month of our species. And this whole calendar is literally a blink of an eye in cosmic time. Scientifically speaking, we are infants. What seems absurd to me is not those who think differently, but those who speak as if we are mentally mature and not the infants we in fact are when it come to anything as immense as the nature of reality.

Most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious [reported] truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.                                                                                                   –Tolstoy

As a student I have witnessed the bewitchment of materialism in the universities. As a teacher I have seen the brightest students take great pains to demonstrate their allegiance to this ethos. But esoteric experiences like satori and samadhi indicate a non-dual continuity at the heart of existence. Peirce referred to this continuity as syenchism—a denial that all is merely ideas (nominalism), or merely matter, or mind-matter dualism. While Peirce acknowledged things of this world are not continuous, being composed of atoms or dimensionless points, things like space, time and law he held to be continuous and eternal—a product of (a quasi-Heglian) universal causation.

Some who argue against materialism advocate a return to the idea of God as an a priori transcendental ego which, by any measure, is fundamentally incompatible with evolutionary theory. Others (David Ray Griffin in Unsnarling the World Knot) argue in support of hard-core common-sense beliefs about self: 1) that we have conscious experience; 2) this conscious experience is not wholly determined but involves an element of self-determination, and; 3) this freedom exerts efficacy on our bodily behavior, giving us a degree of responsibility for our bodily actions. In an essay titled Panexperientialism: How it Overcomes the Problems of Dualism and Materialism, Mr. Griffin argues that neither materialism nor dualism can do justice to these hardcore beliefs. While I agree that neither materialism nor dualism can do justice to these beliefs, I feel it is a mistake to defend these beliefs by an appeal to common-sensism. Why appeal to “common sense” when the three beliefs can be adequately defended with an appeal to evolutionary biology? And, as Mr. Griffin shows, common-sensism is a slippery slope. In his essay on panexperientialism, Mr. Griffin notes that these commonsense beliefs are presupposed in our moral life. Quoting Kant’s dictum that we are to treat other human beings as ends in themselves and not merely as means to our ends, he goes on to claim our ethical life presupposes a significant degree of freedom and, furthermore that our freedom to make choices exerts causal efficacy on our bodies so that people are, at least generally, responsible for their bodily behavior. We have gone a long way from the three common sense beliefs about self as originally stated, which simply asserts we have an element of self-determination giving us a degree of responsibility for our bodily actions. The problem with appealing to common-sensism is, unlike an appeal to evolutionary biology, we have no way of parsing out what we mean when we claim 1) we have conscious experience, 2) this conscious experience is not wholly determined, and 3) this gives us a degree of responsibility for bodily actions. Agency, in common-sensism, is a black box where we can make any sort of claim we like as there is no possible objective criteria for the truth or falsity of a claim.

While I feel it is possible to evolve to the point where one has a significant degree of freedom, I feel this is relatively rare and, therefore, quite uncommon. On the other hand, I also reject what’s called eliminative materialism as scientifically irrational. This thesis was perfectly articulated by Francis Crick in The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul:

The astonishing hypothesis is the ‘you,’ your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons”…The scientific belief is that our minds—the behavior of our brains—can be explained by the interaction of nerve cells (and other cells) and the molecules associated with them.

This position, which stands in contrast with “the religious concept of a soul,” says Crick, puts science “in a head-on contradiction to the religious belief of billions of human beings alive today.” I would suggest that eliminative materialism presupposes there is only one way to interpret scientific theories, their way. But according to America’s greatest logician, Charles Sanders Peirce, eliminative materialis misinterprets scientific data. And, as eliminative materialism presupposes hard determinism, it makes no distinction between human choice and the trajectory of a comet striking earth. But I’d suggest that anyone who studies evolutionary biology sees that as you move up the evolutionary ladder you find degrees of freedom you don’t find down the ladder, demonstrating the incoherence of eliminative materialism and hard determinism.

For me the issue is this; if the body is the product of 4.5 billion years of evolution, it seems safe to assume, relative to our common-sense idea of freedom, we have relatively little—unless there is a higher instinct, an unconditioned mode capable of contravening lower mechanistic drives. But if you assume we currently enjoy substantial degrees of freedom, you would have to explain the current status of the human race. If we are, in any meaningful sense, free, does it make sense we would choose mass extinction? A consciously death seeking species is a contradiction in terms.

Eliminative materialism presumes mind supervenes on matter which, while accepted as dogma by most of academia, has become increasingly problematic. And, as there is now strong statistical data supporting some form of mind-matter interaction, it is time we acknowledge the veracity of this data, and that it is incompatible with materialism (Dean Radin offers a review of scientific evidence for psi in Chapter 5 of The Conscious Universe). And, regarding the paranormal, there’s the inconvenient fact that that airy-fairy outfit known as the U.S. government conducted remote viewing experiments, with results inexplicable in a materialistic paradigm (The Conscious Universe, pp. 98-105). A long list of such empirical facts have been hidden away in a file labeled “inconvenient truths” by mainstream academia. But such results are getting harder to ignore, even by committed scientific fundamentalists. The very conservative American Psychological Association published a book in 2016 titled Transcendent Mind: Rethinking the Science of Consciousness.

Using the philosophies of three renowned Western academics, I seek to demonstrate the viability of the thesis that an esoteric worldview can be reconciled to, and integrated with, a scientific worldview. I suggest this is now possible as, if you really understand the logic of evolutionary theory as Charles Sanders Peirce does, and really understand quantum theory as David Bohm does, the scientific understanding of space/time then seems to mirror certain ancient esoteric doctrines. Peirce, Bohm and Whitehead all, in different ways, help us understand the skewed schemata driving the misunderstanding of data in the west. They all help us to see through the apparent dualism, mechanism and materialism intrinsic to a western view, to an underlying wholeness akin to an eastern organismic view.

This will entail a modification and synthesis of various esoteric and religious philosophies with an eye towards universal features that align with (a modified) Western science. It seems to me that if there is a perennial philosophy, no one has yet explained of what it might consist. I offer my explanation of what might constitute a perennial philosophy.

For a long time we have been accustomed to the compartmentalization of religion and science, as if they were quite different and basically unrelated ways of seeing the world. I do not believe that this state of doublethink can last. It must eventually be replaced by a view of the world which is neither scientific nor religious but simply our view of the world. More exactly, it must become a view of the world in which the reports of science and religion are as concordant as those of the eyes and the ears. –Alan Watts

Of course, the “reports” of eyes and ears are not really concordant, just made to seem so by the brain—which shows life is part art and part artifice. It seems to me this sort of synthesis or fashioning of a coherent whole is the essence of intelligence. According to German psychologist William Stern, intelligence is “A general capacity to consciously adjust thinking to new requirements: a general adaptability to new problems and conditions in life (The Psychological Methods of Testing).

Much of the following discussion of Heidgger’s philosophy is derived from the essay Heidegger and Zen by David Storey.

1.3 To back-seek a heritage

As mentioned above, German philosopher Martin Heidegger critiqued western notions of Being and time in his book Being and Time (SZ), and Zen Buddhists saw clear parallels between Heidegger’s SZ and the esoteric philosophy of Zen Buddhism—which suggests an esoteric dimension to SZ.

I see clear parallels between Heidegger’s idea of Dasein in SZ and evolutionary psychology. Our common-sense self or ego presumes what is called access internalism; a reflective awareness granting access to facts that constitute the beliefs that inform behavior. But evolutionary theory posits access externalism—that facts constituting beliefs are mostly external to the agent (ego)—present is past brought forward (exactly how we parse out what is internal or external becomes more salient as we move deeper into this topic). Evolutionary psychologists argue that much of human behavior is the output of psychological adaptations that evolved to solve problems in the ancestral environments. They suggest evolutionary theory can provide a foundational meta-theoretical framework for understanding human motivation and behavior. Such theories have applications to other fields such as philosophy, education, law, environment and politics. I suggest that understanding evolutionary psychology sheds light on what Heidegger implies by his term Dasein.

Understanding…is neither a method of reading nor the outcome of a willed and carefully conducted procedure of critical reflection. It is not something we consciously do or fail to do, but something we are. Understanding is a mode of being or Dasein. Our understanding of the world presupposes a kind of pragmatic know-how that is revealed through the way in which we, without theoretical considerations, orient ourselves in the world. We open the door without objectifying or conceptually determining the door-handle or door-frame. The world is familiar to us in a basic, intuitive way. We do not understand the world by gathering a collection of neutral facts by which we may reach a set of universal propositions, laws, or judgments that, to a greater or lesser extent corresponds to the world as it is. The world is tacitly intelligible to us.Hermeneutics, (4) The Ontological Turn, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010 Edition

Dasein is hard to grasp as it fundamentally contradicts consensus reality regarding the common-sense self and world. Common-sensism presumes a homunculus with reflective awareness—an autonomous ego with executive functions such as the ability to gather neutral facts that comprise the beliefs that drive behavior. Dasein highlights Heidegger’s ambivalent relationship toward modern rationality (science). At the beginning of SZ Heidegger repeatedly refers to Dasein’s pre-conceptual understanding of Being, the basic everyday way in which people go about their business and pursue their worldly engagements within a background called the world they rarely attend to, yet tacitly assume in all their dealings. That is, they never stop to thematize Being; it never rises as an issue, or they actively suppress its emergence—yet they would be unable to be engaged in the world without some dim, pre-thematic grasp of Being. In the books final paragraph, Heidegger remarks that “Being has been disclosed in a preliminary way though non-conceptually (Heidegger 1962, 488).

God guard me from those thoughts men think in the mind alone, He that sings a lasting song, Thinks in the marrow bone. –Yeats

While both the former and later modes of discussing Being are non-conceptual, there is a substantial difference. The pre-conceptual is thoroughly in the sway of the ontic and entangled with phenomena, while the latter has conceptually reckoned with its own existence and realized the poverty of both the average everyday (pre-conceptual) and the rational scientific (conceptual) comportments, and been propelled to interpret its own being, and Being itself, in an entirely different, yet still non-conceptual nature—that is, trans-conceptual. In its totality, Dasein is not a subjective, but rather trans-subjective, or even pre-subjective self. We are then forced into speaking of Dasein as the between—yet this cipher still moves within a notion of duality.

This attempt to get back to Being—re-peat (literally, back-seek) a heritage, return to roots or origins—that inheres in Heidegger’s early and late work, lends itself to the idea the modern world and the model of cognition by which it is constituted—calculative reasoning—is a great mistake and, therefore, we should regress to some sort of pre-modern, pre-rational form of society. While there are many passages in SZ and other works that contradict this romantic reading of Heidegger, it is necessary not to overlook this very real ambivalence in his thought. This ambivalence seems rooted in his failure to differentiate the non-conceptual, the non-rational, the non-discursive, into its pre- and trans-modes. Appropriating Ken Wilber’s pre/trans fallacy, we must first be an ordinary egoic subject before existing authentically as the transpersonal clearing within which something like personhood can manifest. Before we can become no one one must first become someone—emptiness (a clearing) necessarily implies emptiness of something. Recognizing the constructed or perspectival nature of the egoic subject is possible only insofar as such a subject has been constructed in the first place, and exists as a relatively stable and enduring egoic pattern.

It is one thing to have mastered reason and experienced its inherent limitations and empty claims to totality and self-consistency and transcended it—which Heidegger calls meditative thinking or thinking from being—and quite another to have never bent oneself to its rule. The former is trans-conceptual thinking, the latter pre-conceptual.

Zen philosophers sensed parallels between Heidegger’s concept of Dasein and Zen philosophy, as Zen also admits the bankruptcy of reason’s attempts to calculate existence and treat entities as, in Kant’s words, transcendentally real, or, in Heidegger’s terminology as present-at-hand. Yet as this emptiness of phenomena is at once the emptiness of ego there is, for Zen, literally a world of difference between pre-egoic—a jumble of drives, perceptions, and intentional comportments that have yet to congeal into a relatively stable self—and the trans-egoic which, after attaining this sense of personal identity and assuming the notion of soul-substance persisting over time, confronts its own nothingness and transcends the illusion of a separate self. The space between is the same rational ego whose ignorance about its own Being is deconstructed in SZ. However, Zen goes further in denying what duality lingers in the subjectivist metaphysics of Heigegger’s early work, and the ontological difference of the later works, through the doctrine of an-atman (no-self). The key difference is that Zen has an attendant set of psychophysical practices that train the mind, a training regime successfully passed down for centuries. The nature of mind-no-mind is directly communicated from teacher to student. What is key here is that the process does not consist in the dogmatic imposition of a set of allegedly eternal truths—facts about the world—which belong to a domain of mythos and logos apprehended through faith or reason. The individual is not asked to uncritically swallow assertions of “the they” but invited to perform the experiment, to test his finding in a community of the adequate, and to confirm/refute those findings based on his or her own empirical research.

But Heidegger resists signing off on any such set of practices, as they seem to him to suggest a calculative, scientific, and technological kind of training that does violence to and covers up the mystery of Being, that commercializes and de-sacralizes a secret: “The program of mathematics and the experiment are grounded in the relation of man as ego to the thing as object” (Heidegger, 1966, 79). The truth of Zen, however, is verified experientially in the laboratory of one’s own awareness by performing the experiment called meditation.

This overblown tendency in Heidegger’s philosophy (and in postmodernism as a whole) to destabilize, unsettle, disturb, makes it all but impossible for any healthy individual or institutional transformation to occur. This deconstructive tendency of postmodernism seems so bent on the negative tactics of inverting hierarchies, delimiting conceptual binaries, liberating excluded middles and drilling holes in master narratives (other than its own) that it never seems to construct anything. It is hard enough handing down “no-thingness,” and harder still when one refuses to prescribe any methods by which to transmit it, or even to consider the legitimacy of foreign methods. To quote David Storey, “such is the world of difference between handing down no-thingness and nothing.”

I’ll now turn to a description of the indigenous Bon tradition of Tibet to evoke a picture of an indigenous esoteric tradition that also attempts to back-seek a heritage through a process of evolution and involution. This tradition seems a perfect introduction to perennial philosophy, as the Bon tradition is not exclusively religious or secular, and describes an ultimate or unconditioned space that all religious traditions speak of, in one form or another.

1.4 The Drala Principle

The “drala principle” refers to a body of teachings the Tibetan Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa presented in the last decade of his life, from 1978 to 1986 (Shambala, The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Chogyam Trungpa, Shambala Publications, 1984). The roots of the drala principle precede the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet and are found in the indigenous traditions of that country. These teachings speak to the heart, whether one is religiously, artistically, or politically motivated (What follows is taken from an interpretation of the drala principle by Bill Scheffel).

Imagine there’s no countries/It isn’t hard to do Nothing to kill or die for/No religion too/ Imagine all the people living life in peace                                                                                            –Imagine, John Lennon

Drala is the elemental presence of the world available to us through sense perceptions. When we open to trees, flowers, a creek or clouds we encounter an actual wisdom, though one that is not separate from our own. Beholding a river is much more than merely looking at a river; potentially, we are meeting the dralas. We have failed to see our first responsibility to the world is an aesthetic one.

In the drala teachings, each of the senses is considered an “unlimited field of perception” in which there are sights, sounds and feelings “we have never experienced before.” Each sense moment, if we are present to it, is a gate into the elemental wisdom of the world, Through this kind of perception we discover that we live in a vast, singular and unexplored world.

Sometimes a stone, tree, or violin processes an intangible presence, a numinousity, that cannot be explained. The presence may refer to another dimension. Any being who acts on behalf of the non-dualistic and compassionate nature of existence could be considered a drala. The dralas are not part of some other world, but latent everywhere. 

Discovering the Dralas

Each moment of perception can potentially be experienced as a moment of pure perception—experience not yet mediated through discursive thought and conceptual process. These moments are not yet conditioned by hope and fear, by opinions, desires and beliefs. This immediate awareness of pure perception is without choice, demand, or anxiety. Moments of pure perception are experiences of beauty expressed though specific details. It is our duty to notice the details that call to us—any taste, sight, or sound. This is the call of the dralas. If we quiet our mind by opening to these details, and if we listen to the response of our heart, we may discover our moment-to-moment, day-to-day direction. Thus we begin to follow our heart, to live beyond conditioning—and to be led by the dralas. Not only is our heart the source of our direction in life, it is the source of our confidence. And I’d suggest this mode of perception provides the answer as to the why of qualia, the role it plays in the economy of the universe. Qualia as pure perception is literally the heart of nature’s heuristic. Pure perception is a directional signal that becomes the source of our confidence or faith (The Game is interactive. Tune in and follow the signal!).

Of course, as “pure perception” is precisely what is considered nonsensical by postmodern philosophy, before we go further into the Bon tradition let’s parse out what is meant by pure perception. While I hold what I’m calling pure perception is actual, the moment you reflect on or try to communicate such an experience it becomes entangled with the analytic, making it subject to all that is conditioned (impure). This is the sort of existential dilemma French postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote about in Without Alibi (WA);

Let us put in place the premises of our question. Will this be possible for us? Will we one day be able to, in a single gesture, join the thinking of the event to the thinking of the machine. Will we be able to think, what is called thinking, at one and the same time, both what is happening (what we call an event) and the calculable programming of an automatic repetition (we call that a machine). For that, it would be necessary in the future (but there will be no future except on this condition), to think both the event and the machine as two compatible or even indissociable concepts. –WA, p. 73

A living being undergoes a sensation that gets inscribed in organic material.

It is destined, that is, to reproduce impassively, imperceptibly…the received commands in a state of anaesthesis, it would obey a calculable program…like an indifferent automaton. —WA, p. 73

To our common-sense self, this seems an incomprehensible implication of access externalism, suggesting how far we are from being the intelligent, autonomous agent we imagine self to be. We are (imperceptibly) an indifferent automaton reproducing (impassively) received commands in a state of anaesthesis. What are we to do with this information? What to make of it?

To give up neither the event or the machine, to subordinate neither one to the other, neither to reduce one to the other: this is a concern of thinking that has kept a certain number of us up for the last few decades. —WA, p. 74

It seems clear from all this that, at least in the context of the processes of thought, there is a kind of active information that is simultaneously physical and mental in nature. Active information can thus serve as a kind of “bridge’”between these two sides of reality as a whole. These two sides are inseparable in the sense that information contained in thought, which we feel to be on the “mental’”side, is at the same time a related neuro-physiological, chemical, and physical activity (which is clearly what is meant by the “material”side of this thought). . .This may in turn be surveyed by a higher level of mental activity, as if it were a material object at which one were “looking.” Out of this may emerge a yet more subtle level of information, whose meaning is an activity that is able to organize the original set of information into a greater whole. But even more subtle information of this kind can, in turn, be surveyed by a yet more subtle level of mental activity, and at least in principle this can go on indefinitely. Each of these levels may then be seen from the material side. From the mental side, it is a potentially active information content. But from the material side, it is an actual activity that operates to organize the less subtle levels, and the latter serve as the material on which such operation takes place. Thus, at each level, information is the link or bridge between the two sides.                                                                                                          —Bohm, A New Theory of the Relationship of Mind and Matter, p. 278.

This aspect of Bohm’s thought has been criticized as falling into the trap of infinite regress, implying one is ducking the issue of identity rather than defining it. But Bohm is clear that mind and matter, being infinite potential, might imply infinite perspectives, yet mind and matter unfold from an ultimate ground that transcends mind and matter, in which both are enfolded.

From Bohm’s perspective what he’s calling “mental” and “material” (in Derrida’s language, the “event” and the “machine” respectively) are two poles in dialectical relationship. In this view what I’m calling pure perception refers to a ground of active information that transcends and informs (enforms) matter, mind and comportment.

There is therefore a close analogy between what happens with matter and what happens with mind. They are thus similar enough to be intimately related. What is the basis of this relationship? I would suggest that this is in some ground deeper and more subtle than are either mind or matter, and that they both enfold from this ground, which is the beginning and ending of everything. What is the nature of this ground? At least for the present science is not able to say much about it. However…different religions have generally been based on different beliefs concerning this ground, and these differences have lead to fragmentation. Perhaps the one thing that almost all religions would have in common is to imply that this ground of all being enfolds a supreme intelligence (which is regarded as the source of extraordinary order present in the universe, an important example of which is our own bodies and brains). Also, perhaps with less clear evidence, they have in common the feeling that this supreme intelligence is penetrated by love and compassion. . .I think that it is relevant to add here that modern physics is not incompatible with a religious approach, considered in these broadest possible terms. On the contrary, it is more compatible with this than it is with a mechanistic approach. So, at least fragmentation between science and religion may perhaps thus be capable of being healed.                                                                                        — David Bohm, Fragmentation and Wholeness in Religion and in Science, Zygon, 20.2, 1985, pp. 125–133)

I agree with Derrida that even an event like pure perception does not entail a nullification of calculative reasoning, the calculative program. Pure perception informs (as opposed to guaranteeing) an awake, intelligent state of being—the key term here being awake as in alert. I would suggest that anyone who believes they have transcended the calculative program is no longer alert and awake. Pure perception uncovers a heritage that reveals a path of heart and a true ground of intelligence (more subtle than mind or matter) where we are able to “think” both the event and the machine in such a manner where both interpenetrate but neither is reduced to the other.

While Derrida would deny pure perception as actual, my sense is he did so, in part, for reasons similar to what caused Heidegger to reject the experiential mode of Zen and the praxis of meditation—an obsession with negative tactics and a parochial attitude toward foreign philosophies. By asserting pure perception is actual, I assert there is a praxis called meditation that is a technique for uncovering a trans-conceptual mode of being that grants access to an ultimate, unconditioned, generative mode where evolutionary events involute in a way that ameliorates conditioning. Pure perception is more than simply past brought forward. In our ordinary state of awareness it is impossible to “think an event” other than as a product of “the machine.” And, as Derrida recognized, such a state of anamnesis entails “there will be no future”—implying “the calculable program” is now destructive. In our ordinary state of awareness “events” are not vast, singular, unexplored—they are (mostly) imperceptible commands impassively received.

But, as stated earlier, before one can be no-thing, one must first be some-thing. Until one masters reason and experiences its empty claims to totality, self remains an incoherent jumble of thoughts and feelings. You cannot reach the personhood of trans-conceptual being by skipping over the rational stage if you want to operate effectively in the phenomenal world—as to operate effectively within any system it is necessary to know the coherence, limitations and believability of that system. One must know it is valid to operate within that system. I certainly don’t view science as a “mistake.” Science’s “mistake” is its (false and dangerous) claims to totality, with its consequent branding of any attempt at an analytic/experiential synthesis as heretical. I believe such hubris leaves humanity with a type of “artificial” intelligence (one unable think from the marrow bone), making it unable to respond with the real intelligence needed to adapt to changing circumstances. Thinking requires some degree of neuroplasticity. In my experience most humans have a strong leaning toward either the analytic or the experiential mode. It even seems that the characteristics that make one effective in on mode can be a handicap when trying to engage the other mode. While I view the esoteric mode as valuable in and of itself—its ultimate value, it seems to me—is when its resources are brought to bear on the transformation of the phenomenal world.

In this light, one area we might look for a connection between the analytic and esoteric mode is in the term enlightenment. Immanuel Kant used this term in his essay What is Enlightenment? to refer to what he called “a way out” of a state of immaturity characterized by a state of will that makes us accept someone else’s authority where use of reason is called for. He defined enlightenment as a modification of a preexisting condition linking will, authority and use of reason. Humans participate in this process both collectively and personally. We are at once elements and agents of a single process. It seems to me we in the modern age never really left the age of faith, we simply changed allegiance from priests to academics and, as such, will remain in a state of immaturity as long as we impassively, imperceptibly enact the commands of external authority like an automaton.

Like Zen Buddhists, Kant understood the illusion of the transcendental realism of objects. Unlike Buddhists, he didn’t realize the need for a praxis to enact a practical transcendence. In western terms as articulated by Kant, enlightenment entails the transition from a non-conceptual to a conceptual/rational stage, with a consequent modification of will, authority and reason. What the west adds is a rigorous method of analysis and dynamic ontology often missing in static models of Eastern esotericism. In eastern terms as articulated by Zen, enlightenment includes but transcends a rational stage. The crucial element added by the east is the praxis of meditation, wherein the ego-logical dualism collapses and an-atman (no-self) is realized, with consequent interpenetration of self and world (a process of involution that enables pure perception and a consequent reclaiming of a precious heritage).

As someone who has studied Eastern philosophies from an early age I can attest that, in this milieu, “intellectual” is often used an epithet in the same way “mystic” is among intellectuals.  This too seems to reflect a failure to distinguish between a pre- and trans-conceptual stage. While it seems possible to be a mystic without being intellectual, I feel you risk being the sort of mystic that fits a stereotype—the sort obsessed with personal (belly-button gazing), not collective transformation. The mystic Gurdjieff was the perfect model for this sort of mystic. His teaching was built on the premise that spiritual practice had merely personal value, that no human progress can be accomplished except on an individual basis. If this were true then esotericism would, to my mind, be little more than mystical mumbo jumbo, as it would miss the point Einstein expressed so eloquently—not to nourish, but to overcome the illusion of a separate self. Seeking freedom from self is entirely different than seeking freedom for self.

1.5 What is the Bon praxis?

A Course of Study


The experience of drala is as close as our own eyes, ears and tongue. We don’t have to try to taste, say, an orange, we simply need to relax into the presence of the flavor on our tongue and the orange naturally begins to communicate with us. We are generally too active and our own business drowns out the messages of the world around us. To access the dralas we must do less and be more.

Give yourself a break. Just enjoy the day, your “ordinary” existence. It sounds simplistic, but it has a lot of magic. We have to give ourselves time to be. We often feel hemmed in by school or work—our lives feel cluttered by all sorts of things. We have to learn to be kinder to ourselves, much kinder.

In the stillness of meditation thoughts pass through the mind. Let them pass—worthy ones leave their seeds. We have to give ourselves time to be. You’re not going to feel the dralas if you don’t leave yourself a minute to be, to smile.

Allow Limitation

Limitation is the practice or discipline that supports being. Becoming receptive or open is a natural byproduct of limitation. Meditation is a quintessential act of limitation. Accepting limitation is a conscious choice in which we have begun to realize the world becomes a far more interesting and abundant place if we limit ourselves.

Become part of a Lineage

A lineage, as the word is used here, means any tradition that evokes and propagates drala. Spiritual or religious lineages have no doubt produced our greatest lineage figures, but the path of drala cannot be defined as strictly sacred or secular. It could occur wherever genuine goodness and devotion are manifested. We might not even realize the lineages we are already part of; anyone who has ever read a poem has made contact with one of humanity’s most universal, primordial and wonderful lineages.

Seek Victory over War

Drala: (Tibetan: “dra,” enemy or opponent; “la,” above: “beyond the enemy.” The unconditioned wisdom and power of the world that are beyond any dualism, therefore drala is above any enemy or conflict. It is wisdom beyond aggression. It is the self existing wisdom and power of the cosmic mirror that are reflected both in us and in our world of perception. One of the key points in discovering drala principle is realizing that your own wisdom as a human being is not sepaarate from the power of things as they are..reflections of the unconditioned wisdom of the cosmic mirror…When you can experience these two things together…then you have access to tremendous vision and power in the world…connected to your own vision, your own being. We actually perceive reality. Any perception can connect us to reality properly and fully. Shambala: Path of the Warrior, p. 103

What are the seeds of war? Division—we live in a hall of mirrors of mutual perspective taking—I see you. I see you seeing me. I see you seeing me seeing you…and so on. Present is past brought forward. Some of us might see lovely reflections, others not so lovely. The point is all such reflections are relative perspectives, conditioned images—fragile, vulnerable, fragmented. Bringing awareness into the moment, coming to our senses, basking in the power of things as they are, explodes the mirrors—granting a vision of the non-dual, compassionate, unconditioned wisdom of the cosmic mirror where we actually begin to perceive reality. In an experience like satori egological, dualistic thinking collapses and, with self now supervening on drala, a transpersonal personhood emerges. This is what Christ meant when he said “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Matthew 22, verses 34-40, KJ) Once you experience the supervening ground connecting all aspects of the phenomenal world, thy neighbor is thy self (as you now share an actual noumenal ground).

Division breeds fear, and fear aggression. Just as murder is an extreme expression of aggression, war is collective aggression at its utmost—but the seeds of war are in each of us. Aggression alienates us from the drala principle. Aggression divides people from one another, but it also divides us from the world we are in. War is no longer simply a military exercise; we are so at war with our environment that our very survival is imperiled. So great is this threat that our various regional wars—even nuclear war—are overshadowed by our environmental crisis. The drala principle requires an honest study and constant unmasking of our own aggression and an allegiance to non-aggression. Aggression is, no doubt, a natural instinct in more primitive environments, ensuring survival of the fittest, most robust, enduring creatures. By “primitive” I mean environments where basic drives such as food, shelter and safety obtain. In modern environments where a significant percentage of the population rarely experiences a basic drive, drives are literally “pointless”—that is, there is no real point of content which, when reached, extinguishes that drive. In the modern world mind and sense disassociate, making life “senseless.” I would suggest in our current environment nonaggression serves the biological purpose aggression once did—making us robust and enduring.

Only human beings have come to a point where they no longer know why they exist. They don’t use their brains, and they have forgotten the secret knowledge of their bodies, their senses, or their dreams. They don’t use the knowledge that spirit has put into every one of them; they are not even aware of this, and so they stumble along blindly on the road to nowhere—a paved highway they themselves bulldoze and make smooth so that they can get faster to the big empty hole which they’ll find at the end, waiting to swallow them up. It’s a quick comfortable superhighway, but I know where it leads to. I’ve see it. I’ve been there in my vision and it makes me shudder to think about it. —Lame Deer, Lakota Shaman

Non-aggression is not necessarily pacifism, but an intelligent, firm and awake state of being.

War has an alluring simplicity. It fills our mundane days with passion. It promises to rid us of problems. When it is over many miss it. War destroys families, leaves behind a wasteland, irreconcilable grief. It is a disease, Pity is banished. Fear rules.

Discover that “Luxury is Experiencing Reality”

Luxury is experiencing reality” is another phrase Trungpa used which goes to the heart of the drala principle. In our consumer driven world a manic pursuit of outward luxury shields us from the elements. Luxury means “excess,” but external luxury is not an excess of drala rooted in the vast wisdom of non-dualistic, compassionate existence. Modern ideals of luxury involve cramming our lives with limitless things devoid of drala that fail to satisfy—leading us to acquire more things. Trungpa’s vision was a call for devotion and sacrifice in the spirit of sanity and as an alternative to the dark future facing humanity if the excesses of our age continue unchecked. When we live with awareness of the elements, we live in luxury. Conversely, nearly everything we call luxury is a distraction, a prison. The experience of rain is one of life’s great luxuries, the source of life falling from the sky! When we live with awareness of the elements, we live in luxury. Conversely, nearly everything we call luxury is little more than a distraction—a hamster wheel on the road to nowhere.

Absent drala, free flow becomes stultification: attention turns to social gesturing, leading to posturing: posturing leads to status—mansions, palaces and all manner of acquisitiveness, leading to fraud and plunder—then rebellion, armament, destruction, and defeat.

The following passage from a Taoist text sums up the Taoist view of the evolution and involution of both individuals and collective processes.

The fading away of the Tao is when openness turns into spirit, spirit into energy, and energy into form. When form is born, everything is thereby stultified. The functioning of the Tao is when form turns into energy, energy into spirit, and spirit into openness. When openness is clear, everything thereby flows freely. The Immortal Sisters: Secret Teachings of Taoist Women, translated by Thomas Cleary.

Paradise isn’t found on some remote Himalyan peak. It isn’t an alpha or omega point, or reward. It is our most fundamental and natural right.

1.6 The Rigden Principle

We must use the energy-awakeness of the unbidden heart to have the courage to journey toward taking our deeply human seat as earth protector, Sakyong. It is only this kind of collective awakening that will save our planet from continued degradations and possible catastrophic collapse. The unbidden energy we sometimes feel in our heart is something more than the constituents of our personality. This energy is connected to the second pertinent Shambhala term, the Ridgen principle. You could say this primordial energy originates from an ultimate or unconditioned space (which all spiritual traditions attempt to evoke, understand or at least speak of). In the Shambhala tradition, it is not conceived of as God but as “The Rigdens,” the highest form of non-dual intelligence or being. The Rigdens are not exactly separate from us, yet we can say—and experience—that they want to help us. The Rigden principle is higher being,

intelligence, or instinct we discover by eschewing the mindless acquisitiveness and aggression that results from the collision of primitive instincts and modern conditons.

Rigden means “possessing family heritage.” Our heritage goes back through our mothers and fathers and every ancestral predecessor to the dawn of humanity. But even that is an arbitrary designator, because our genetic heritage not only continues back through apes, but to the the original creatures of our earth’s oceans, then back to single cells, carbon, and stardust.

The dark things of the wood/Are coming from their caves/Flexing muscle/They browse the orchard/Nibble the sea of grasses/Around our yellow rooms/Scarcely looking in/To see what we are doing/As if they still know us.

We hear them, or think we do: The muzzle lapping moonlight, The tooth in the apple. Put another log on the fire; Mozart, again, on the turntable. Still, there is a sorrow/With us in the room. We remember the cave. In our dreams we go back/Or they come to visit. They also like music. We eat leaves together. They are our brothers. They are the family/We have run away from. –Mary Oliver

It is impossible not to possess this heritage, but our minds have acquired endless ideas and conditioning that ultimately makes us feel alone and alienated from any heritage at all. Existence, in the form of The Rigdens, and in every cell of life, has an allegiance to helping us reunite with our true family heritage. The ultimate and highest dralas are the Rigdens. 

Philosophy must be as complex/as the knots it seeks to untie. —Wittgenstein

How Do the Rigdens Help Us?

There is a simple process we can undertake, and as we undertake this process help arrives in a manner inseparable from that process and, for a time, perhaps unnoticed. There are steps in this process, but in no particular order.

We must recognizie our response-ability

We must recognize our response-ability (to separate the word into its obvious halves). Each of us has a unique ability to respond to our life experience and thus effect the world around us. The great Zen teacher Dogen said, “Everyone has all the provisions they need for their lifetime.” Yet amidst injustice, deformity, starvation, war and poverty it hardly seems believable that we each still have the provisions we need. The provisions Dogen spoke of were the ones needed to wake up, and waking up can never occur from material other than what we have, however awful. To recognize the material of our response-ability is a life-time process that is too infrequently tried.

As we do try to recognize and commit to our response-ability, the world offers a response—you could say the rigdens respond. Small forms of acknowledgment occur; accidents, synchronicities, threads of new possibility. The sense of “moving in the right direction” is palpable though not always tangible; it is a kind of real support that comes to our aid.

We must begin to simplify and risk

When we realize “luxury is experiencing reality,” simplifying is not a hardship but something natural—and natural things tend to do very well if they are allowed to. Simplifying provides the ground to risk. Most of us in the first world have far more resources available to us than the vast majority of humanity. We not only have the possibility but the responsibility to risk some of our so-called security for benefit of finding and taking our seat and in turn, helping others.

We must realize our privilege

Most of us living in the first-world have tremendous privileges over the greater majority of human beings who live in the third world. A hundred dollars does not necessarily mean a great deal in, say, middle-class United States, but in terms of the overall world economy where the majority of human beings make only a dollar or two a day—one-hundred dollars is a tremendous amount of money.

That we could leverage our life in an entirely different way—and for very different purposes—is the point of realizing our privilege. Recognizing and acknowledging our privilege takes courage because it begins to dissolve the sense we are “special,” entitled to what we have, and that it will always be there.

Simply put, the dralas do not prefer cowards, whereas any expression of the courage to become more vulnerable will potentially attract the dralas. Acknowledging our privilege means to become more vulnerable. The rigden principle—as the ultimate drala principle—is the self-existing sense of fearlessness we find in ourselves. As we become courageous we become anointed—or self-anointed—with courage, and the process of courage then grows on itself (you have to qualify to play The Game).

Supplicate for vision and support

If we are unwilling to simplify, risk, renounce our privileges and assume responsibility it is unlikely it would occur to us to supplicate for a vision, much less receive one. Conversely, if we do have this willingness, we already have a vision; vision is surrender to what our heart desires. This is not the vision of ego, which always “wants” that which will make us more comfortable. A vision will have its way with us, but it will also come with a curious way of providing the necessary provisions. Simply to supplicate into the unknown is a act of courage and a link with vision.

What is vision? It is the truth of the human heart, which exists in nowness outside of time and can never be discovered through hope and fear.

My deep sigh rises above the earth as a cry, And the answer comes from within as a message –Hazrat Inayat Khan

Chapter 2 WildThing—Tales of Love and Madness

What is it?”/Think of it as a vacation,/specifically tailored for each participant.”

What kind of vacation?”/It’s different every time./We provide what ever is lacking/.We’re like an experiential book of the month club.”

–The Game

The Controlled Substances Act classifies drugs into five schedules based on the potential for abuse and whether the drug has been proven and accepted for medical use. Psychedelic drugs are classified as Schedule One along with heroin and methamphetamine, even though there is no evidence they are addictive and have proven therapeutic uses. Research has shown (Psychedelic medicine: A re-emerging therapeutic paradigm, 2015, Canadian Medical Association Journal 187 (14); 1054-1059) that substances like psilocybin, LSD and peyote have helped people with such mental disorders as obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, and depression.

In my discussion of the drala principle I discussed how we might undertake a process where help arrives in a manner inseparable from that process in the form of new possibilities and synchronicities. Did you know that just days after Albert Hoffman synthesized LSD, scientists split the atom? As someone who works intimately with the Rigdens and knows how they work, I sense these events were not merely coincidental but synchronisitic.

Entheogens showed me that what we call reality is more malleable than I ever imagined. In an essay titled What Is Enlightenment (about Kant) French philosopher Paul-Michael Faucault commented that French poet Jean Baudrillard felt the modern age to be characterized by exhaustive stipulations of the real, balanced against violations of that real. This point is crucial as, by advocating neuroplacticty, I’m not advocating a constructivism (naïve imagination) where there is no Real pushing back against our constructs, but a perspectivism that acknowledges an objective reality partly determined by our perspectives and some measure of neuroplasticity, allowing us to accommodate novel events and changing circumstances. Charles Sanders Peirce refers to this process as a willingness to acknowledge the fallibilism of belief—which means that when circumstances call for it, we should be ready to dump our whole cartload of belief-habits.

Because we have begun to question the foundations of our consensus reality and the value of our normal state of consciousness, some of us have tried to alter consciousness by experimenting with drugs, meditation, new kinds of psychotherapies, new religious systems. My own reading of history suggests that some of the experiences people have had in altered states of consciousness, generally called mystical experiences, have formed the underpinnings of all great religious  systems and of the stable societies and consensus realities that were formed from them. Now we do not only question our inherited social systems, we go directly to the sources, to altered states of consciousness, in our search for new values and realities…no one of us knows precisely where (this) is going. Yet we have, perhaps, a chance to understand our own transition and possibly to guide it—things no society in the past has been able to do.

This opportunity is granted us by science…Instead of being blindly converted to ideologies created by powerful experiences encountered in altered states of consciousness, or avoiding them because of fear, we may be able, through science, to gain a broader understanding of our own minds and of those forces and to exert some intelligent guidance                                  –States of Consciousness, Charles Tart

Paranormal phenomena have something important to offer the humanities. Such phenomena can help bring the humanities back to consciousness, if you will. We have quite a few ideas and some general consensus about what culture is, but no real idea about what consciousness is. Intellectuals relate consciousness to culture, reducing consciousness to culture.

Accordingly, intellectuals are resistant to the possibility that consciousness can effectively reveal itself as fundamentally beyond or against culture. The vast majority of intellectuals would deny that consciousness can exist without culture. Paranormal phenomena, on the other hand, strongly suggest that certain, very special forms of human consciousness are, in fact. not reducible to local cultures. They provide us with evidence that consciousness and culture cannot be collapsed into one another but work together in complex ways to actualize different human potentials, different forms of reality, different possibilities.

This encoding of consciousness into culture is a radical dialectical process between two forms of human experience (one internalized as consciousness, one externalized as culture) that is as much about repression as expression, as much about the suppression or wilting of potentialities as their education and actualization. No culture can do it all. To develop one set of human skills is inevitably to ignore, and probably discourage and even demonize, another. What is possible and impossible within a particular temporal and spatial frame, then, is to a large extent psycho-culturally loaded, constructed, or even determined.

This may sound reductive and relativistic, but only if one’s perspective is restricted to that of a single psyche or culture. This is where the most radical act of all comes in: comparison. Comparison respects no cultural or religious system as representing THE truth of things. From the perspective of the larger, universal psychocultural processes captured under the rubrics of ‘anthropology,’ ‘history of religions,’ or ‘cultural psychology,’ such a method can point to collective forms of consciousness, levels of metaphysical freedom, and degrees of imaginal powers unthinkable in contemporary theory. In culture, any culture, we are bound to that which is deemed possible. In the comparative imagination that can relate consciousness to culture and culture to consciousness, we begin to free ourselves for the impossible.

This would mean realizing we really do shape our worlds, even if we do not fully determine them. We are magicians. But as whole cultures extended through centuries of time, we are much more than a collection of knowing and unknowing magicians stumbling about with their consensual spells called Language, Belief, and Custom. We are wizards endowed with unbelievable powers to shape new worlds of experience and realize different aspects of the real.

Human intellectual and social practices, particularly in their naming and institution-creating functions, circumscribe reality, somehow create the real for a particular time and place. To describe is to construct. To acknowledge openly and to describe authoritatively some aspect of the real is to make possible a psychological existence of the same. To describe-construct, is to describe-select. It is as if our intellectual and social practices ‘switch on’ a set of latent universal human potentials.

.this doesn’t mean…a single individual can create his or her own reality through acts of attention and affirmation …this idea is much more focused on social processes given and institutional structures…cultural wars that produce a sense of the real in any time and place…scholarly careers won and lost over ideas. More technically, it is…how our methods of inquiry end up constituting both the subject that seeks to know and the object that is finally known… Essentially we write ourselves, but as social groups, not generally as lone individuals. Which implies…we can… unwrite and author ourselves anew. This would seem to imply what might be called a metaphysics of history.                                                                   –Jeffrey Kripal, PhD, Authors of the Impossible

2.0 Entheogens

Drugs…..Even among fairly open minded people this word brings up one image and one image only—that of a “drugged” person dimmed in consciousness and fogged in judgment. But the question is, is this the uninformed opinion of a generic “they” or justified belief? The fact is what are now known as psychedelic (mind enhancing) drugs differ from mind numbing drugs like alcohol or heroin in the same way (in Alan Watts words) “laughter differs from rage and delight from depression” (Psychedelics and Religious Experience). Watts claimed he experimented with psychedelic drugs in order to see if they could help him identify essential elements of the mystical experience. He found the classical literature on mysticism vague in describing the experience and showing rational connections between the experience itself and methods for inducing it (fasting, incantations, etc.). He found this problematic for a scientifically minded, intellectually curious westerner. Maybe such methods worked, maybe they didn’t—but what was the essential ingredient?

Watts decided that should psychedelic chemicals induce mystical experience, he could then use them as an instrument for studying and describing the experience “as one uses a microscope for bacteriology.” In the course of his investigations he discovered that psychedelics had four dominant characteristics. The first was a slowing down of time and a concentration in the present—becoming aware of the enormous importance of what is happening in the moment. Of course such luxuriating in the present seems, from the paradigmatic standpoint of our culture, “bad for business.” Won’t this result in a lack of foresight, leading to plummeting insurance sales and falling bank accounts? How will such improvident souls retire in comfort at 65? Of course, anyone who spends his or her whole life preparing for a future happiness that never comes, or comes at a time in life where your life is mostly over, could also be described as lacking foresight. People who move through life with eyes wide shut are “not all there” as they say. Too much emphasis on foresight comes at the price of constant anxiety—overused, it perpetually undermines what it is trying to secure—peace of mind (equanimity).

The second characteristic was what he called awareness of polarity—the realization that states we ordinarily consider opposite are in fact interdependent, like poles of a magnet. With such polar awareness one sees that things we normally call (using the Aristotelian either-or logic of the excluded middle) opposite—like self and other, subject and object, solid and space, figure and ground, pulse and interval, or saints and sinners—are definable only in terms of the other. In the same vein you feel that you are something being done by the universe, yet the universe is also something being done by you. If these two are actually one, who is the agent and where does responsibility (and efficacy) rest? “If the universe is doing me, how can I be sure that, two seconds later, I will still remember the English language? If I am doing it, how can I be sure, two seconds hence, I will remember how to turn the sun into light? Such sensations can generate confusion, even paranoia, even though the individual is feeling himself exactly as would be described by a biologist—as a unified field of organism and enviornment.” (AW)

The third characteristic, arising from the second, is awareness of relativity. I see “I” am a link in an infinite hierarchy of processes and beings. Fruit flies must see just as many subtle distinctions among themselves as we among ourselves. From this it is a short step to the realization that all forms of life are variations on a theme—one being doing the same thing in as many different ways as possible. Further, I see that feeling threatened by death is rooted in the experience of feeling alive. The “I” feeling, to be felt at all, must always be a sensation relative to “other”—to something beyond its control and experience. And, to be at all, it must begin and end. The leap mystical experience makes here is enabling you to see and feel the “paramatman”—that all the myriad “I” centers are self—“I” am not ego (separate self) but an avatar of the Self of all selves.

The fourth characteristic is awareness of eternal energy. One sees quite clearly that all existence is a single energy, and that this energy is one’s own being. There is death, as well as life, because energy is a pulsation, and just as waves must have both crests and troughs, the experience of existing goes on and off. You see there is nothing to worry about as “you” are the eternal energy of the universe playing hide-and-seek (on-and-off) with itself.

A kind of waking trance I have frequently had…when I have been all alone…all at once, as it were out of the intensity of the consciousness of my individuality, the individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being, and this is not a confused state, but the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest…utterly beyond words, where death was an almost laughable impossibility, the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction but the only true life.                                                                                                               —From Tennyson’s memoirs

When I said many in the esoteric tradition were esteemed members of their particular time and place? Charles Tart attended MIT and Stanford, and teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Alan Watts was an Episcopal priest, a member of the faculty at the American Academy of Asian Studies, and author of numerous books. Tennyson attended Cambridge and was one of the most famous poets of his time. Jeffrey Kripal is a professor of religious studies at Rice University.

As for the question of the veracity (or lack thereof) of societal sanction regarding psychedelics, Alan Watts suggested such opinions were rooted in skewed religious and cultural values. As westerners we have no words for experiences like satori (interpenetration of subject/object, self/world), so we must borrow them from the east. This is the case as western prophetic theologies don’t accept the idea that the innermost self is identical with God or the ground of being (other than in the unique case of Christ). Prophetic theologies think of God in monarchical terms, as supreme boss and architect of the universe. In such a paradigm it is socially unacceptable and logically preposterous for an individual to claim he or she is such an omnipotent ruler. Such a construct of the divine is not universal. For most Asians (other than Muslims) the divine moves and manifests the world spontaneously, without deliberation or calculation. They conceive the universe by analogy with organism as distinct from mechanism.

They do not see it as an artifact under the conscious direction of some supreme architect. In prophetic theism any individual who declares himself one with God is dubbed a heretic. As earthly representatives (franchises?) of the supreme ruler, nothing is more threatening to the franchise than experiences like Tennyson’s that demonstrate, in no uncertain terms, the fallacy of prophetic dogma. If your business model depends on selling lies, nothing is a greater threat than the spread of truth.

Mystical experiences also clash with the secular, atheistic mentality, which derives its common sense from the mythology of 19th century Newtonian physics. According to this myth the universe is a mindless mechanism, and man an accidental microorganism inhabiting a minute globular rock that revolves around an unimportant star on the outer fringe of one of the minor galaxies. This “put-down” theory is popular among quasi-scientists (or even actual scientists who are quasi-philosophers) such as sociologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists, who still think of the world in Newtonian terms.

Any patient who hints at mystical or religious experience is automatically diagnosed as deranged. From the standpoint of this atheistic religion, the heretic is given electroshock therapy to bring him back to the herd as a useful human resource. And it is exactly this type of quasi scientist who consults with government agencies dictating official policies on the use of psychedelics. Lack of respect for mystical experience is much more than intellectual hubris—it reflects lack of awareness of the basic unity of organism and environment—and (ironically) is itself and serious and potentially fatal hallucination.

Is drug use dangerous? Yes, as is every worthwhile exploration—like getting on some tiny ship and sailing the ocean, or flying in some tin can to the moon. The real question is—do we value the delight of exploration more than mere duration of an unventful life?

Is drug use an escape from reality? This assumes one is acquainted with reality in the first place.

The world now seems about evenly divided between those committed to healing and growth and those who whose mantra is “Nothing new, ever!” which Carl Jung identified as the voice of psychosis. At this moment in time in the United States we have just such a psychotic in the White House, so excuse me if I laugh at the calculus we use to determine what is healthy (whose root meaning is ”wholeness”) and what is dangerous.

In the next chapter I deal with what I call “the reader’s dilemma.” The root meaning of “dilemma” is “twice premise”—implying a type of ambivalence. I discuss what happens when you put a text set in a very different time and place (like The Grapes of Wrath) in front of a group of suburban adolescents. As the life experience of the characters is far different from that of the students, they apply and misapply their life wisdom (such as it is) as they try to interpret the meaning of the text. As my vision stories may seem quite foreign to most versions of “reality,” I’d suggest playing the role of anthropologist.

American scholar of religion Arthur Versluis argues that a purely historical approach to esotericism, seeking only to trace genealogies of influence, turns into a total denial of the esoteric phenomenon itself.

We must acknowledge that there is a phenomenon to be considered that is not merely a written object—rather, ‘behind’ the written work is a mystical phenomenon in itself that the mystic experienced.                                                     –Versluis, Methods in the Study of Esotericism, p. 29

As mentioned earlier, anthropological terms like emic and eitic refer to two kinds of field research done and viewpoints obtained: emic, from within the social group (from the perspective of the subject) and etic, from outside (from the perspective of the observer). This distinction became popular among scholars of religion because the insider/outsider problem is pervasive when studying religion in a global sense. In these cases, the “other” to which the emic part of this distinction applies is a member of a decisively different culture, language and customs. The scholar needs to deploy significant intellectual and moral efforts to understand the world-view of the peoples he is trying to know. But, in the case of Western esotericism we may ask—to whom is this emic distinction being applied? Can we apply such a distinction to members of our own family, raised in the same house, with the same cultural traditions, language and even religion? What does it means to be an outsider, or an insider in this case? In this case, constructing esotericism as discourse of the “Other” might seem artificial, highlighting metaphysical tensions within one’s own culture. But does this kind of intracultural tension seem artificial only because there is a tendency within academia to view consciousness as a product of culture, as opposed to the possibility it can also be fundamentally beyond or against culture? (consider this as you read my two dreams, the bums and the swells).

Such questions point to the need to revisit the idea of “Other.” To do this I suggest taking the “Corporate-Critical” approach proposed by the Canadian Religious Studies scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith (Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Comparative Religion: Wither–and Why?, in Religious Diversity: Essays by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, New York: Harper & Row, 1976, pp. 138–157).  In this article, Smith summarizes the motivations of his approach:

The traditional form of Western scholarship in the study of other meanings of religion was that of an impersonal presentation of an ‘it’. The first great innovation in recent times has been the personalization of the faiths observed, so that one finds a discussion of a ‘they.’ Presently the observer becomes personally involved, so that the situation is one of a ‘we’ talking about a ‘they.’ The next step is a dialogue, where ‘we’ talk to ‘you.’ If there is listening and mutuality, this may become that ‘we’ talk with ‘you.’ The culmination of this progress is when ‘we all’ are talking with each other about ‘us.’                                                                                                    (Smith, Comparative Religion, p. 142.)

One of the main principles of this approach is that when assessing the values and beliefs of a different group of people, one needs to do it in a way that the people being portrayed recognize themselves in one’s evaluation of them. The goal should be a genuine dialogue that avoids any battle of identifications. In this spirit it’s necessary to  question the value of philosophical positions that patronize world-views they are trying to understand. This is crucial as, one of the issues with the current status of the academic study of esotericism is that it tends to ignore core esoteric experiences: gnosis, altered states of consciousness, and the controversial and embarrassing subject of the paranormal—yet all these experiences are valid esoteric dimensions that need to be accounted for and included in any definition of esotericism.

In a purely personal sense, this book is an attempt to make sense of a grand adventure that began in my early twenties with a series of dreams and visions. What follows is, to the best of my recollection, an account of those visionary experiences.

2.1 Dreams

2.1.1 Dream #1: The Bums

I am walking down a streetlight-bathed sidewalk at twilight. To my right is a chainlink fence, and on the other side of the fence, a park. I sense someone behind me. I turn and glimpse a disheveled figure who seems to be following me. As just ahead is a gate, I turn into the park with a quick glance behind to see if I’m being followed. I am. I start to jog, then turn to see if he’s chasing me—he is. I’m now sprinting but start to worry that, old as he is, he might collapse if he tries to keep up. He is sprinting behind me and just as I turn back toward him, he collapses.

I go to his side and kneel beside him, noticing a terrible wear and tear on his exhausted face. I realize he’s dying. Then, as the breath leaves his body all the lines on his face—all the terrible, craggy, grimy, exhaustion with life begins to fade, and I watch him grow ever younger. I now see his face before the arc of tragedy claimed him. Beautiful and full of hope, he grows younger still until some otherworldly light begins to gather itself in the depths of his being. It reaches critical mass and a light of indescribable joy and beauty explodes out in waves—through him, me, the earth—like some silent nuclear detonation.

The Numinous…

As I awaken that word floats in the air like a movie title. That was forty years ago but the feeling of that light has never left. As I didn’t know what “numinous” meant I looked it up. The “noumenal” is contrasted with the “phenomenal.” The phenomenal world is the world of outward appearances (the surface), while the noumenal is that which transpires behind that which appears (what actually exists beneath the surface)—some intangible, ineffable presence latent everywhere.

Christ speaks of the tiny mustard seed, and the Bible stresses that the kingdom will enter inconspicuously—very small, lowly. Where we would least likely look for it. This realization is important—entry from the “provinces”—Galilee. This all presumes another, invisible, landscape at odds with the palpable one. Two realms—a lower and a higher. In the lower realm, the deity appears debased and trivial. Only at the end does the deity unmask itself, and we see what it truly is. If the deity exists in the lower realm, it will not bear a noble heavenly dignified aspect; it will be where least expected and as least expected. It will come to us and unveil itself to us…                                                                                                               –Exegesis, Philip K. Dick

PK Dick’s passage may seem enigmatic until you realize that in a world where values are completely upside down Truth cannot come from the top, only the bottom.

In restless dreams I walked alone Narrow streets of cobblestone/’Neath the halo of a street lamp/I turned my collar to the cold and damp/When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light/That split the night/And touched the sound of silence —Simon and Garfunkle

This dream came the morning after I had missed a lecture by the Tibetan Buddhist Chogyam Trungpa because someone told me he was an alcoholic. This held a special charge for me as my father was an alcoholic who used to take my sister and I to movies in downtown San Francisco, where we had to step over winos in the street. Alcoholics disgusted me.

As I grew old enough for a family of my own, I saw my father’s story differently. In the nineteen-fifties the average person knew little about a mental illness like schizophrenia. All my father knew was that when he came home from work he never knew where his wife, three-year old son, and seven year-old daughter would be. Sometimes his wife would be home, sometimes not—leaving my sister and I by ourselves. Other times he would come home to an empty house, finding his wife in a bar. My father didn’t know his wife was slipping into schizophrenia. My mother didn’t know she was descending into psychosis. At times his fear and frustration would boil over and he would beat her. My sister and I would hide in the closet while neighbors called the police. Sometimes the neighbors would find us wandering the halls and call child welfare. One day while my sister and I were out playing in the streets, she was hit by a car and suffered a broken leg. We were removed from our home and placed in Youth Guidance Center. My mother and father lost everything to a monster they couldn’t see or name—my mother was committed to a mental hospital, and my father drifted into an alcoholic haze.

And that is how their dream of family died—in a tale of love and madness—The bones of their dream picked clean and the clean bones gone.

When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone, They shall have stars at elbow and foot; Though they go mad they shall be sane, Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again; Though lovers be lost, love shall not; And death shall have no dominion. –And Death Shall Have No Dominion, Dylan Thomas

My father joined the merchant marine as a purser, and when he was in town he would visit. I was fifteen when he died—I had seen him sober once. My foster parents gave me what was left of his personal items. I was rifling through his wallet, happy to find some money when it hit me. This is what a life can come to—you die and your son is rifling through your wallet. Then I cried—for my father, my mother—for all who drown in a sea of  broken dreams.

2.1.2 Dream#2: The Swells

I am out in the country on a stroll, following a path that meanders through an apple orchard. I am floating through an arcadian splendor like a leaf on a meandering brook. The ripe aroma of sweet apple wafts in the air. It is a languorous, storybook morning seemingly indifferent to the march of time which, no doubt, marches on just ahead. The undulating rows of trees with white trunks comes to an end and I spy a lavish, abandoned country estate seemingly from another time and place. I walk up to a large, grand front door and, with considerable effort, open it.

I’m stunned by what I encounter next. I am in a grand ballroom with what must be thirty foot ceilings. There are large windows up high on the walls covered with heavy drapes, drawn shut. I see what I imagine to be magnificent furniture everywhere, covered, as if someone had left intending to return. Given the mothballed mustiness of the room, that must have been many decades earlier. To my even greater surprise there is some sort of soiree going on. People dressed in the finery of a bygone era are drinking, conversing and dancing. I struggle to take in the incongruity of the abandoned mustiness of the room with the blithe savoir faire of the guests.

But even more bizarre is that the face of every guest is swathed in bandages, as if dressing some terrible wound. Yet, they seem oblivious—able, somehow, to see and move about despite heads completely covered in layered gauze. The “mansion” seems a mausoleum, and the gaiety of the guests discomforting. How did they (we) end up there (here), sealed off as they (we) are from the beauty of the natural world? What kind of wounds do those bandages hide?

And the people bowed and prayed/To the neon god they made/And the sign flashed out its warning/In the words it was forming/And the sign read “The words of the prophets are written on subway walls, tenement halls/And whispered in the sounds of silence.                                                           –Simon and Garfunkle

2.2 Visions

States of Consciousness

Different mystical traditions use different terminology when describing visionary states. Some will use “consciousness” where I would use “mind.” I follow the terminology used by Charles Tart in his book States of Consciousness.

Although in general speech we tend to use the term awareness and consciousness to mean basically the same thing, I use them here with somewhat different meanings. Awareness refers to the basic knowledge that something is happening, to perceiving or feeling or cognizing in its simplest form. Consciousness generally refers to awareness in a much more complex way; consciousness is awareness modulated by the structure of the mind. Mind refers to the totality of both inferable and potentially experiencable phenomena of which awareness and consciousness are components.                                                                                            –States of Consciousness, Charles Tart

I take the word “consciousness” to imply “action across a boundary”—meaning its existence depends on the existence of boundaries. As I describe various visions, there are times when there is “mind” but not phenomenal consciousness. If the reader keeps this in mind it will help clarify what I’m trying to convey.

2.2.1 Vision#1: White Lightening

I am driving to McDonalds for lunch when some crucial aspect of my brain suddenly s t o p s f u n c t i o n i n g. I am now unsure what the white lines in the middle of the road mean. Do I stay to the right of them?—doesn’t feel right—drive over them?—nope—to the left of them?—not really sure. Fortunately a part of my brain still functioning tells me I best pull over to the curb.

As I get out of the car I notice a crowd gathering across the street next to a building with a lot of pretty colored lights. Everyone looks to be having fun, so I cross the street and check it out. I enter a building and see people in a line, hand something to someone on one side of something, who then hand back something to the person standing on the opposite side of that same thing. Everyone seems happy but, having no idea why, I go back out the way I came.

I make my way across the street to my car and, for some reason, turn back to the scene I just left and notice something very interesting. It’s hard to describe what I saw, but it was very funny—not ha-ha funny, but like weirdly funny, twilight zone funny—like watching the world run in reverse—as if, rather than moving forward under their own power in a direction of their choosing, everyone is being drawn along by some unseen force along predetermined vectors.

Impaired as I am, I know I am being granted a glimpse of a profound underlying truth. Just what that truth is, is, at the moment, a complete mystery. In retrospect I’d say some ancient part of the brain which, in a state of anamnesis (recall), links individual minds (beings) to Mind proper (Being)—some vast repository of signs, symbols and their meanings—was impaired. Concepts like lines on a road, counter, food, money and McDonalds became indecipherable gibberish.

However, as I’m no longer in the thrall of this Mind/Being, it is, momentarily, translucent. We do not employ words, symbols, signs—we are those signs—self/world are defined/known within a semiotic process—and we are, for the most part, under its spell. And, in that moment the contrast between appearances and reality took on a distinctly comical je n’ais se quoi. I could see the world was more automated, more fully programmed than I had ever imagined—and it was amusing to watch robots move about without the slightest awareness of the programs dictating their every desire at every moment.

But in this moment I have more important fish to fry—like how to find my way back to where ever it was I had come from. I spy something on a nearby street corner that looks as if it might be of help. It is a pole with two pieces of metal at 90 degrees to one another at the top, with what seem instructions printed on them. A part of me senses a kind of code which, at the moment, I am unable to decipher. I treat it like an oracle and ask for the wisdom needed to get home. I then hear something like a “ping” coming from a specific direction. I thank the oracle and follow the signal.

Now that signs are no longer signing, I seem to have discovered a more primitive orientation system. Once the part of our brain dependent on signs and symbols stops signing, there seems to be some preconceptual grasp of the world available as a default mode—which I am now using to find my way home. I turn down this street for a few blocks, then turn that way, and walk a few more blocks, following the “ping” until I come to a building that seems the source of the signal. As one door looks more auspicious than the others, I reach into my pocket and—Oh Yeah! Key! I’m home!

For a short time my semiotic “orienting system” underwent a biochemical crash, granting a moment of insight where I could see that our conceptual, conscious sense of being (ego), the everyday way we go about out business, takes place within a background called “the world” (Being) we rarely attend to, because it is mostly invisible to us. We move through the world with eyes wide shut.

2.2.2 Vision #2: Sandoz

The Universal Introvertive Mode (Mysticism, Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philsophy, 2.1)

I thought I had just finished an LSD trip. I am in Folsom Lake, CA visiting a friend. I head home on the freeway when—how to describe this? I feel like an old TV set whose picture suddenly, inexplicably, enfolds back into the signal—there is a moment of snow—then nothing. Then, in this nothing, a cartoon-like bubble appears that reads, “DRIVING! Can’t see. DANGEROUS!”

There is a moment of snow, and—I’m back. I then hear a voice that says, Good. But the intention to be safe, will keep this safe. Then—snow, and—nothing. Then, a bit of snow, and—I’m back—again. It never occurs to me to check mile markers, but I am familiar enough with this stretch of road to know I am a few miles from where this all started. When I return I’m square in the middle of my lane.

In Nirvakulpa Samadhi—knower is dissolved—with the subject in a trance state. But this was Nirvakalpa Samadhi with open eyes. No trance—subject fully functional in the world—while functionally mind-blind. This is what is meant by a noetic content to states like samadhi. The universe (Universal Experient) can do anything you can do without “you” (the ego/avatar).

But “Mind” is not the same as consciousness. Consciousness is action across a boundary. The deepest stage of sleep is non-dual, boundryless. And yet in that stage, while consciousness sleeps, something is awake. I call that something “Mind”—inciipient consciousness. Nirvakalpa Samadhi is an absolute interior, boundryless. As mentioned earlier, what science knows about the universe holds true down to the planck length—ten to the negative 33 centimeters—then, all bets are off. We can’t yet measure wave lengths of energy at the planck level but, if we could, Bohm estimates that in one cubic centimeter of so-called empty space there is more energy than in the entire physical universe. This suggests the physical universe is a bare shimmer on the surface of an immensity of space. And that’s a good analogy for Nirvakalpa Samadhi—some infinity where events on the phenomenal level hardly register—yet where this infinity is, in some fashion, in phase with, or synchronous to, the phenomenal world.

I lived with a yogi who, after giving a lecture at Stanford Chapel, was asked, “Does everything happen for a reason, or is everything accidental?” The yogi replied, “Nothing is accidental. Everything is incidental.” This is not nihilism. Nihilists have skin in the game. It seems significant to them if life is meaningful or meaningless. This is beyond the beyond—beyond any type of duality or form. Here and only here, is there a privacy.

I give the fight up: Let there be an end, a privacy, an obscure nook for me. I want to be forgotten, even by God.                                                                                                                          Paracelcus, Robert Browning

2.2.3 Vision #3: Orange Sunshine

The Universal Extrovertive Mode (Mysticism, Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philsophy, 2.1)

There are two contrasting opinions on the extent to which mystical experiences on entheogens parallel classic mystical states. Academics and mystics who have never taken entheogens tend, on the whole, to deny the two have much in common. Academics and mystics who have taken them (Huston Smith, Alan Watts, Lama Govinda, to name a few) tend to feel they are roughly analogous. I often wonder if those who denounce entheogens have ever considered that traditional mystics may have become mystics due to some random neurochemical, biochemical, or genetic variation—that is, fate endowed them with the “mystic gene.” And, if this is the case, how is this really different from a sudden neurochemical or biochemical variation due to the ingestion of a psychoactive substance?

Sufis distinguish between what they call hal and maqam. “Hal” is the sudden, spontaneous experience of higher states of consciousness unrelated to the conscious development of the experient. “Maqam” is the stabilization in higher states of consciousness as a result of conscious effort.

I would argue the real issue is not whether higher states of consciousness are natural or induced, but what sort of interest such experiences engender, and how much consequent effort is expended in 1) exploring, understanding, and stabilizing within higher states of consciousness and, 2) understanding the relevance of such states regarding the world at large.

Cosmic Consciousness

It is a delightfully warm spring day in Los Gatos, California. I’m immersed in a countryside of undulating green hills, giddy from taking in great draughts of brisk spring air. I begin to feel as if, rather than moving through the countryside, it is moving through me. What ever it is this “I” now is, seems to suddenly gather itself and explode out in every direction at unfathomable speed. “I” am moving—out—in all directions simultaneously. I had never heard of or imagined such a possibility yet—as I had never felt such joy and exhilaration—I am an enthusiastic participant in whatever it is that’s happening. Eyes closed, my consciousness rockets out and out and out untilmy momentum is suddenly checked—as if my consciousness had been snagged by the sort of band used to catch jets on aircraft carriers.

I see and sense, through a kind of remote viewing, something going on, on the other side of—somewhere. It looks/feels like Houston Space Center after they just landed a man on the moon—a lot of jumping up and down, hugs and congratulations. So, this was planned—like a rocket launch? They were expecting me? Captain Trips gets up on a Saturday morning, decides to journey, and it’s all part of some cosmic plan? Trippy

But what do I know? I’m just along for the ride.

Those on the other side of where-ever seem beings of great light and joy, angelic even—but funny, possessed of a great sense of humor rooted in their great intelligence. But this is not the clever intellectualness of earth—the kind leading, inevitably, to some dark corner of existence where it all goes to terribly wrong—but a true intelligence, a real wisdom, born of openness, honesty, gentleness.

And with images of Alice and the White Rabbit dancing in my head, exactly that sort of hole opens and—mathematical equations begin shooting down some vortex from there to here and out to—somewhere—then back, through me, then up the vortex, to them. And, as suddenly as it opened, the rabbithole closed and—they’re gone. I feel like Miles Monroe in the Woody Allen movie Sleeper after he had spent too much time in the orgone machine.

I wander over to a nearby pen of sheep and sit crosslegged in the lush spring grass. There’s just one solitary sheep next to me, munching away. She slowly lifts her head, glances my way and seems to do something of a double-take, like she isn’t sure what it is that is in front of her. She then very slowly turns her head toward the other side of the pen where, about thirty yards away, there are about fifteen sheep, heads down, grazing in the grass. Their heads raise as one, as if prompted by some kind of silent signal—looking first toward her, then me. Slowly, they amble over to my side of the corral, crowding together and sticking their heads through the fence to get a good sniff. In that moment designations like “human” or “sheep seem to fall away—which is a bit confusing for all of us—just fellow critters playing in the garden. And, in that moment I know what the sacrament of “communion” offered every Sunday at my church was supposed to enact—that ancient evening before Being is named.

Only by seeing, by being, we know, Rapt, breath stilled, bliss of the heart. No microscope nor telescope can discover The immeasurable: not in the seen but in the seer…                                                                                    –Epiphany of the commonplace, Kathleen Raine

To be attached to one’s name and shape is selfishness. A man who knows that he is neither body nor mind cannot be selfish, for he has nothing to be selfish for. Or, you may say, he is equally“selfish’”on behalf of everybody he meets; everybody’s welfare is his own. The feeling “I am the world, the world is myself” becomes quite natural; once it is established, there is just no way of being selfish. To be selfish means to covet, to acquire, accumulate on behalf of the part against the whole.                                                                                                                                                           –Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

I’ve read a lot of science fiction and eastern philosophy. I’ve lived with a yogi from India for three years and in a Sufi center for five, but never came across an answer for what happened that spring day regarding my contact with off-planet (higher-dimensional?) beings—until, thirty years later, I meet a woman named Robin who tells me she’s a channeler. I’m skeptical, but she seems down to earth (so to speak), so I have a session. She tells me she channels a friend from a past life named Antoine who, in the middle of my session tells me “You have a another body in a different star system, the Pleiades.” Probably the only thing I am more skeptical about than channeling is aliens. Antoine senses this and responds, “I know, there’s a lot of nonsense about aliens. Just keep an open mind.”

As it so happens I am going to a bodywork workshop the following weekend, something called Amanae. After the channeling session, knowing I signed up for the workshop, Robin tells me, The woman who came up with Amanae believed she channeled the method from beings in the Pleiades.”  The workshop was held in a house on a few country acres. As I enter the house on that first morning I do what I usually do—make a beeline for the bookshelf. I’m instantly drawn to a book with a single word on the spine, Earth. As I pull it out I see the full title, Earth, Pleiadian Keys to the Living Library and, in that book, I finally find a plausible (?) explanation for my remote viewing experience 30 years earlier.

According to the book Earth used to be one of twelve, interconnected galactic genetic libraries created to protect vital genetic codes in case of a catastrophic event. These codes were stored in “bones and stones” and could only be accessed psychically through the consciousness of designated librarians (In The Singularity Is Near, scientist Ray Kurzweill asks the question, “How smart is a rock?” and notes that with the possibility of manipulating atoms on the nanoscale, a five pound rock has as much storage capacity as all human brains on earth). As this genetic information was precious, it was safeguarded by the fact the librarians were adepts whose consciousness was tuned to the frequency of a loving cosmic unity, so only those in a similarly advanced state of consciousness could psychically access the information.

As the story goes, there were forces who had heard tales of something valuable being stored in the libraries and were determined to seize it. But as their consciousness was of a regressive nature they were unable to gain access—so they destroyed the libraries so no one else could access it (real mature). They did this by meddling with the DNA of the librarians—which shut off access, effectively shutting down the libraries.

So,” the reader says, “the Pleiadians come up with this covert mission to sneak one of their own onto the planet, arrange for him to be at a certain place and time, at just the right pitch of consciousness, allowing them to retrieve these precious codes & upload them into some kind of cloud storage? Is that your story?” (I would add that, as the Pleiades star system is our galaxy is too young and inhospitable for advanced life, my experience must of taken place in a higher dimension).

My story? You think I could make this up? Wow—thank you! What a compliment!

This is a story, best as I can put it together, from the pieces put before me. Over time I’ve learned to trust such uncanny synchronicity, as the sheer unlikelihood events could unfold in such a manner due to chance seems absurd (remember the methods employed by the Rigdens?)

Cosmic consciousness—a universal extrovertive mode of experience—is the polar opposite of the universal introvertive mode. In the UE mode the experient loves neighbor as Self, because neighbor is Self. In the UE mode, Self as Universal Experient is fully invested in existence—in a manner proper to the nature of that Self. Hope and fear is inimical to this Self, as such emotions arise from ignorance of the wholeness of Reality. Action springing from realization of wholeness is free from hope and fear. When John Lennon says, “Everything works out in the end. If things are not working out, it is not the end” he is speaking from the UE mode.

The primary sensation of cosmic consciousness is an uprush of a tremendous energy of love, joy and pure intelligence—a unity consciousness within which all seemingly separate fragments become a coherent whole. It provides a stark contrast to the UI mode where “the all” is an absolute interior. My sense is they are different modes of experience of the same Reality.

Buddhists emphasize the UI mode, the experience of no-thing-ness. Theists emphasize the UE mode of unity or God-Consciousness—but neither is a stand-alone reality—neither represents the total picture, in and of themselves. They are not contradictory, but complementary. One might say the UI mode is Shiva consciousness, and the UE mode is Shakti consciousness. The experience of the essential unity of Shiva and Shakti is an experience of the Divine Embrace that is Tantra. But it is crucial to realize such things can never be reduced to words, concepts or maps. My sense is that “unity” does not imply opposites collapsing into a seamless monodimensional “oneness.” In the way I’m using the word unity implies that what seem polar opposites or differences interpenetrate, yet continue to blend and clash in a multidimensional space rather than collapsing into one another—polarities are to be maintained in proper tension, like the strings of a musical instrument.

Love is not an aberration, or the brief bumping together of meaningless molecules. Love is the fabric and foundation of every manifest thing. The visible universe is an ornament of a seething boundless net of Love. It condenses into every weird and wonderful shape. Occasionally one may glimpse this timeless firmament, the infinite One, the sacred marriage field of all beings, the mystic primordial background to the foreground of the material world. Loving relationships are so powerful because there is that recognition of themselves as extensions of a transpersonal field of love. –Alex Gray

2.2.4   Vision #4: Psilocybin

Three years later I am in Tucson, Arizona, out in nature after having ingested Psilocybin mushrooms. My sense of being a subject in 3-D space-time grid dissolves in a fountain of simultaneously interpenetrating ascending and descending streams. As the fountain ascends there is an invigorating rush of life and joy and the thought occurs, This is what it feels like to be born! As the fountain descends there is an enervating sense of dissolution and decay, and the thought occurs, This is what it feels like to die! But I see neither is a stand alone reality—each defines the other. Where the two streams meet is a vortex I recognize as the template of Self, a Universal Experient that transcends dualistic constructs like alive/dead, here/there, now/then, self/other—giving rise to a tender ache in the heart—a compassion for all sentient beings struggling with duality and the consequent suffering.

To see (prajna) is to love (karuna)

This fountain seems a kind of pulsation or throb. In Shaivism, Spanda is the technical word of a system that describes just this sort of movement or throb. But as applied to the Divine, it cannot mean movement. Shaivic philosopher Abhinavagupta makes this point luminously clear in these lines:

Spandana means some sort of movement. If there is movement from the essential nature of the Divine towards another object, it is definite movement, not some sort, otherwise, movement itself would be nothing. Therefore, Spanda is only a throb, a heaving of spiritual rapture in the essential nature of the Divine which excludes all succession.

Movement or motion occurs only in a spatio-temporal framework. The Supreme transcends all notions of space and time. Spanda, therefore, in the case of the Supreme, is neither physical motion nor psychological activity like pain and pleasure, nor pranic activity like hunger or thirst. It is the electric throb of the ecstasy of the Divine I-consciousness (vimarsa). The Divine I-consciousness is spiritual dynamism. It is the Divine Creative pulsation.

In the first verse of the 10th century CE text on Shaivism, the Spandakarikas, I found a perfect analog for my experience, which describes Spanda-sakti as:

Represented by the unmesa (emergence) and nimesa (submergence) of the Sakti, the primal energy of Siva, and also that of the empirical individual. Unmesa and nimesa are only figuratively spoken of as occurring one after the other. As a matter of fact, they occur simultaneously. In activity, there is no depletion of Spanda-sakti as there is of physical energy. This goddess is always engaged in exercising her energy in withdrawal and yet always appears as replete. In reality, nothing arises, and nothing subsides. It is only the divine Spandasakti which, though free of succession, appears in different aspects as if flashing in view and as if subsiding.

The second verse says the world is contained in the spanda principle, and comes out of it. The world being contained in spanda and coming out of it does not mean that the world is anything different from Siva any more than a walnut is different from the bag in which it is contained.

Being contained in and coming out of, are only limitations of the human language. The world is Siva as reflections in the mirror are the mirror itself. The world consisting of subject, object and means of knowledge cannot really conceal Siva, because without the light of Siva, they themselves cannot appear. The world is inherent in Spanda just as a Walnut tree exists as potency in the seed.

This seems to solve the paradox of Schrodinger’s Cat. From the POV of a space and time there are just two possibilities—the cat is dead or alive. But from the POV of the the non-local ground of the electromagnetic frequency (spanda-sakti) domain, the cat is dead and alive.

The third verse maintains that in differing states—waking, dream, and deep sleep—the spanda principle remains the same, that is, as the invariable Experient of all states. While states of experience like pleasure, pain, etc. differ, the Experient cannot change—for it is the Experient that connects the differing states as the experience of the identical Experient. Reality is neither the psychological subject nor the psycho-physical experience, nor is it mere void. Reality, or Spanda is the underlying basis of the psychological subject—the Universal Experient that can never be reduced to an object.

As Jimmy Hendrix asked, “Have you ever been experienced?

I then found another perfect analog from the POV of quantum physics:

The hope of apprehending the noumenon through phenomenal eyes is founded on a logical absurdity, what Bohm calls confusion and self-deception. The age-old philosophical effort to tune in on the purity of being and perceive it as it would be in itself without being perceived by the knower is therefore a vain hope. To approach the infinite cosmic intelligence, love, or insight of which Bohm speaks, entails that the knower has stepped aside altogether in favor of pure nondualistic awareness.

Bohm holds out for the death of the 3-dimensional thinker and his rebirth within the n-dimensional domain of consciousness. Such an event would usher in the dynamic state Bohm refers to, in which creation and dissolution and creation would flow through us simultaneously, like quanta of energy born and borne away in the split micro-second, ever welling up afresh without being arrested, clutched at, or sullied.

The consequence—were such a task successful—is a new paradigm of the universe, of consciousness and of human reality. No longer is it a question of a knower observing the known across a gulf of knowing which separates them. That model of consciousness has failed us through the centuries in which we have stubbornly clung to it.                                                          —Renee Weber on David Bohm in ReVision Magazine

Utterly fearless and uninhibited it is this consciousness that brings into manifestation and sustains the infinite variety of beings, from the creator to the blade of grass. It is ever dynamic and active, yet it is more inactive than a rock and is more unaffected by such activity than space.                          (Yoga Vashishtha – 5:23)

Siva represents the unmanifest and Sakti the manifest; Siva the formless and Sakti the formed; Siva Mind and Sakti energy, not only in the cosmos as a whole, but in each and every individual. The roots of Sakti are in Siva. Though one is manifest and the other unmanifest, they are in the ultimate sense one and the same. One is the principle of changelessness and the other the principle of change. Sakti is change within changelessness, while Siva is changelessness as the root of change. The experience of the unity of the changeless and the changeable is the aim of Tantra.

Everything you see around you, whether physical, psychic, mental or whatever, is Sakti, both individually and collectively. This includes everything from a pebble to the sun. All manifestations of Sakti come from the underlying substratum, Siva. Tantra regards the material universe as the form, pattern, or expression of the totality. According to Tantra both the manifest and unmanifest are real; to tell someone that the things around him are unreal is nonsensical, because his experience on normal levels of awareness is otherwise. The world, says Tantra, must be regarded as real. One must utilize the body, mind and environment to know that which is beyond.

Energy, including matter and consciousness, are functioning together in the cosmos as well as in each and every human being. This combination gives rise to the world we see around us, to time and to place. Energy is an expression of Mind, and Mind cannot express itself except through energy. There is a supreme experience where Siva and Sakti are no longer exist as separate entities. Some call it “Brahman,” others refer to it as being “not this, not that,” (nitti-nitti/trace). This is the state of nirvana, samadhi, moksha or enlightenment. It is the state where Siva merges so closely with Sakti that they become one. They embrace each other so tightly they cease to be separate. And this is the meaning of the many “seemingly” erotic sculptures which personify these two principles—Siva and Sakti. They symbolize that enraptured state where separateness is no more. This is the divine embrace of Tantra.

Here we reach the limit and utility of mere words. The point is not the absolute dissolution of all opposites. Tantra is an experience of unity consciousness where love and beauty reach such epic proportions you realize the reality of Keats lines in Ode on a Grecian UrnThou still unravished bride of quietness, Thou foster child of silence and slow time, Sylvan historian…Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

The fact that Keats evokes a paradoxical relationship between the poem’s world and reality causes some critics (who miss the real point entirely) to question whether the last lines enhance or diminish the poem. This is not metaphor—it is an identity statement—truth literally is beauty and beauty is truth (a beauty that includes and transcends all opposites). The ultimate import of spiritual realization is learning how to leverage beauty (truth) for transformation (remember, the energy in all the physical universe is a bare shimmer on the surface of that which underlies the physical universe—quite a resource to tap into!)

And this is what I mean when I say some critics miss the point of the poem. Once you realize beauty is truth (the real), you never make the mistake of taking what goes on in the world (appearances) for “reality.” Certainly what goes on in the world is “actual” (not an illusion)—just don’t confuse it with the Real.

The experience of tantra can confound our everyday sensibilities. There is an undercurrent of eroticism to the experience—but this is a transpersonal eroticism, not personal, as in (necessarily) sexual. Tantra is love, and love (as Alex Gray described it) is “the fabric and foundation of every manifest thing…the sacred marriage field of all beings…” Tantra can be experienced between two heterosexual males or females, and between members of the opposite sex generations apart in age. If we don’t grasp its transpersonal nature, it can feel threatening or confusing.

But this is not about the avatars me and you, but Siva and Sakti.

As an abstract concept, “love” (like “God”) means only what we “think” it means—no more, no less. Horrendous acts are committed in the name of love and God—but as a transcendent experience, love is the most powerful force in the universe—a natural consequence of experiencing the truth of our beauty.

Don’t fear love. It’s who and what we are.

Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness…the energies of love and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.                                                             –Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

2.3 Transcension—A MultiValent Reformatting

My visionary experiences gave me hope that if we can transcend our atomistic, mechanistic sense of self in a fashion where there is an interpenetration of self and other, self and world, mind and matter, we might then be able to tap into the immense energy of the generative order, reversing entropic decay and healing the planet.

So if space/time is not an isolated system, and if there is reason to believe mind/matter interaction is real, and if there is more energy in one cubic centimeter of empty space than in all the physical universe, then an influx of tremendous energy could reverse entropic decay (as entropic decay is energy loss) thereby healing the planet. As I try to imagine this it looks like the world, time wise, would be running in reverse as, according to Hawking, time is entropic decay. If time runs in reverse, would this would alter and realign our experiences and memories along an entirely different axis (timeline)? Bohm never speculated exactly how this would play out, but if this sounds more like science fiction than science, do you think a butterfly remembers the chrysalis, or of slithering along on the ground as a caterpillar? Is it any more outlandish than than the seriously considered many worlds hypothesis?

The phrase I’ve coined for this sort of transformation is multivalent reformatting, which would be like pushing a reset button where time rewinds to a point before we reached a tipping point of irreversible damage. I’m using valence as it’s used in psychology to refer to the intrinsic attractiveness (positive valence) or averseness (negative valence) of an object. My discussion of the drala principle gives a clear picture of the sort of transformation to which I am referring. If this sort of energy was tapped, some would be drawn to it, and some would be repulsed by it. As Trungpa said, for some love, peace and understanding feel like a hostile takeover (see the current state of American politics for verification). If you embrace this new dispensation of energy, you move on to a higher dimension. If you reject it, you experience the natural consequences of refusing to grow—in its own right a valuable learning experience. I sense a fundamental aspect of the programming of the universe (the game) is it that it persuades rather than coerces. This is why it builds a certain degree of malleability into timelines. While the game doesn’t force anyone to grow, it also will allow those who want to grow that opportunity by splitting timelines.

Reformatting refers to this reset but also to a widening of the spectrum that is the universe in a fashion that broadens, deepens and intensifies experience while increasing functionality. David Bohm felt as few as ten to a hundred humans properly aligned could act as something like “imaginal cells,” triggering such a transformation (an imaginal cell refers to those cells in a caterpillar that carry maps for all four stages of its transformation).

I’d suggest our sense of the feasibility for such a transformation, or lack thereof, might be rooted in our sense of agency–are we ego? a molecular machine? Am “I” being done by the universe, or is the universe being done by “me”? Do we suppose some absolute demarcation between minds, or between mind and matter?

                                                    Multiplicity is only apparent.                                                                                              In truth there is only one mind.                                                                          –Erwin Schrodinger

I use the philosophies of Peirce and Bohm to make a scientific and rational argument as to why  the “agent” capable of enacting such a transformation is nothing human, but a Universal Experient (UE)–that such power does not lie in a human or, strictly speaking, a group of humans, but in the universe itself with which the human (or group of humans) is continuous.

Iona Miller coined her own term for this process–the Creative Consciousness Process (CCP). She referred to analogies like Bohm’s implicate and explicate orders as metaphors we “see” by, “how we know what we know.”  A fundamental state-of-the-art understanding of the nature of physical reality is a useful foundation for consciousness exploratio (as Charles Tart suggested).  CCP is not only an empirical orientation of “mind observing matter,” but also a phenomenology of “mind observing mind,” and sometimes “mind observing spirit.” Of course it is understood that “observation” is participatory and transformative. When the images unfold and change, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors are modified.

“We” can recycle consciousness by feeding it back into itself, viewing itself from a panoply of infinite relative perspectives. Such experiences as “mind-as-inert-matter,” and “mind inside nature” may emerge.  There are infinite possibilities for explicating implicate consciousness as images.

Theory is a “way of seeing.”  Without the matrix of theory, data flies by incomprehensibly.  Unnoticed for its deeper significance, it becomes essentially invisible.  Bohm refers to meaningful symptoms as “somasignificance” and “signasomatic” to describe the patterns of flow between that aspect of the world that is more material and that which is more mind-like.

All the potential information about the universe is holograhically encoded in the spectrum of frequency patterns that constantly bombard us.  Through destructuring in meditation, one quiets the brain, becoming sympathetically in tune with (entrained to) the universal frequency pattern (the ego steps aside, letting the n-dimensional realm flow through). When this occurs, the encoded information about the universe becomes holographically decoded, and the individual experiences a state of unitive consciousness with the entire universe.

As a new order emerges creatively from the ground of infinite potential, it is literally “displayed” or unfolded, made manifest. That explicate display now instantly conveys information in the implicate imagination, and that explicate image now becomes an immediate guide to activity, its dynamic display now a feedback system which recycles and repatterns the whole system.

Mystics are more attuned to the inner creative dimensions of consciousness deeper within the implicate order. Bohm notices that, “every thought forms a display of what I call the imaginal world, in terms of the feeling, image, idea, and excitement, associated with thought.”  He also has said that, “when the content of thought is totality, it is carrying out a dance:  making a display which is fundamentally its own deep inner nature, the whole of itself. In that process it becomes totally involved, and therefore it becomes in a way a work of art which is displaying its inner principle rather than anything superficial.”

Bohm suggests that we transform as eternity unfolds in us, but that eternity may also transform, as it returns to itself enriched by our participation. He contends the nonmanifest frequency realm is n-dimensional and atemporal—inconceivable to 3-D thought. He asserts that only when the individual has dissolved their 3-dimensional self consisting of gross matter, can the ground of our being flow through us unobstructedly. He extends this notion to psychology, urging us to dissolve the “thinker” as the highest priority the seeker for truth can undertake. He advocates a kind of “psychological atom smashing” in which the illusory ego clusters are dissolved.

Knowledge consists, in this theory, of the process of tuning in on the manifestation (phenomenon) of the nonmanifest in order it make it accessible, through a state of consciousness which lies outside the barriers of the finite senses. Bohm maintains that this capacity exists in the universe, not in us strictly speaking. However, “the challenge for the individual locus of consciousness is to provide the condition that allows the universal force to flow through it without hindrance. The result is not knowledge in the Kantian sense, but direct nondualistic awareness.”

Its precondition is emptiness, as Bohm repeatedly insists, which entails a suspension of 3-dimensional space-time. Such emptiness brings about the cessation of consciousness as the knower and transforms us into an instrument receptively allowing the noumenal intelligence to operate through us, irradiating our daily lives and those of others.

This is my version of a transcension event rooted in the realization of our continuity with a generative order that is intelligence itself, leading to transformation of 3-D space into an (imaginal) “inner” space where more intellectually and aesthetically profound and efficient orders of space, time, energy and matter are realized (transcension usually refers to AI and the singularity, but my feeling is AI will remain an “artificial” intelligence).

Below is an excerpt from an interview with David Bohm, conducted by F. David Peat and John Briggs where he speaks of the possibility of this type of transformation.  It was originally published in Omni, January 1987.

Omni: If scientists could accept your theory, would it change the meaning of nature for them? Would it change the meaning of science in general?

Bohm: We have become a scientific society. This society has produced all sorts of discoveries and technology, but if it leads to destruction, either through war or through devastation of natural resources, then it will have been the least successful society that ever existed. We are now in danger of that.

Where we are going depends on the programs of four thousand five hundred million people, all somewhat different, most of them opposed to one another. Every moment these programs are changing in detail. Who can say where they are going to lead us? All we can do is start a movement among those few people who are interested in changing the meaning.

Omni: You’ve suggested that it may be possible to develop “group minds.” Could they serve as a potential avenue for this change of meaning?

Bohm: They could: If we don’t establish these absolute boundaries between minds, then I think it’s possible they could in some way unite as one mind. If there were a genuine understanding of and feeling for wholeness in this group mind, it might be enough to change things–though as the  external circumstances gain momentum it becomes harder. This is important, especially if there is a catastrophe, so that the notion of group minds might remain in the consciousness of survivors.

Omni: All that seems to imply a radical change in the concept of being human.

Bohm: Yes. The notion of permanent identity would go by the wayside. This would be terrifying at first. The present mind, identified as it is with the personality, would react to protect the sense of personal “self” against that terror.

Omni: That seems to fit in well with your thoughts about death.

Bohm: Death must be connected with questions of time and identity. When you die, everything on which your identity depends is going. All things in your memory will go. Your whole definition of what you are will go. The whole sense of being separate from anything will go because that’s part of your identity. Your whole sense of time must go. Is there anything that will exist beyond death? That is the question everybody has always asked. It doesn’t make sense to say something goes on in time. Rather I would say everything sinks into the implicate order, where there is no time. But suppose we say that right now, when I’m alive, the same thing is happening. The implicate order is unfolding to be me again and again each moment. And the past me is gone.

Omni: The past you, then, has been snatched back into the implicate order.

Bohm: That’s right…

Below is an excerpt from an article, The Enfolding—Unfolding Universe; an interview by Renee Weber with David Bohm, ReVison Magazine

Bohm: …we could say that in some sense the individual has direct access to the cosmic totality. And therefore it is through the individual that the general consciousness has to get cleared up, to get started clearing up.

Weber: But only in a sense of his own corner of it?

Bohm: No, it’s not his own corner of it, because he, the individual goes beyond. The individual is an actuality which includes this manifestation of the consciousness of mankind, but he is more. Each individual is in total contact with the implicate order, with all that is around us. Therefore, in some sense he is part of the whole of mankind and in another sense he can get beyond it.

Weber: He’s focus for the universal.

Bohm: He is a focus for something beyond mankind

Weber: And yet the paradox that troubles me is this: you would think if the nonmanifest collective is the source of the root of the conflict—then if a saint, let’s say, a saintly human being achieves integrity—then the whole thing ought to be, as you said, unpolluted. But that isn’t so. Now why isn’t it so?

Bohm: Well, I think it takes a higher degree of energy. You see, it’s something like the transformation of the atom. In the early days they transformed a few atoms, we could call that the transformation in germ—the transformation of the atom, you know, and then it spread like a flame and became…a power and a chain reaction. The individual who sees this [principle about inner energy and intelligence] may be like one who has discovered the transformation of the atom. In principle he has already transformed mankind, but it has not yet come about, right?

Weber: That’s a difficult thing to understand. Could you say something about that?

Bohm: You see, it takes a still higher energy to reach the whole of the consciousness of mankind. But he has reached the principle of the consciousness of mankind, right?

Weber: But in actuality, not just in theory.

Bohm: In actuality. But still he hasn’t quite the energy to reach the whole, to put it all on fire, as it were. It’s a bit damp.

Weber: Why?

Bohm: It’s soggy. Because of the pollution of the ages.

Weber: Your’re saying he’s outweighed.

Bohm: He’s outweighed by this massive pollution that has gone on over the ages. But this pollution can be burned up. It has burned up for that individual. The point is, we need a still more intense energy that that individual can give. Now where will that come from? What I propose is that it is possible now for a number of individuals who are in close relation and who have gone through this and trust each other to establish a one-mind of the whole set of individuals. In other words, that that consciousness is one, acting as one. If you had as many as ten people, or a hundred people, who could really be that way, they would have a power immensely beyond one.

Weber: Because it’s not mathematically additive.

Bohm: No

Weber: It’s some other heightening altogether.

Bohm: An intense heightening, yes. And I think that that would begin to ignite, really, this whole consciousness of mankind. It would have such an effect…

Weber: Is this something like sympathetic resonance

Bohm: …It’s far beyond anything which we know. I am merely saying that taking this view, consciousness, deep down, is one, the whole of mankind. But then any part of mankind may establish a one-ness within that part of consciousness. And if ten people can have their part of consciousness all one, that is an energy which begins to spread into the whole.

Weber: And changes it; it’s bound to change some of it.

Bohm: Yes. Some of it—or perhaps deeply…Individual salvation actually has very little meaning, because, as I have pointed out, the consciousness of mankind is one and not truly divisible. Each person has a kind of responsibility not however, in the sense of…guilt. But in the sense that there’s nothing else to do, really, you see. That there is no other way out. This is absolutely what has to be done and nothing else can work….this view may be all wrong but if what I said is right then there is nothing else possible but that.

If we return to the analogy of the caterpillar and butterfly, then for this analogy to hold we’d need to accept the idea it is rational to question the construct of absolute barriers between minds–that it is rational to unite as “group minds.” Then we have to grasp what Bohm means when he speaks of the thinker stepping aside and becoming entrained by the universal frequency pattern of the implicate (and superimplicate) generative orders.  In such a scenario the explicate order of space/time becomes a type of cocoon where the thinker steps aside, allowing eternity (the n-dimensional realm) to unfold within it. Just as in in a chrysalis where the caterpillar literally melts down under the aegis of the imaginal cells, our sense of being a separate self will go as everything sinks into the implicate order.  Memory will be expanded and reconfigured. Our whole definition of what we are will transform. But this is not some hive mind where individuality is erased–individuality is transcended but included—and eternity is also transformed as it returns to itself, enriched by our participation. As experience self as emptiness, it turns us into its instrument, allowing the noumenal intelligence to operate through us.

I definitely believe this can happen, whether it will is another question. While fully invested in finding a way forward, I also feel at peace with what ever happens—another lesson from my visionary experiences. We confuse caring with worry and fear, as if they are identical. But the sort of action I’m talking about can’t come from a fragmented, frightened ego. To reach into the vastness of Being one must be aligned with that vastness of Being. A bunch of chicken littles rushing about in a panic won’t cut it.

The elephant in the room at the moment is what seems the inevitable crash demise of human civilization, with casualties of (probably) close to 7 billion human beings. Using a modified Kubler-Ross model, I sense most of us are currently in the one of the first three stages: shock, denial or anger.  It’s crucial any possible solution, like the one I’m discussing, isn’t adopted as a form of denial, as that would ground us in fear, which is inimical to the nature of the UE we need to align with. We need to allow ourselves to go through the next stages of bargaining and depression in order to get to testing (seeking realistic solutions). Then, if there are none, we move on to acceptance.

But we need to look carefully at what acceptance looks like. Psychedelics have proved an effective end of life palliative because they help us overcome our sense of being a skinbound ego isolated from a totality that transcends polarities like self/world and life/death. Even as we individual humans are a miniscule speck in a cosmos 17 billion light years wide, that cosmos is a bare shimmer on the surface of the immensity of the implicate order—which brings to mind a line from an ee cummings poem–Life us much too busy being everything, to be anything, catastrophic included.   

To describe is to construct. To acknowledge openly and to describe authoritatively some aspect of the real is to make possible a psychological existence of the same. To describe-construct is to describe-select. It is as if our intellectual and social practices “switch on” a set of latent universal human potentials…We are wizards endowed with unbelievable powers to shape new worlds of experience and realize different aspects of the real.                                                                                                                                               -Jeffrey Kripal

Dream Town

This groggy time we live/this is what it’s like/A man goes to sleep in a town where he has always lived and dreams of living in another town/In the dream he doesn’t remember the town he’s sleeping in his bed in. He believes the reality of the dream town/The world is that kind of sleep. The dust of many crumbled cities settles over us like a forgetful doze/but we are older than those cities.

We emerged as a mineral, into plant life/then into the animal state, and then into being human/ and always we have forgotten our former states/Humankind is being led along an evolving course through this migration of intelligences/and though we seem to be sleeping/there is an inner wakefulness that directs the dream/and that will eventually startle us back to the truth of who we are. –Rumi

Chapter 3    The Grapes of Wrath

3.0 Grapes of Wrath

The deconstructive reverse does not result in the silence of language, but rather in the realization that the dynamic tension in the becoming of language is itself the whole. For Derrida, all of this cannot be understood as abstract theorizing. The language we are deconstructing is our own thinking and speaking—our own consciousness. We ourselves are the text we are deconstructing. That is why, for Derrida, there is no outside text. Deconstruction is the process of becoming self-aware, of self-realization.                                  Derrida and Indian Philosophy, Harold Coward

the French critic Roland Barthes pointed out that each text is a tissue of quotations; not a line of words releasing the single ‘theological’ meaning of an author-god, but a multidimensional space where a variety of writings blend and clash. Today Jacques Derrida argues that the meaning of such a multidimensional space can never be completely fulfilled, for the continual circulation of signifiers denies meaning any fixed foundation or conclusion. Hence texts never attain self-presence, and that includes the text that constitutes me.

What would happen if these claims about textuality were extrapolated into claims about the whole universe?…                                                                                               –-Indra’s Postmodern Net, David Loy

One afternoon in a Shakespeare class I commented on how easy it is to confuse the ability to identify and articulate profound themes in literary texts with genuine wisdom, that the real trick is to understand we live in the shadows of the great themes. The professor then remarked, Do you mean that we live inside texts?—Yes, I replied, exactly! It seemed to me that there was no more profound mistake than to conflate glibness and wisdom. One of the students later asked me if I was familiar with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida and his comment there is no outside text. I had never heard of him, but once I became familiar with his ideas it was clear that no one I had ever heard of was at once so close and so far from my own philosophy. What I mean by saying, We live inside texts—be they literary or existential—both mirrors and differs from what Derrida means when he says, there is no outside text.

When I went from being a student to being a teacher, I asked myself, What does it mean to learn?

This chapter began as an assignment for a Cognitive Psychology class.  That assignment was to get a unit lesson plan from a teacher, observe the classroom instruction, interview two students to assess the degree to which the teacher was successful in realizing those objectives and goals, then write up an evaluation. If we look at objective 2.9 in the teacher’s lesson plan (Students will be able to analyze the nature of prejudice portrayed, its basis and development), and goals 1.3 (Students will understand/ appreciate the universals shared by all people, cutting across cultural specifics—basic needs, dreams for a “better life.”) and 1.5 (Students will understand the nature of change—social, political, cultural—and will recognize the elements that have potential to be catalysts for change.), they presume access internalism—a reflective awareness granting access to facts that constitute beliefs. They presume beliefs are properties of a conscious agent, not vice-versa. I would suggest that such assumptions are universal in the humanities.

Textbook science, on the other hand, is rooted in materialism—a form of philosophical monism which holds matter to be the fundamental substance in nature, and that all things, including mental aspects and consciousness, are results of material interactions. The humanities, conversely, presumes some form of idealism. 

In materialism the locus of control for “self” is extrinsic, as the sort of intrinsic volition needed for anything like free will, real learning or ethics is absent—self being a “ghost in the machine.” In the majority of industrialized countries, secondary schools offer four years of language arts (reading and composition) and four years of math and science. What goes under the radar is that these two halves of the secondary curriculum fundamentally contradict one another. If materialistic textbook science is correct, access internalism is false, making goals that presume reflective awareness impossible to realize.

While most of this book is a critique of materialism and determinism, the devil is in the details.

Materialism presumes determinism, and hard determinists believe people are like highly complex clocks, in that they are both molecular machines. Hard determinism (or metaphysical determinism) is a view on free will which holds that determinism is true, and that it is incompatible with free will, and, therefore, free will does not exist. This, to my mind, over simplifies a complex issue—as does our commonsense idea of self and free will. I’ll come back to this topic after I share the writeup of my classroom experience but, for now, I’ll offer a brief introduction to a related topic—human agency. As it is used in psychology, sociology, and philosophy, agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices. Agency is contrasted to objects reacting to natural forces involving only unthinking, deterministic processes. Conversely, it is also subtly distinct from the concept of free will, the philosophical doctrine that our choices are not the product of causal chains, but are significantly free or undetermined. Human agency makes the claim that humans do make decisions and enact them on the world. How humans come to make decisions, by free choice or other processes, is another issue. The how here is a complex and subtle topic I tackle in the chapters on the philosophy of logician Charles Sanders Peirce.

My vision of a language arts curriculoum is somewhat parallel to the critical pedagogy as defined by educator Ira Schor:

Habits of thought, reading, writing, and speaking which go beneath surface meaning, first impressions, dominant myths, official pronouncements, traditional cliches, received wisdom, and mere opinions, to understand the deep meaning, root causes, social context, ideology, and personal consequences of any action, event, object, process, organization, experience, text, subject matter, policy, mass media, or discourse. (Empowering Education, 129)

In my discussion of the drala principle I offered my idea of the nature of the dominant myths, traditional cliches and received wisdom we need to “go beneath” if we are to understand and deal with the root causes and meaning of the growing catastrophe unfolding all around us.

3.1 The Lesson Plan

I observed a twelfth-grade Language Arts class for my senior learning project in cognitive psychology. I had been in this class every day for six weeks, but would use only two lessons, one on a Monday, the other on a Wednesday, for the purpose of the learning project. I was to get a lesson plan from the teacher, then interview two students in order to assess whether their learning matched the stated goals and objectives of the lesson plan (they have been included as an addendum—the reader should be familiar with them before reading the classroom discussion below). I also interviewed the teacher to get a sense of her critical interpretation of the novel. The Monday lesson I observed was the beginning of the last week of the unit, and the unit test was to be given that Friday. On Monday the students finished watching the movie version of the novel. On Wednesday the teacher, Carlene, began a review for the test. There was little to report about Monday. The students watched the movie and left. There was no class discussion. On Wednesday, the teacher handed out her list of outcomes and objectives and began her review.

3.1.1 Class Discussion

Wednesday’s Class

Carlene began by asking students to identify instances of biblical symbolism in the novel.

Students: (no response)

Teacher: What about the names folks?!

S: Oh, Jim Casey…J.C.

T: Right, J.C.—Jesus Christ. Number of people on trip was…how many?

S: Twelve…the twelve apostles…

T: (nods approval) Casey’s wandering mirrors Christ’s wanderings in the desert. Like Christ, Casey comes to conclusions that don’t sit well with traditional religion (she quotes a passage of Casey’s) “You don’t know what you’re doen. You’re starven kids.” And this mirrors Christ’s words “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.” Casey is Christ to Tom’s Paul. Tom takes up Casey’s mission as Paul takes up Christ’s. What about the flood in the squatter’s camp?

S: (no response)

T: Come on folks!

S: Oh! (going through notes) John places the dead fetus in the water, just as Moses is placed in the water in Exodus, Chapter Two.

T: (reading from the text) “We couldn’t tell ‘em, you tell ‘em, so people will know what’s happening because of their greed and oppression.”

There’s a part of the book that wasn’t in the movie. Probably even today if they made a movie out of it they couldn’t film it; the part where Ma and Rosa Sharon are in the cave. What did they do? This caused many school districts to ban the book as too “mature” for high school students. What does Ma ask Rosa Sharon to do?

S: (silence)

T: She asks her to breast feed the starving man, right? Some people see this as symbolic of the milk of human kindness, but Steinbeck was very earthy. “She has this funny smile on her face, a smile of pleasure.” His description of her face is hard to reconcile with a purely symbolic meaning.

What about the turtle?

S: Symbolizes the Joad family.

T: It reflects the Joad’s plight. The turtle plants seeds on barren land. The barriers represent barriers of the spirit. Describe the setting of the novel.

S: (silence)

T: Come on folks!

S: (going through notes) Sets a mood. When it’s used symbolically, it’s used to communicate ideas. Creates character…creates atmosphere…communicates ideas.

T: Right! Describe the Joad family unit.

S: (silence)

T: Compare it to your family.

S: (silence)

T: How many of you live in a family where the mother is head of the family? (some hands are raised) The Joad family starts off as patriarchal, then becomes matriarchal. Ma, and later with the maturity of Rosa Sharon…

In analyzing the teaching and learning I observed the first thing that struck me as significant is Carlene’s tie to and opinion about the book. She told me she felt The Grapes of Wrath and Moby Dick were the two great American novels. She also shared that her parents went through the Dust Bowl experience. Two questions then occurred to me—to what extent did her personal ties to the Joad family influence her critical opinion of the book? and does the fact that she holds the book in high regard affect the way she teaches it? Because I disagreed with Carlene as to the status of the novel I read critical commentary and found opinion seemed divided as to whether The Grapes of Wrath was a great novel. In an article from Critical Essays on The Grapes of Wrath,

Art Kuhl states…

I think The Grapes of Wrath isn’t even a truly great novel…it is not a case of Steinbeck’s having lost completely his power of realizing a character…But something happens to Steinbeck’s characters as the novel wears on…the first chapters…have admirable characters…But as the novel wears on, these men…disappear and…everyone begins to be a part of a chorus that is singing Steinbeck’s message. Characterization goes by the board.

A counter opinion is issued in a chronicle of reviews edited by Roy Simmonds in the same collection of essays….

The Joads are certainly not the puppets of a theory…they are not mere personifications of…qualities. They are individual men and women.

The class discussion I related is representative of class discussion I observed over a six week period, and there seem to be a couple of things missing. First, the sort of issues literary critics debate are never discussed, such as; “Is The Grapes of Wrath a great novel and, if so, why?”

Carlene seemed to have predigested the text in order to feed it to her students, which meant there was no need for students to engage in critical debate. This sort of learning is teacher rather than student centered. It represents the reading of fiction and learning itself as a process of being handed “received” knowledge from on high. Where is the discovery? the vital engagement? After observing this unit and reading Carlene’s list of outcomes and objectives, I wanted to add one—“Students will be encouraged to make their own critical evaluation of the novel.” The second crucial missing element was some sense of Carlene’s answer to the question “What is the purpose or primary goal of literary criticism?” This question is different and more basic than the question “What is the primary goal of reading The Grapes of Wrath.” The question is so basic it is easy to overlook, yet until a teacher has an answer to this question the pedagogical ship is at sea without a rudder.

In an article titled New courses in the linguistics of writing Durant and Fabb suggest two basic opposing views on the function of literary criticism; the “familiarization” or “touchstones” argument, and the “defamiliarization” argument. The authors claim the first argument…

Familiarization serves the classical-humanist purpose of supporting forms of cultural hegemony…In this paradigm, the form of “literacy” which results…often comes to mean simply being well-versed in an acknowledged canon of works, rather than having skills which makes possible informed and independent choices about what we wish to read and value.

The second approach views the study of literature as not simply a way of learning about a culture, but also as a tool for examining one. Defamiliarization means finding out things about the world by investigating the established forms, but also the limits of the way things are represented.

Carlene’s opinion about the status of the novel makes it clear she views The Grapes of Wrath as just such a canon. And given the limitations of the class discussion and her list of outcomes and objectives, it seems fair to question whether she feels the function of literary criticism should include “investigating of established forms.” But even if she had included “investigating the established forms” as a critical goal, the established form we are investigating is “culture,” and we need to ask what we mean by “culture.” Specifically, is culture (or world) something “out there” or “in here?” Can self dissect culture as if it were somehow outside it? And if a text is a canon of a culture, can it be dissected as if the reader were outside the text? This seems a crucial aspect of investigating “the limits of the way things are.”

Unlike an essay, for which explicitness is a cardinal virtue, ideas in a novel need to be implicit and connotative rather than descriptive and denotative. In this sense the issue of interpretation of a novel presents more of a challenge than interpretation of an essay. Faced with this complexity and subtlety the teacher may make the mistake of trying to make what is implicit explicit by predigesting the novel, turning it into an essay—“A Critical essay on The Grapes of Wrath by Carlene.” This approach can translate into a nice looking lesson plan (Students will demonstrate knowledge of…setting, mood…). The teacher knows exactly what the students “should” know about the novel. If the student takes good notes, he or she knows exactly what he or she is supposed to know to get a good grade. The problem with this approach is that it sidesteps real critical analysis and misinterprets the nature of real learning.

When preparing a lesson plan if our primary goal is a narrowly circumscribed clarity such that students or administrators or parents will always immediately grasp what we are trying to do, we may have lesson plans with clear, predetermined outcomes, but is this real education, real learning?

3.1.2 Student Interviews

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.                                            –Kierkegaard

Who Do We Shoot?

Interviewer: What was the lesson about?

Lisa: (Steinbeck’s) use of character. I felt she saw Ma as the main character. She saw Ma as having an overview…I guess that’s why. I felt Tom was the main character. Most of the direction came from him. He gave direction to Al and to Kathy. Tom knew where he was going and what he was doing…Natural forces and the flood (trying to remember more from the lesson)…

Don’t remember much about that.

I: What was your impression of the book?

L: Had depth, but the book’s given too much credit. Not a lot of representative things…

I: What do you mean by “not a lot of representative things”?

L: The book talks a lot about things directly, doesn’t show…

I: You mean the book talks about a lot of things directly, like issues, rather than showing you by representing them?

L: Yes, exactly.

What struck me about Lisa’s response was that in the time I spent observing this class, I’d never heard a student express a strong opinion about anything under discussion. I watched students react to parts of the novel and the movie, but this was done in a code of grimaces, knowing smirks and whispered asides. When a student did engage in a discussion it was only to ask for the teacher’s clarification of some part of the story. The class was not a forum for real critical discussion, but a place where the teacher imparts critical concepts and themes. The second thing that struck me was how close Lisa’s critical response was to Art Kuhl’s criticism of the novel. Despite the lack of emphasis on independent, critical thought, Lisa engaged in it.

I wanted to know more about Lisa’s real feelings about the book and its characters, so I asked her to respond to what I felt was a provocative scene from the book. In this scene a banker drives to a farm to deliver an eviction notice. As he gets out of his car to deliver the notice he is greeted by a farmer with a leveled shotgun.

Banker: Don’t shoot me! I’m just delivering the notice!

Farmer: Who do we shoot?

Banker: I don’t know. If I did I’d tell you. I don’t know who is to blame.

Lisa: Shoot yourself! (laughs) I don’t know. I’d be gentle. The farmer’s lack of education surprised me. They seemed to lack financial resources. My father always told me to save your money, try to have at least $6,000. I come from a family that is always well prepared. It’s hard for me to feel sorry for them, but I do.

This last statement shed light on a response to an earlier question.

Interviewer: What was hard about reading the novel?

Lisa: The people seemed very stupid to me in the beginning…had a hard time overcoming prejudice…

A look at Carlene’s stated goals 1.3 (students will understand/appreciate the universals shared by all people, cutting across cultural specifics—basic needs, dreams for a “better life) & 1.7 (Students will understand the contributing factors to and the experience of social and individual displacement) in light of Lisa’ response, it seems clear these outcomes cannot be achieved if students do not examine their underlying interpretive schemes. Like most suburban high school students, Lisa had little experience with the real world beyond late twentieth century suburban America, and no experience or insight into early twentieth century rural America. Simply putting a book under her nose with nothing but an interpretive scheme skewed by a teacher’s unexamined opinions is a good way to eviscerate just about any text. Reasoning backward from her seemingly secure life and unquestioning acceptance of her father’s philosophy that security can be purchased by anyone clever enough to secure their education and thrifty enough to have $6,000 in the bank, she feels sorry for folks who lack this ambition and thrift but, darn it all, it’s really their own fault, isn’t it?

Interestingly enough, the second student I interviewed responded to this same passage in a way that was an almost perfect counterpoint to Lisa’s.

Interviewer: What was the lesson about?

Phil: Today’s class, let’s see. Biblical references, setting as symbol, the flood, his use of character…she really hadn’t gone to the list (of outcomes and objectives)…I could add a lot.

I: Like what?

P: I don’t know, things I noticed. I’d have to think. Biblical references, Moses, sheep, people of character…you will treat people with kindness.

When recalling the lesson, Phil seems to recall general categories of objectives. When he does recall details they seem like flotsam and jetsam, vague renderings of his sense of Steinbeck’s “message”—“You will treat people with kindness!” Phil’s comment that “he could add a lot” seems to indicate he felt he never got the chance to contribute to critical discussion of the novel.

Interviewer: What scene or character sticks out?

Phil: Things strike me, but subconsciously…didn’t identify with a character…

Thought about where they were coming from. I guess I related to Casey and Ma. Casey was very conscious, that’s the most important thing (for Phil about Casey). With Ma I think about having her family uprooted, moving to a strange place. I was born in Buenos Aires. Moved here a few years ago. Spoke English, but felt like an outsider.

Unlike Lisa, Phil does know something about the world outside suburban America. Unlike Lisa, Phil knows what it is like to be uprooted, to be an outsider. Again, as with Carlene and Lisa, we are getting a peek at the experiences behind the schemata that drive interpretation of the text. When I asked Phil to respond to the “Who do I shoot?” passage, his response was very different.

Phil: Banker is being simplistic…banks must eat profits or die…maybe they should die.

This seems an interesting and complex response. The image of banks needing to eat profits or die comes from the novel. Citing this indicates an attempt to grapple with some of the real complexity of the novel. But then he pulls back from this confusing complexity and decides “Maybe they should die.” This little dance is a distillation of the reader’s dilemma. Confronted with characters and dramatic situations the reader must decide “How do I feel about these people?” The reader’s response will be shaped by his or her experience and background. Any novel of reasonable complexity will set up conflicts that transcend simple strong/weak, smart/dumb, victim/exploiter stereotypes. Whether the reader is able to engage the issues in a complex fashion will depend on the reader’s ability to fathom his or her own reactions to the novel.

This sort of cognitive dissonance represents a potential barrier to engagement with any novel that presents difficult and complex conflicts. Faced with such a conflict Phil tries to accommodate “banks must eat profits or die” and “you will treat people with kindness.” Rather than staking out a more complex and painful middle path between these two poles he, after a moments vacillation, retreats to the safe and familiar.

The functional parallel for (the obstruction of the real) is, for Derrida, the privileging of one of the opposites of language over the other, and thereby destroying the dynamic tension between the opposites. The tension between opposites is, for Derrida, the hallmark of the real. –-Derrida and Indian Philosophy, Harold Coward


If we are to grow, to come into fresh ways of being in the world, we must excavate until we come upon the origins of our notions of self and the world; learning is unlearning—and unlearning requires neuroplasticity. Only by following back our interpretive schemes through the labyrinth of psyche and world can we begin to tap the vital possibilities of education, of living. As teachers we can get stuck in old, comfortable patterns of knowing about the nature of self, world and learning. We can spend a lifetime in the classroom without ever trying to articulate an answer to the question What does it mean to learn?

Interpretation is not a reproductive procedure by which fixed cognitive meaning is extracted from the text. Rather it is the production of an understanding that arises from the excess of meaning found in the text—an excess because it can never be encapsulated in words in such a way that all of its meaning is exhausted. –-Derrida and Indian Philosophy, Harold Coward

For Lisa, Phil and Carlene The Grapes of Wrath represented an opportunity for real growth, for greater self-realization. This opportunity seemed largely wasted because the text was treated as if it had a fixed cognitive meaning, and because the teacher acted as if she alone was privy to this meaning. More importantly, there was a failure to understand learning as a deconstruction of consciousness.

If education is to become vital it must help us understand that real learning involves more than abstract theorizing, it must help us see that literary themes constitute the actual fabric of a real self. Until we bridge this gap between mind and heart, facile insight and true developmental growth, thought and deed, education will remain little more than a superficial exercise by which we, at best, engage in glib discussions of themes such as “prejudice,” “social and individual displacement,” and “universals shared by all people.”

Floyd Merrell, in his book Deconstruction Reframed, makes what seems to me a crucial distinction between the philosophy of Derrida and physicist David Bohm:

Even though the mode of being of each thing can be defined only relative to other things, we are not led to the point of view of ‘complete relativity.’ For such a point of view implies that there is no objective content to our knowledge at all, either because it is supposed to be defined entirely relative to the observer, or to the general point of view and special conditions of each individual, or to special preconceptions and modes…of thinking that may exist in a particular society in a particular epoch of time. In our point of view, we admit that all of the above things actually color and influence our knowledge; but we admit also that nevertheless there still exists an absolute, unique, and objective reality.

Derrida, on the other hand, appears to reject all pretensions of objectivity…there are no distinctions at all, just play of…presence and absence…This certainly appears indicative of the type of ‘complete relativity’ Bohm rejects…In short, Bohm’s relativity is positive, Derrida’s negative…                                                                                                                                                                 –Deconstruction Reframed, Floyd Merrell

It’s unclear to me how, without a positive ground, Derrida’s deconstructive process could constitute an ethical soteriology as is sometimes claimed.

Norris…makes a good case to show that Derrida’s thought does not end up in playful nihilism, as is frequently assumed, but rather has a strong ethical dimension. Derrida and Indian Philosophy, p. 19, Harold Coward

He (Derrida) belongs to a school of modern philosophy that…includes such diverse names as Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Quine and Sellars–all of whom, despite their diversity, are united in their criticism of the idea that knowledge can have a firm foundation in anything. Not in sense data, nor intuition nor divine revelation.                                                                                                                        —London Review of Books, E.D. Hirsch, Vol 5 NO. 13

When the deconstructive project goes too far, I’d suggest it is because it fails to distinguish between perspectivism and constructivism (Philosophical Writings Vol 40 No. 1, Ian James Kidd, 2013)…

The distinction between constructivism and perspectivism hinges on the compatibility of scientific realism with the ‘human dimension’ of science. A social constructionist maintains that knowledge is generated entirely through the social and material particularities of human epistemic activity; in the case of the sciences, these include experimental arrangements and the sociological structures of research communities. Some radical social constructionists argued that scientific entities—like elementary particles—only exist insofar as they are generated by our social and material practices; on this account, the world itself plays little to no substantial role in determining the ontological commitments of scientific practices…A constructionist is committed to the metaphysical thesis that the world imposes no strict constraints upon the range of efficacious epistemic activities that human beings can engage in; one can ‘construct’ any sort of world one likes. Constructivism is therefore allied with scientific antirealism…Perspectivism, by contrast, is not committed to any form of anti-realism. Indeed, one great virtue of perspectivist theories is that they reconcile robust forms of realism with the active role of human agency. Our perspectives are indeed constituted by material, social, and intellectual conditions which are contingent upon human agency, but they are nonetheless perspectives upon an objective reality which has some mind-independent structure and properties.

That there is an objective reality with mind-independent structure and properties seems (to me) self-evident. That, at any one moment in time, our ideas or beliefs about the nature of that reality may be proven false is not proof there is no objective reality. It is proof that, in Peirce’s words, truth is (an indefinitely) future conditional.

In this light, as we go forward we’ll explore the possibility of a positive ground or foundation for moral and intellectual truth. We’ll ask in what kind of frame a deconstruction of consciousness might lead to ethical action—as this, it seems, is the “great theme” of Judaism, Christianity, and The Grapes of Wrath. This will entail asking whether concepts such as text, self and world are segreagable, mechanistic elements in external relationship, or aspects of a single continuum. Is textbook science adequate for addressing such questions, or might this require some combination of science and religion? The word education is derived from the Latin root educere meaning to lead out—as in giving birth…

Most people fancy a guaranteed birthproof safetysuit…(but)…we can never be born enough. We are human beings; for whom birth is a supremely welcome mystery, the mystery of growing; the mystery which happens only and whenever we are faithful to ourselves.          —e.e.cummings

3.1.3 Goals and Objectives


1.1—Students will understand the unique contributions of the historical novelist as contemporary chronicler and critic.

1.2—Students will understand/appreciate the interdependency of nations of the world—economically and politically.

1.3—Students will understand/appreciate the universals shared by all people, cutting across cultural specifics—basic needs, dreams for a “better life.”

1.4—Students will understand the historical context of the novel.

1.5—Students will understand the nature of change—social, political, cultural—and will recognize the elements that have potential to be catalysts for change.

1.6—Students will understand the varying nature of the family unit and its role in maintaining individual stability.

1.7—Students will understand the contributing factors to and the experience of social and individual displacement.

Objectives 2.1—Students will be able to describe the nature of the Joad family unit—the hierarchy of individual members, the basic values, and the role of each member.

2.2—Students will be able to identify and analyze Steinbeck’s methods of characterization.

2.3—Students will be able to describe the use of setting in the novel.

2.4—Students will be able to identify and explain Biblical and Christian symbolism in the novel.

2.5—Students will be able to identify elements of Jeffersonian agrarianism in the novel.

2.6—Students will be able to describes the elements of Emersonianism in the novel.

2.7—Students will be able to match major speeches with the characters.

2.8—Students will be able to explain the uniqueness of the migrant farmworkers of the 1930’s.

2.9—Students will be able to analyze the nature of prejudice portrayed, its basis and development.

2.10—Students will be able to explain the use of imagery, particularly that surrounding banks..

2.11—Students will be able to explain context for and the nature of Communist Party activities alluded to in the novel.

2.12—Students will be able to use citations from the novel.

3.2 Agency, Schema and Attribution

Most of this section is taken from Wikipedia

It seems to me that appreciating the complex and subtle nature of agency gives us a crucial means of sifting through and evaluating our schemata and consequent attributions. Faced with a text filled with characters from another time and place, students fall back on the familiar—their familial and social schemata—to make sense of the unfamiliar. As these processes are part of what goes on beneath the surface, I’d suggest making it an explicit part of the curriculum.

Exploring great literature in a classroom can be a grand adventure where the reader encounters a multidimensional space within which they discover how their reactions and interpretations blend and clash with others in a manner that affords an opportunity to learn that every reader is naïve in the sense that meaning seems, at first, singular, mono-dimensional. The discussion of schema and attribution that follows spotlights aspects of human agency going on beneath the surface in the classroom. I’d suggest having students research these types of terms as part of learning what it means to deconstruct a text.

3.2.1 Schema

Schema (from then Greek, meaning “figure or shape”) is a pattern of thought or behavior that organizes categories of information and the relationships among them. It is a mental structure of preconceived ideas, a framework representing an aspect of the world, a system of organizing and perceiving information.

Schemata influence attention and absorption of new knowledge. People are more likely to notice things that fit their schemata, reinterpreting contradictions as exceptions, or distorting them to fit their schema. Schemata can help in understanding the world and a rapidly changing environment.

Schemata can also hamper uptake of new information (proactive interference) in learning. Interference occurs when there is an interact between new material and transfer effects of past learned behavior—memories or thoughts that negatively impact comprehension of new material.

3.2.2 Attribution (psychology)

Humans are motivated to assign causes to their actions and behaviors. In social psychology, attribution is the process by which individuals explain the causes of behavior and events. The development of models to explain these processes is called attribution theory. Psychological research into attribution began with the work of Fritz Heider in the early part of the 20th century.

Fritz Heider was a gestalt psychologist. The central principle of gestalt psychology is that the mind forms a global whole with self-organizing tendencies—an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts. As such it contradicts both materialism and mind-body dualism.

In his 1920s dissertation, Heider addressed the problem of the seeming dualism of phenomenology: why do perceivers attribute the properties such as color to perceived objects, when those properties are mental constructs? Heider’s answer was that perceivers attribute that which they “directly” sense—vibrations in the air for instance—to an object they construe as causing those sense data. “Perceivers faced with sensory data thus see the perceptual object as ‘out there,’ because they attribute the sensory data to their underlying causes in the world.” (Malle, Bertram F. (2004). How the Mind Explains Behavior: Folk Explanations, Meaning, and Social Interaction. MIT Press)

Heider extended this idea to attributions about people: “motives, intentions, sentiments…the core processes which manifest themselves in overt behavior.” (Malle, Bertram)

Types of Attribution


External attribution, also called situational attribution, refers to interpreting someone’s behavior as being caused by the situation that the individual is in.


The process of assigning the cause of behavior to some internal characteristic, rather than to outside forces.

3.2.3 Theories and models

In the book The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations (1958), Heider tried to explore the nature of interpersonal relationship, and espoused the concept of what he called “common sense” or “naïve psychology.” In his theory, he believed that people observe, analyze, and explain behaviors with explanations. Although people have different kinds of explanations for the events of human behaviors, Heider found it is very useful to group explanation into two categories; internal (personal) and external (situational) attributions. When an internal attribution is made, the cause of the given behavior is assigned to the individual’s characteristics such as ability, personality, mood, efforts, attitudes, or disposition. When an external attribution is made, the cause of the given behavior is assigned to the situation in which the behavior was seen—such as the task, other people, or luck (that the individual producing the behavior did so because of the surrounding environment or the social situation). These two types lead to very different perceptions of the individual engaging in a behavior.

3.2.4 Bias and errors

While people strive to find reasons for behaviors, they fall into many traps of biases and errors. As Fritz Heider says, “our perceptions of causality are often distorted by our needs and certain cognitive biases.” The following are examples of attributional biases.

Fundamental attribution error

The fundamental attribution error describes the habit to misunderstand dispositional or personality-based explanations for behavior, instead considering external factors. The fundamental attribution error is most visible when people explain and assume the behavior of others. When evaluating others’ behaviors, the situational context is often ignored in favor of the disposition of the actor to be the cause of an observed behavior. This is because when a behavior occurs attention is most often focused on the person performing the behavior. Thus, the individual is more salient than the environment, and dispositional attributions are made more often than situational attributions to explain the behavior of others. However, when evaluating one’s own behavior, the situational factors are often exaggerated when there is a negative outcome, while dispositional factors are exaggerated when there is a positive outcome.

Culture bias

Culture bias is when someone makes an assumption about the behavior of a person based on their cultural practices and beliefs. People in individualist cultures, generally Anglo-America and Anglo-Saxon European societies, value individuals, personal goals, and independence. People in collectivist cultures see individuals as members of groups such as families, tribes, work units, and nations, and tend to value conformity and interdependence. In other words, working together and being involved as a group is more common in certain cultures that views each person as a part of the community. This cultural trait is common in Asia, traditional Native American societies, and Africa. Research shows that culture, either individualist or collectivist, affects how people make attributions.

People from individualist cultures are more inclined to make fundamental-attribution error than people from collectivist cultures. Individualist cultures tend to attribute a person’s behavior due to their internal factors, whereas collectivist cultures tend to attribute a person’s behavior to his external factors.

Research suggests that individualist cultures engage in self-serving bias more than do collectivist cultures, i.e. individualist cultures tend to attribute success to internal factors and to attribute failure to external factors. In contrast, collectivist cultures engage in the opposite of self-serving bias i.e. self-effacing bias, which is: attributing success to external factors and blaming failure on internal factors (the individual).

Actor/observer difference

People tend to attribute other people’s behaviors to their dispositional factors while attributing own actions to situational factors. In the same situation, people’s attribution can differ depending on their role as actor or observer. The theory of the actor-observer bias was first developed by E. Jones and R. Nisbett in 1971, whose explanation for the effect was that when we observe other people we tend to focus on the person, whereas when we are actors our attention is focused towards situational factors. The actor/observer bias is used less frequently with people one knows well, such as friends and family, since one knows how his/her close friends and family will behave in certain situation, leading him/her to think more about the external factors rather than internal factors.

Dispositional attribution

Dispositional attribution is a tendency to attribute people’s behaviors to their dispositions; that is, to their personality, character, and ability.

Self-serving bias

Self-serving bias is attributing dispositional and internal factors for success, while external and uncontrollable factors are used to explain the reason for failure. Originally, researchers assumed that self-serving bias is strongly related to the fact that people want to protect their self-esteem. However, an alternative information processing explanation is that when the outcomes match people’s expectations they make attributions to internal factors.  People also use defensive attribution to avoid feelings of vulnerability and to differentiate themselves from a victim of a tragic accident. An alternative version of the theory of self-serving bias states that the bias does not arise because people wish to protect their private self-esteem, but to protect their self-image (a self-presentational bias). This version of the theory would predict that people attribute their successes to situational factors, for fear that others will disapprove of them looking overly vain if they should attribute successes to themselves.

For example, it is suggested that coming to believe that “good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people” will reduce feelings of vulnerability. This belief would have side-effects of blaming the victim even in tragic situations. Another example of attributional bias is optimism bias, in which most people believe positive events happen to them more often than to others, and that negative events happen to them less often than to others. For example, smokers, on average, believe they are less likely to get lung cancer than other smokers.

Defensive attribution hypothesis

The defensive attribution hypothesis is a social psychological term referring to a set of beliefs held by an individual with the function of defending themselves from concern that they will be the cause or victim of a mishap. Commonly, defensive attributions are made when individuals witness or learn of a mishap happening to another person. In these situations, attributions of responsibility to the victim or harm-doer for the mishap will depend upon the severity of the outcomes of the mishap and the level of personal and situational similarity between the individual and victim. More responsibility will be attributed to the harm-doer as the outcome becomes more severe, and as personal or situational similarity decreases.

An example of defensive attribution is the just-world hypothesis, which is where “good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.” People believe in this in order to avoid feeling vulnerable to situations that they have no control over. However, this also leads to blaming the victim even in a tragic situation. Another example of defensive attribution is optimism bias, in which people believe positive events happen to them more often than to others, and that negative events happen to them less often than to others. Too much optimism leads people to ignore some warnings and precautions given to them. For example, smokers believe that they are less likely to get lung cancer than other smokers.

3.2.5 Applications

Attribution theory can be applied to juror decision making. Jurors use attributions to explain the cause of the defendant’s intent and actions related to the criminal behavior. The attribution made (situational or dispositional) might affect a juror’s punitiveness towards the defendant. When jurors attribute a defendant’s behavior to dispositional attributions they tend to be more punitive and are more likely find a defendant guilty and to recommend a death sentence compared to a life sentence.


In criminal law, intent is one of three general classes of mens rea necessary to constitute a conventional, as opposed to strict liability crime. A more formal, generally synonymous legal term is scienter: intent or knowledge of wrongdoing.

A range of words represents shades of intent in criminal laws around the world. The mental element, or mens rea of murder for example, is traditionally expressed as malice aforethought and the interpretations of malice, “maliciously” and “willful” vary between pure intent and recklessness or negligence, depending on the jurisdiction in which the crime was committed and the seriousness of the offense. The intent element of a crime, such as intent to kill, may exist without a malicious motive or even with a benevolent motive, such as in the case of euthanasia.

A person intends a consequence when they 1) foresee that it will happen if their given series of acts or omissions continue, and 2) desire it to happen. The most serious level of culpability, justifying the most serious levels of punishment is achieved when both these components are actually present in the accused’s mind (a “subjective” test). A person who plans and executes a crime is considered, rightly or wrongly, a more serious danger to the public than one who acts spontaneously (perhaps because they are less likely to get caught), whether out of the sudden opportunity to steal, or out of anger to injure another. But intent can also come from the common law viewpoint as well.

Something else that needs to be considered is whether everything we consider dispositional is in fact circumstantial–that is, genetic. I’m guessing most of what constitutes someone’s disposition or personality is rooted in genetics. We also need to keep in mind that environmental factors are also circumstantial.

I would suggest that exhaustive research on human agency (see my analysis of Charles Peirce) reveals a level of complexity that makes determinations regarding intent so problematic we should admit it is simply a black box to which we will probably never have access. Given that, we should distinguish between responsibility (which deals with intent and guilt) and accountability (which deals solely with protecting others from someone who has shown themselves to be in some manner a bad actor). A legal system that presumes intent and guilt tends to emphasize punishment or retribution (such as the death penalty). It seems to me there is zero scientific evidence allowing us to assess intent and, therefore, we should take seriously the idea of a “correctional facility” that seeks to correct or adjust maladaptive and destructive behavior, when possible. Conversely, depending on the seriousness of the behavior, the weight needs to be on rigorous evidence for the efficacy of correctional treatment. The fact we may not be able to determine intent and therefore the “guilt” of the criminal means we can’t know if it is “just” to incarcerate him or her. As a society however, we need to realize that, “guilty” or not, we are accountable to each other for our actions.



Chapter 4

The Philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce—An Introduction

The sincere student of logic must certainly already believe, or at least hope that there is such a thing as The Truth, at least with reference to some questions. He must therefore think that there is some reality which is independently of its being represented to be. He must therefore think that there is an external world, however intimately it may be connected with himself, or he with it. He must agree that things happen, and that there is some such thing as compulsion, or at least force. He must agree that there is such a thing as the influence of abstract ideas, such as The Truth, upon hard facts. That it is really true, not mere metaphor, that The Truth is a great power. –Peirce, Draft B-Ms L75.18

4.0 Non-Realism, Naïve Realism & Critical Realism

Our present situation might be characterized by two central issues; the seeming demise of epistemic foundationalism (epistemology being the study of what distinguishes justified belief from mere opinion), and the nature of criteria for truth (the possibility of a positive ground where opinion and justified belief can be distinguished). These two features seem problematic as, currently, we have relativized all intellectual and moral truth claims. How did we get here? It began with questions Immanuel Kant asked but was ultimately unable to answer regarding how we might know that the properties generated by our minds are able to comprehend reality.

Foundationalism is a question about the nature of reality and, for our purposes, it’s useful to parse out different types of realism; non-realism, naïve realism, and critical realism. In its pure form naïve realism is the claim that there is a literal, one-to-one correspondence between ideas and the objects represented by those ideas. Naïve realism posits ultimate reality as an original, irreducible object, and thoughts (beliefs) to be rooted in a direct experience of that Reality. Pure non-realism holds there is no correspondence whatever between ideas and ultimate reality and, what’s more, there is no ultimate reality. Critical realism seeks a middle way between these two extremes.

French philosopher Renee Descartes, seeking an adequate foundation for justified belief, pursued a process of methodical doubt that led him to develop an ontology of radical dualism. He concluded that the cogito (cogito ergo sum) was the thing (substance) on which he could erect a viable theory of knowledge. Descartes viewed matter as res extensa–“extended thing” (corporeal substance)–and mind as res cogito–thinking thing” (mental substance). He saw God as the third “thing” joining the dualism of mind and matter.

He viewed all knowledge as either inherently justified on self-evident grounds, or incorrigible beliefs (eminently rational), or founded on such beliefs (the cogito). Later Enlightenment thinkers who built on Descartes foundationalism assumed this as a universal rationality, resulting in the enthronement of reason. From this perspective, the Enlightenment (Age of Reason) can be seen as a critique of the Age of Faith, whose criteria for truth was rooted in external forms of authority (religious texts and priests).

Almost immediately skeptics like the Scottish philosopher David Hume questioned Descartes explanation of the connection between knower and known, as well as the cogito itself. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche later objected to the idea of a universal rationality. His critique led to a view of knowledge as subjective, contextual, and relative, leading to the postmodern deconstructivism of the American philosopher Richard Rorty and French philosopher Jacques Derrida. In this, our current framework, it is denied truth can be objectively known, leading to the collapse of epistemic foundationalism and the consequent relativization of all intellectual and moral values.

In the west it was Immanuel Kant who first mounted a reevaluation of the notion of a direct correspondence between ideas and Reality, as he held that our representation of Reality was shaped by features intrinsic to the perceiving subject. His ideas have been massively affirmed by modern research. Nevertheless, Kant theorized man is able to comprehend Reality because “categories” exist within our minds that actively generate our perceptions. He held these categories to be universal, which explains why we all perceive the world in the same way. But this raised the question: “How do we know the perceptions generated by our minds are universal and that they correspond to Reality?” Kant never provided an adequate answer to this question.

A philosopher who seems to offer a middle way between naïve realism and non-realism, as well as an answer to Kant’s truth problem, is the American logician Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce’s philosophy has been characterized as a pragmatic, semiotic, evolutionary, panentheist conception of science. In a reformulation of Kant’s categories, Peirce proposed three categories of his own. Peirce’s categories are the most subtle and complex aspect of his philosophy and, to understand them one first must understand what is meant by the above terms and their relationship to science. “Evolutionary” seems the most familiar term, but when you combine it with pragmatism, semiosis and (especially) panentheist, it’s clear we’re in uncharted territory. My approach is to define each term separately and only then try to explain Peirce’s philosophy

Regarding Peirce’s categories, he defined “firstness” as pure potentiality, a simple quality of feeling—something like “aesthesis”—an elementary awareness of an unelaborated stimulation. Firstness might be described as “prior to” sensation and perception, but as it is prior to time and space, it cannot be imagined to fit in any type of sequence. He characterized “secondness” as brute actuality, resistance, that by which a thing is related to others. This is something like an infant discovering the world is not simply an extension of itself, that it might be indifferent, even hostile to its needs and expectations. The final category is “thirdness,” that which mediates between firstness and secondness—the universal laws and generalities or habits that ensure the continuity of the process of reality

4.1 Pragmaticism

Consider the practical effects of your conception. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object. Charles Peirce

The word “reality” is pervasive throughout Peircean philosophy. For Peirce, reality is what we encounter, and that which our thinking attempts to comprehend. Pragmaticism for Peirce was a method for ascertaining and articulating the meaning of anything. Peirce argued that the path of inquiry is best accomplished methodologically by scientific investigation. He rejected the path of tenacity (which grasps a desired end regardless of outside influences or resulting consequences), the method of authority (which subjects itself sometimes uncritically to the powers that be), and the a priori method (which claims to be reasonable when oftentimes it is no more than an expression of intellectual taste). Instead Peirce advocated a method “by which our beliefs may be determined by nothing human, but by some external permanency—by something upon which our thinking has no effect.” The objective of Peirce’s pragmaticism was to get at the truly real.

Part of fully understanding one’s method and objective, however, involves its adequate articulation. If it is the truth of reality that shapes our beliefs, then Peirce sought to know how it is that we can attain proper beliefs. Peirce outlined the process by which beliefs are formed. It begins with an initial awareness of something, proceeds to remove doubts regarding the thing, and concludes with the establishment of habits of action relative to the object of belief. This led Peirce to define the meaning of anything as the habits it involved “Consider what effects, that conceivably might have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.” If effects are inconceivable for anything, such a “thing” is probably meaningless, and, as such neither true nor false. To get at the truth of anything is to formulate an hypothesis about its effects. True beliefs are those reached when the effects predicted are borne out in experience. This leads to full beliefs, that upon which we are willing to risk ourselves, in contrast to mere opinions. Opinions that do not lead even to insignificant actions probably either mean that hypothesis about them have not been framed, or that there is no truth to them.

Peirce saw that in order to demonstrate the truth of his pragmaticism, he had to show that it was normative for the process of thinking. Rather than analyzing the psychological aspects of pragmatism, Peirce sought to establish its logical basis in order to argue for its truthfulness. What motivated his inquiry into the logic of reasoning was the question of how the process of experience enabled the mind to engage the world and understand it truly, or how the signs with which the mind worked mediated reality accurately. In order to answer these questions, however, Peirce had to develop a metaphysics.

4.2 Semiotic

Semiosis is any form of activity or process that involves signs, including the production of meaning. The study of signs goes back to Plato and Aristotle, but the term semiotics was coined by Peirce. Semiosis is the performance element involving signs. Individuals usually speak or write to elicit a response.

As an insect or animal, human or otherwise, moves through its environment (umwelt), all the senses collect data that are made available to the brain. However, to prevent sensory overload only salient data will receive the full attention of the cognitive elements of the mind. This indicates that a part of the process must be controlled by a model of the real world, capable of ranking elements in terms of their significance and filtering out the data irrelevant to survival. A sign cannot function until the brain or audience distinguishes it from the background noise. When this happens, the sign then triggers cognitive activity to interpret the data input and so convert it into meaningful information. This would suggest that, in the semiosphere, the process of semiosis goes through the following cycle:

The plant, insect, or animal with the need to communicate (recognize food/mate/prey) will know what needs to be said and assess the best means of saying it (that is, start an action pattern);  

This information will then be encoded and relevant muscle groups will effect transmission—although to some extent intentional in the human, the actual movements of the body are autonomic, that is, the individual is not aware of moving individual muscles, but achieves the desired result by an act of will;

The audience filters ambient data and perceives the uttered code as a grouping of signs;

The audience then interprets the signs (sometimes termed decoding) to attribute meaning. This involves matching the signs received against existing patterns and their meanings held in memory (that is, learned and understood within the community). In plants, insects and animals, the results of a successful interpretation will be an observable response (action plan to the stimuli perceived).

In biology, scout bees and ants will return home to tell the others where food is to be found, fertility announced to prospective mates, and danger communicated to others in the group. Such transmission may be chemical, auditory, visual or tactile, singly or in combination. A new field of research termed biosemiotics makes the claim that endosymbiosis, self-reference, code duality, the availability of receptors and autopoiesis are general properties of all living systems. Thomas Sebeok suggests a similar list of properties for life may coincide with a definition of semiosis, that is, the test of whether something is alive is a test to determine whether and how it communicates meaning to another of its kind. This has been called the Sebeok Thesis.

For humans, semiosis is an aspect of the wider systems of social interaction in which information is exchanged. It can result in particular types of social interaction in which information is exchanged. It can result in particular types of social encounter, but the process itself can be constrained by social conventions such as property and privacy. This means semiosis can be understood only by identifying and exploring all the conditions affecting the effective transmission and acceptance of signs. When two humans meet, the ways in which they think, the identities they assume, their emotional responses, motives and purposes, all frame the situation as it dynamically unfolds and tests the legitimacy of the outcomes. All these elements are semiotic in that prevailing codes and values are being applied.

No transcendental subject is present in Peirce’s definition of the sign, leading some to suggest Peirce was the first true postmodern philosopher.

4.3 Evolutionary: A Brief History of Mind

In A History of the Mind: Evolution and the Birth of Consciousness, Nicholas Humphrey presents a materialist view of the evolution of mind, where mind is seen to supervene on matter. In more recent works (Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness) he claims to have solved the hard problem of consciousness, yet never undertakes the complete rethinking of mind-body questions needed to actually solve that problem. This rethinking (as mentioned previously) would need to center on the concept of matter itself. Matter is still often imagined 17th century style, as an inert, passive stuff moved only by impact from outside. But this view is not rooted in the empirical facts of hard science, but was articulated by devout scientists to leave room for (a Cartesian) God as the source of all activity. Matter then rather naturally becomes unknowable once that somewhat assertive God has been removed. Inert stuff could never have produced the galaxies, volcanoes and, above all, living things that have evolved out of some original portion of physical matter. Until someone explains, exactly, how and when the water of matter turns into the wine of consciousness, the hard problem remains unsolved. Some, like the behaviorists, evade it by saying subjectivity is illusory. Others find the task of believing in a world of objects-without-subjects too difficult to imagine. Humphrey still holds our everyday consciousness to be illusory. He seems not to notice that illusions are impossible unless there is somebody conscious to be deluded.

What follows is a summary of an otherwise eloquent description of the evolution of mind in A History of the Mind.

In the primeval soup, chance brought together the first molecules of life with the capacity to generate copies of themselves. Time passed and Darwinian evolution got to work selecting packets with ever greater potential for maintaining their own integrity and reproducing; complex cells (bacteria or amoebae), then the multicelled (worms or fish, or us).

Living animals had their own form and substance. Whether at the level of an amoebae or elephant, the animal was a self-integrating and self-individuating whole. Unlike other bounded objects—like a raindrop or a pebble—its boundaries were self-imposed and actively maintained. On one side of its boundary wall lay “me,” and on the other “not-me.”

So boundaries—and the physical structures that constituted them, membranes, skins—were crucial. First, they held the animal’s substance in, and the rest of the world out. Second, by virtue of being located at the animal’s surface they formed a frontier—the frontier at which the outside world impacted the animal and across which exchanges of matter and energy and information could take place.

Light fell on an animal, objects bumped into it, pressure waves pressed against it, chemicals stuck to it. Some of these events were “a good thing” for the animal, others were neutral, others were bad. Any animal that had a means to sort out the good from the bad—approaching or letting in the good, avoiding or blocking the bad—would clearly have been at a biological advantage. Natural selection was therefore likely to select for “sensitivity.”

Being sensitive need have meant, initially, being locally reactive—that is, responding selectively where the surface stimuli occurred. The first types of sensitivity would have involved, for example, local retraction or swelling or engulfing by the skin.

Soon more sophisticated types of sensitivity evolved. Sense organs became more discriminatory between different kinds of stimuli and the range of possible responses increased. Instead of or as well as a stimulus inducing a local reaction, information from one part of the skin got relayed to other parts and caused reactions there. And by the introduction of delays in transmission and the combination of facilitation and inhibition, the way was open for the animal’s responses to become better adapted to its needs—for example by swimming away, rather than just recoiling from a noxious stimulus.

In time, different stimuli came to elicit different action patterns. We might imagine that an animal living in a pond swam upward in response to red light, and downward in response to blue light. Since information about the particular stimulus was now being preserved and carried through into the particular action pattern, the action pattern came to represent—to at least to replicate symbolically—the stimulus.

With this level of sensitivity and reactivity, however, it could hardly be said that environmental events had acquired much “meaning” for the animal. But, at this stage something about the status of the world was changing. Certain events were being responded to as good and bad, as edible or inedible, as of significance to “me.”

Compare, for example, the effects of low humidity on two bounded objects—a wood louse and a puddle. The heat is “bad” for both because it dries them up. But whereas the puddle just sits there and shrinks, the wood louse runs away. Both react to low humidity—but while the puddle’s response is nonadaptive and carries no implication of being meaningful, the wood louse’s response potentially does—it implies “here is a situation not to my liking.”

As animals became increasingly sophisticated at attuning their behavior to the environmental situation, the sensory and response side of the process must have been partially decoupled. Before long a central site evolved, where representations—in the form of action patterns—were held in abeyance before they were put into effect. Thus action patterns had become action plans, and representations had become relatively abstract. The place where they were held in store could be said to be the place where they were held in mind.

Humphrey, as a materialist, is asserting that it is at this juncture in the evolutionary process that what he calls “prototypical minds” emerge, with some events in the world taking on the status of meaningful phenomena. Here, for the first time since the universe began, certain events, namely those occurring at the surfaces of living organisms, begin to exist as something for someone. In materialist biology such events, while meaningful to specific living organisms, can have no larger meaning as they are emergent properties of insentient matter. The presumption here is that mind is not a latent property of matter from the beginning—that is, it is not actual—but a mere epiphenomenal chimera which is, at bottom, a molecular machine. But, as noted earlier, this materialistic, mechanistic ethos is not rooted in hard scientific data, but is a schema rooted in theology. Humphrey never addresses why “mind” can’t be considered latent in matter from the beginning. I’d suggest what is “emerging” at this juncture in evolution is “consciousness,” not “mind.”  As discussed earlier, carbon was, well before this juncture in evolution, exhibiting purposeful mind-like behavior. We’ll rejoin Mr. Humphrey’s story with that caveat.

So the phenomenology of sensory experiences came first. Before there were any other kinds of phenomena there were “raw sensations”—tastes, smells, tickles, pains, sensations of warmth, of light and sound. But from early on there was another track to mental evolution. On the one hand animals benefited from having an ability to assess their own current state of being—to answer questions about “what is happening to me”—”What is it like to have red light arriving at my skin?” But on the other hand they would certainly have benefited further if they had an ability to assess the state of the external world—to answer questions about “what is happening out there”—for example, “Where is the red light coming from?” But the questions “What is happening to me?” and “What is happening out there?” are different kinds of questions which must always have required different kinds of answers.

Consider a patch of sunlight falling on the skin of an amoeba-like animal. The light has immediate implications for the animal’s own state of bodily health and for that reason gets represented as a subjective sensation. But light also signifies an objective physical fact, namely the existence of the sun. And although the existence of the sun might not matter much to an amoeba, there are other animals and other areas of the physical world where the ability to take account of what exists “out there beyond ‘my’ body” could be of paramount survival value. Consider a shadow crossing the skin of an amoeba. Here an ability to represent the objective fact of an approaching predator would—if only it were achievable by an amoeba—clearly be of considerable more consequence to the animal’s survival than the ability to represent the body surface stimulus as such.

But how to do it? How to interpret a stimulus as a “sign” of something else? To move from a representation of the sign to a representation of the signified? By the end of the first stage of evolution sense organs existed with connections to a central processor, and most of the requisite information about potential signs was being received as “input.” But the subsequent processing of this information leading to subjective sensory states had to do with quality rather than quantity, the transient present rather than the permanent identity, me-ness rather than otherness. In order for the same information to now represent the outside world, a whole new style of processing had to evolve with an emphasis less on the subjective present and more on object permanence, less on immediate responsiveness and more on future possibilities, less on what it is like for me and more on how what “it” signifies fits into the larger picture of a stable external world.

Phenomenal consciousness (p-consciousness) is then poised to have an impact on the subjects beliefs and practical reasoning processes in such a way as to guide behavior. Understanding p-consciousness then involves understanding discrete transitions in its development: from a) organisms with a repertoire of behavioral reflexes, triggered by simple features of the environment; to b) organisms whose innate reflexes are action-plans guided by incoming quasi-perceptual information; to c) organisms which can also possess a suite of learned action-plans, also guided by quasi-perceptual information; to d) organisms in which perceptual information takes the form of simple conceptual thought and reasoning.

A few examples might lend clarity. As an example of a) — an organism relying on environmental triggers—consider a tick, which drops from its perch when it detects butyric acid vapor (released by all mammals) and then burrows when it detects warmth. These are fixed action-patterns released by certain triggering stimuli but which do not seem in any sense to be guided by them. As an example of b) — an organism with a set of innate action-plans guided by quasi-perceptual information — consider a Sphex wasp, whose behavior in leaving a paralyzed cricket in a burrow with its eggs seems to be a fixed action-pattern, the details of whose execution depends upon quasi-perceptual sensitivity to environmental contours (“quasi-perceptual” as—hypothetically—the wasp lacks a capacity for conceptual thought); its “percepts” feeding directly into behavior-control, and only into behavior-control). For examples of c) — organisms with learned action-patterns—we can turn to fish, reptiles and amphibians, which are capable of learning new ways of behaving, but which may not yet be capable of anything resembling practical reasoning. Finally, as an example of d) — an organism capable of conceptual thought—consider the cat, or the mouse, each of which probably has simple conceptual representations of the environment generated by perception and capable of simple forms of reasoning in light of those representations.

Evolutionary gains, at each stage, come from the increasingly flexible behaviors. With the transition from triggered reflexes to perceptually-guided ones we get behaviors which can be fine-tuned to the contingent features of the organism’s current environment. And with the transition from a repertoire of perceptually-guided action-patterns to conceptual thought and reasoning, we get the possibility of subserving some goals to others, and of tracking and recalling the changing features of the objects in the environment in a much more sophisticated way.

Such an evolutionary analysis is crucial in understanding the subtlety and complexity of human agency. Clearly it is inaccurate to conflate human choice with an asteroid striking a planet—something that could be legitimately inferred from hard determinism. It also shows so-called “free will” is not as simple or obvious as it might seem.


Vision is the dominant sense; the sense that has been most widely studied by psychologists and philosophers. The most primitive organisms did not have eyes. Like present-day amoebae they were probably sensitive to light all over their body surfaces. What is more, they did not have specialized photoreceptors sensitive to light alone—the same sensory receptors might have been responsive not only to light but also to high salt concentrations or mechanical vibration.

When photoreceptors did evolve they were not an entirely new kind of receptor. They were simply nonspecific receptors that had evolved to be relatively more sensitive to light than to other kinds of stimulation. It seems likely they developed from sensory cilia. Cilia are hair-like structures that stick out from the surface of a cell and can serve either in a motor capacity to move the animal around, or in a sensory capacity to detect local disturbances in the environment. By packing a sensory cilium with photosensitive pigment it could be made to be specifically excitable to light. Even the rods and cones in the retina of our own eyes show evidence of having started out this way in evolution—as cilia that were sensitive to touch.

The function of photoreceptors in the earliest organisms must have been to detect the general level of illumination. If the light level was “good” the animal could stay where it was, and if it was “bad” it could move about until things improved. But without any way of telling where the light was coming from it would have taken a long time to achieve the desired state. And it would not have been until animals developed the ability to compare the local illumination falling on different parts of their body surfaces that they would have been able to move purposefully (and efficiently) in the right direction.

An earthworm, like an amoeba, has photoreceptors all over its body surface. Earthworms do not like illumination (being at risk from daytime hazards in the open). If a flashlight is shone on a worm on the lawn at night it runs away. The worm is comparing what is happening on the bright side of its body with what is happening on the dark side, and on the basis of this comparison it is able to direct its escape.

While the way the earthworm is representing the light would not be counted as visual perception, it should be counted as visual sensation. It makes sense to say that the worm’s nervous system is representing the light as “something happening to me,” and as something “disagreeable.”

What happened in evolution was that photoreceptors at the body surface clustered together as “eyespots.” Even singled-celled animals sometimes have a specialized light-sensitive patch where the threshold for light stimulation is much lower; and most multicelled animals that do not have proper eyes have one or more such patches strategically located at their boundaries. The reason for developing these eyespots was that it is more efficient to compare the illumination at several specific locations than to compare the illumination over wide areas of the body.

There proved however to be a better way of determining the direction of a source of light—and this was to transform a single eyespot into a genuine “eye” with an image-forming mechanism. When light from one direction falls on a flat patch of photoreceptors, the patch is evenly illuminated and there is no way of telling which direction the light is coming from; but when the patch is transformed into a cup, light from one direction produces a gradient of illumination; and when the cup is further transformed into a spherical cavity with a narrow aperture at the surface, the arrangement becomes a kind of “pinhole camera” where the direction of the light is precisely correlated with the position of the image. It is only a small step further to fill in the pinhole with a translucent droplet, to produce a full-blown camera with lens.

Camera-like eyes appeared early on in evolution and have been reinvented several times. But despite their image-forming properties, originally their only important function remained that of assessing the level and direction of illumination arriving at the body surface. So even after the eyes evolved the sense of vision at first had only a single province, not a double one. When, for example, the image of a bright object moves across the retina the only experience the animal would have had would have been that of being “stroked” by the visual stimulus.

But this is not where evolution rested. Once the image-forming eye had been invented a whole new world was potentially opened up for perceptual analysis. Different-shaped objects, for example, cast different-shaped images on the retina; objects at different distances cast different-shaped images; different-colored objects cast different colored images. Thus light stimulation became a principle source of information about the outside world.

By developing a different channel for visual perception alongside the existing channel for visual sensation, animals could take advantage of the defining properties of light while retaining their primary interest in light as an intimate event affecting their own bodies. Consider a shadow crossing the skin of an amoeba. Here an ability to represent the objective fact of an approaching predator would—if only it were achievable by an amoeba—be of considerable more consequence to the animal’s survival than the ability to represent the body surface stimulus as such.

I demonstrate the panentheist element in Peirce’s thinking in Chapter 5. Below are a few philosophic crucial to an understanding of Peirce’s evolutionary theory.

4.4 Scientific Realism, Ontological Naturalism, and Representational Naturalism

Science is supposed to provide us with a picture of the world so much more reliable and well-supported than that provided by any non-scientific source of information that we are obliged to withhold belief in anything that is not a part of our best scientific picture of the world. This scientism is taken to support philosophical naturalism (PN), since (according to textbook science) our best scientific picture of the world is a materialistic once, with no reference to causal agencies other than those that can be located within space and time. This defense of naturalism presupposes a version of scientific realism (SR): unless science can provide us with an objective truth about reality, it has no authority to dictate to us the form which our philosophical ontology and metaphysics must take. Science construed as a mere instrument for manipulating experience or merely as an autonomous construction of our society without reference to Reality, tells us nothing about what kinds of things really exist and act. .

  1. Scientific Realism (SR) is the conjunction of two claims: a) Our scientific models are theories and models of a real world; and b) Scientific methods tend, in the long run, to increase our stock of real knowledge.
  1. Ontological Naturalism (ON) is the thesis nothing can have any influence on events in space and time except other events and conditions in space and time. According to the ontological naturalist, there either are no causal influence from such things, or they have nothing to do with us and our world.
  2. Representational Naturalism (RN) is the proposition that human knowledge and intentionality are parts of nature to be explained entirely in terms of scientifically understandable causal connections between brain-states and the world. Intentionality is that feature of our thoughts and words that makes them about things, that gives them the capability of being true or false of the world.
  3. Philosophical Naturalism (PN) is the conjunction of ontological and representational naturalism. But these two thesis are logically independent: it is possible to be an ontological naturalist without being a representational naturalist, and vice versa. There are eliminativists (a materialist philosophy of mind that claims our common-sense understanding of mind is false) who are ontological naturalists yet who reject RN as they don’t accept the reality of knowledge and intentionality. Conversely, a Platonist might accept that knowledge and intentionality are to be understood entirely in terms of causal relations without being an ON.

Charles Peirce is a SR and, while he accepts some aspects of RN, he is not an ON. As a panentheist he breaks ranks with materialists and ontological naturalists as well as rejecting reductionist elements of RN that posit mind as a simple epiphenomena of matter (brain states).

4.5 Reliability

Regarding Peirce’s critical realist stance it’s important to understand that RN must make sense of some form of reliability; a rightness of belief that qualifies a belief as knowledge that must consist in some relation between the actual processes by which the belief is formed and the state of the represented conditions. Since our knowledge is a form of (pragmatic) success, this relation must include a form of reliability—an objective tendency for beliefs formed in similar ways to represent the world accurately. Knowledge could then be identified with true beliefs formed by processes whose proper functions are fulfilled under normal circumstances. While this aspect of RN clearly parallels Peirce’s philosophy, he denies the aspect of RN that holds that knowledge and intentionality are entirely natural (limited to causes within space time only), and explicable in terms of brain states and the represented conditions. Firstness cannot involve time and sequence.

If RN is combined with epistemic realism (what we know about objects exists independently of our ideas about such objects) regarding scientific theories, this conjunction entails that the processes of scientific research and theory choice must reliably converge on truth and, therefore, a RN account of intentionality must also employ some notion of reliability. The association between belief states and truth conditions must, for the RN, be a matter of some sort of natural causal relation between the two. This association must consist in a regular correlation between the belief state and its truth-condition, under normal conditions.

Beliefs have teleological purposes and these purposes fix their truth-conditions. Since beliefs are true when they fulfill their purpose of co-varying with the relevant circumstances, this co-variation of representation and represented conditions is what gives the capacity for belief its biological value according to the natural selection story. It is the fact that a belief type typically obtains in certain circumstances that will explain our having it in our repertoire. This regular association of belief type and truth conditions, and the biological purposes which the association serves, provides the sort of naturalistic explication of intentionality that RN requires. This regular association is what is meant by reliability.

There is a connection between the etiology of representation and their truth-values—representations generated in teleologically normal circumstances must be true. This reliability is only a conditional reliability, reliability under teleologically normal circumstances. It is this condition provides the basis for a distinction between knowledge and true belief. But an act of knowledge formed by processes in actual circumstances can vary from an act of knowledge formed by processes in normal circumstances. It is possible for reliability to be lost. Conditions can change in such a way that teleologically normal circumstances no longer obtain. In such cases old beliefs about certain subjects may become unreliable (It is known,for instance, that the ability to judge the size and distance of objects underwater changes).

It is the past predominance of true belief over false that is required. This leaves open that the statistical norm from now on might be falsity rather than truth. One obvious way in which this might come about is through a change in the environment (land to water). In addition, there might be specifiable conditions that occur with some regularity in which our belief forming processes are unreliable.

Finally, the reliability involved might not involve a high degree of probability. The correlation of belief type and represented conditions does not have to be close to 1. It is conceivable that the devices that fix human beliefs fix true ones not on average, but just often enough. For example, skittish animals may form the belief that a predator is near on the basis of very slight evidence. This belief will be true only rarely, but it must have a better-than-chance probability of truth under normal circumstances to have a representational function at all.

Thus despite these qualifications, it remains the case that a circumscribed form of reliable association is essential to the naturalistic account of intentionality. The reliability is conditional, holding under normal circumstances, and it may be minimal, involving a barely greater-than-chance correlation. Nonetheless, the representational naturalist is committed to the existence of a real, objective association of the belief state with its corresponding condition.

Peirce is a scientific realist with the caveat he believes only some conjunction of science and religion is sufficient to understand life in its entirety—or, conversely—he holds that, as a more logically consistent analysis of evolutionary theory blurs the lines between subject and object, fact and value—this opens the door to a synthesis of the exoteric and the esoteric.

He is an epistemic realist in that he believes:

there is some reality which is independently of its being represented to be.

(And) therefore there is an external world, however intimately it may be connected with himself, or he with it.



Chapter 5 Perice’s Philosophy

Can you get the game to play itself?”/Yes. Choose player zero.” —War Games

The Process of Thinking—A Return to Inquiry

Details of Peirce’s philosophy in 5.0, 5.1, and 5.2 are taken from The Dialogical Spirit, Amos Young, Chapter 1; The Demise of Foundationalism and the Retention of Truth.

5.0 Perceptual Judgments and Perceptual Facts

Charles Peirce asked questions about the nature of scientific knowledge and its relation to the functions of the human mind. Modern science attempts to produce an all-encompassing view of the world by putting the human mind—consciousness—the feeling, willing, knowing subjects that produce science with other subjects through semiotic interaction into parenthesis, and then try to use this type of objective knowledge by gathering it into theories which, in the end, should explain the self same consciousness they excluded from their knowledge in the beginning. But the prerequisite for science are embodied conscious minds connected and made self-conscious through communication based on a culturally based language system. Thus our ability to experience, to produce interpretive understanding and to communicate meaningfully exist before science and are artificially placed outside scientific knowledge gathering methods, supposedly rendering scientific methods objective, but also neglecting to acknowledge that they are inadequate to reflect on the whole human reality.

If we try to understand experience from an objective viewpoint that is distinct from that of the subject of the experience then, even if we continue to credit its perspectival nature, we will not be able to grasp its most specific qualities unless we are able to imagine them subjectively. No objective conception of the mental world can include it all.                                             –Ernest Nagel

One of the seminal differences between Peirce’s (and Bohm’s) philosophy and textbook science is that Peirce attempts to describe the relationship between scientific knowledge and the functions of the human mind. Peirce’s philosophy is a reformulation of Kant’s categories, which was a response to Hume’s skepticism about the ability of the self to comprehend reality, which threatened to collapse the modernist, Newtonian-Cartesian worldview. To reiterate, Kant created a new basis for knowledge, arguing that knowledge depends on the structure of the perceiving mind. He held 1) we are able to comprehend reality and, 2) we are able to do so because categories exist within our minds that actively generate our perceptions. Kant held these categories to be universal, which explains why we all perceive the world in the same way. This raised the question: “How do we know the perceptions generated by our minds truly corresponds to reality?” Kant never provided an adequate answer to this problem. Kant’s problem was a truth problem. Peirce’s philosophy offers an answer to the truth problem Kant was unable to provide.

Key to Peirce’s thought is the relationship of his fallibilism to his theory of truth. Peirce was convinced the Cartesian quest for certainty was a mistaken enterprise. Whereas the Cartesian cogito presupposes a dualism between knower and known, Peirce saw a continuity between the two. Peirce rejected the atomism inherent in Cartesianism, and suggested a continuity in the world itself. This is reflected in the fact our knowledge of the world arises in our continuous experience of it. This experience consists of two aspects. The first Peirce termed the perceptual judgment; the uncontrollable operation of grasping, assenting, and acting on sensation. This primary stuff of experience played a similar role in Peirce’s epistemology as the notion of sense datum did for the older British empirical philosophers. However, against their atomistic conception of sense datum, Peirce anticipated William James’s theory of mind as a “stream of consciousness,” and regarded perceptual judgments as a continuous stream of inferences. Being continuous, they are abstract, vague, and not segregable, making them uncontrollable and indubitable in and of themselves. This non-dual continuity has startling implications, as it suggests reality is not, primarily, composed of material substances that endure through time, but sequentially ordered experiential (phenomenological) events.

Perice argued that Descartes’s methodological and universal doubt was impossible, the individualism of cogito ergo sum unreasonable, that thinking proceeded in a spiral rather than in a Cartesian line, and that dualism leaves things ultimately inexplicable.

According to Zen, we are too much a slave of the conventional way of thinking, which is dualistic…This is the way things go in this universe of the senses. Whether such ideas correspond to facts is another matter.                                                                                                                                 –D.T. Suzuki

Yet Peirce understood that even while perceptual judgments are not consciously identifiable and dubitable, a fallibilistic epistemology requires they be open to correction. This led him to identify a second aspect of experience, which he called perceptual facts. These are the controlled cognitions or ideas which follow upon perceptual judgments. He described them as “the intellects description of the evidence of the senses made by my endeavor. These perceptual facts are wholly unlike the percept.” This is the case because perceptual facts are not immediate, but temporally removed from perceptual judgments, and therefore inferentially dependent upon memory. Memory, however, is fallible, and since perceptual facts in their final form are propositions produced by controlled cognitions, thinking can only grasp reality partially and inexactly.

In a sense it is correct to call Peirce a foundationalist. But where Peirce differed from classical and weak foundationalists was in denying immunity to and positively criticizing “basic beliefs.” Peirce distanced himself from Kant’s unknowable Ding an sich and from something known as “Common-Sensism.” His quarrel with Common-Sensisim was that it did not develop a means by which to address the emergence and resolution of doubts that arise from experience. Since all knowledge is fallible, Peirce insisted “there are three things to which we can never hope to attain by reasoning, namely, absolute certainty, absolute exactitude, and absolute universality; and further, if these are not to be attained by reasoning, there is certainly no other means by which they can be reached.”

5.1 Firstness, Secondness & Thirdness

Perice had come to understand reality in terms of three fundamental categories which he termed firstness, secondness, and thirdness. Firstness is pure potentiality, the simple quality of feeling, that which makes a thing what it is, in and of itself. Secondness is the element of struggle or of brute, resistant fact, that by which a thing is related to others. Thirdness is what mediates between firstness and secondness; the universal laws, generalities, or habits that ensure the continuity of the process of reality.

The evolution of forms begins as a vague potentiality that either is, or is followed by, a continuum of forms having a multitude of dimensions too great for the individual dimensions to be distinct. It seems then it is by a contraction of the vagueness of that potentiality of everything in general, but of nothing in particular, that the world of forms comes about. The idea of the absolutely First must be entirely separated from all conception of, or reference to, anything else. The first is present and immediate, never a second to a representation. It is fresh and new. It precedes all synthesis, all differentiation; it has no unity and no parts. It cannot be articulated: assert it, and it has already lost its characteristic innocence; for assertion always implies a denial of something else.  Firstness is what roots Peirce’s categories in Panentheism (the belief there is a determinative force that includes, interpentrates, and transcends the physical universe).  I also see parallels between what Peirce calls firstness and the universal introvertive mode of perception.

Firstness transcends unary/binary distinctions, as it cannot be subjected to articulated thought. Secondness, on the other hand, is binary. It entails relation, and hence the idea of something “other.” Just as we become aware of our self only on becoming aware of the non-self so we, on distinguishing something from Firstness, must become aware of that with respect to something it is not. Firstness is pure feeling, anesthesis, potentiality. Secondness is the “what” that is experienced, the actual. When one has developed at least a rudimentary idea of ‘reality’ as apart from one’s self, Secondness is predominant, for the real is that which insists upon forcing its way to recognition as something “other” than the mind’s creation.

Thirdness is cognition, which is necessarily constructed on the foundations of Firstness and Secondness. Thirdness entails representation, the third leg of the triad including relations between things (Secondness) and pure quality (Firstness). Essentially it can be said that Firstness is potentiality, a “might be” without there yet being any awareness of what it is that might be. Secondness, the actual, is a “happens to be” through consciousness that “what is” is “with respect to” something which it “is not.’” Thirdness, then, is a “would be.” It is a hypothetical that includes consciousness of a “happens to be.” Firstness can be termed “seeing”; Secondness “seeing as”;Thirdness “seeing-as-it-could-have-been.”

Peirce considered these categories to be universally applicable to all phenomena, irreducible, able to comprehend all other categorical distinctions, and not only descriptive of reality, but reality itself. Thirdness signaled Peirce’s revolt against the nominalism embraced by William James—its denial of the reality of laws or generals (nominalism being the doctrine that universals are mere names without any corresponding reality).

5.2 Abduction, Deduction, Induction

Whereas the history of Western thought has generally attempted to comprehend epistemology in dyadic terms, resulting in the well-known dualisms of knower and known, subject and object, Peirce explicated such within a traidic framework that combined experience and cognition. Proceeding from perceptual judgments, human cognition typically involves three types of reasoning, all of which are inferential; abduction, deduction, and induction. Abduction is the emergence of a broad inference, a hypothesis, what ensues from the general classification of perceptual judgments. Deduction is the prediction of what should follow from the hypothesis.

Induction is the concrete, piecemeal testing of the deduced predictions to see if the hypothesis holds in reality. What is important is the basic continuity between perception and abduction. From a phenomenological analysis of perceptual experience, Peirce was led to see perceptual judgments or sensations as the continuous activity of engaging with brute singularities or secondness by which the mind registers the general or vague features of the world. Our sensation of a table is fundamentally of the laws to which things such as table conform: hardness, coarseness, color, etc. As such, we can see that perceptual judgments are thirds that connect our sensations with the world.

Since abduction is based on inference, all hypotheses are actually guesses, and since false hypotheses are infinitely greater numerically than true ones, our remarkable guessing ability can be seen as evidence of the adaptation of the mind to the world (when successful). While Peirce drew from Darwinian terminology in calling this ability Insight or Instinct, he did not succumb to the materialistic or mechanistic interpretation of the universe.

From his discoveries, Peirce determined that vagueness, generality, and inference are replete throughout both experience and the process of reasoning. Abduction is thereby connected with perception and occurs simultaneously with it because of the interpretiveness of the perceptive judgment; in fact, Peirce specifically said that a percept or sensation “fulfills the function of an hypothesis.” The various hypotheses are refined in perceptual facts, deductively theorized, and then tested in more specific ways. “Those that prove themselves reliable guides for the course of experience are solidified into habits of thought and action. The process of thinking then is nothing more or less than the drawing of inferences from the generalities of sensations, and the continuous filling in the blanks or making determinate the vague aspects of those perceptual judgments, both by connecting them with previous cognitions and by integrating novel experiences through the ongoing process of reasoning.” Because generalities or thirdness pours in on us continuously in the form of sensations, percepts and perceptual judgments are codified over time as mental signs (interpretations) that grasp the laws and habits of things. This in turn enables us to understand and engage the world. All human experience, from the percepts of feeling to perceptual judgments and on through the entire process of cognition is nothing but inferences from the vague signs of perception, and since there is, at least potentially, an infinite series of interpretations that follow upon the presentation of a sign, all knowledge can only be provisional. This is the case because inductive reasoning can only engage in a finite number of experiments, even if extended indefinitely. Reflecting this fallibilism, Peirce thus admonished the investigator to be watchful for exceptions to the rule. Barring the surprises of experience, thinking proceeds in smooth continuity from perception through action. Peirce summarized the fundamental tenets of his philosophy this way: “The elements of every concept enter into logical thought at the gate of perception, and make their exit at the gate of purposive action; and whatever cannot show the passports at both those two gates is to be arrested as unauthorized by reason.”

According to Peirce: “Perceptual judgments contain general elements, so that universal propositions are deducible from them…” The perceptual judgments are to be regarded as an extreme case of abductive inferences from which they differ in being absolutely beyond criticism. The abductive suggestion comes to us in a flash. It is an act of insight, although extremely fallible insight. It is true that the different elements of the hypothesis were in our minds before, but it is the idea of putting together what we had never before dreamed of putting together which flashes the new suggestion before our contemplation.” That perceptual judgments are thoroughly general and put us in touch with the laws and habits that structure reality is one of Peirce’s most important insights.

The essence of pragmatism therefore follows the logic of abduction. Pragmatism is the process of inquiry that seeks to establish firm beliefs about reality from the inferences of perceptual experience. The pragmatic elucidation of truth asks the question—what can be expected to follow from a true hypothesis? The logic of pragmatism is that the vagueness of perception and perceptual judgment lead us to formulate equally general inferences (abductions) from which more specific predictions are made (deductions), which are in turn finally tested in a variety of ways (induction). If confirmed, inductive experience is shaped into provisional habits that inform our actions. As Peirce put it, “The only method of ascertaining the truth is to repeat this trio of operations: conjecture; deductions of predictions from the conjecture; testing the predictions by experimentation.” It is this repetition that suggests a spiral. It follows that only surprises arising from experience jolt us from out habituatedness, triggering doubt, and returning us to inquiry.

Both perceptual judgments and perceptual facts are thus synthesized in our minds in such a manner so as to form habits that enable us to engage our world. So long as things are encountered as anticipated, our habits of thought and action are solidified and confirmed. They begin to be consciously criticized however when we are surprised by the unexpected. Such surprises raise doubts that inhibit our ability to function in the world. This leads us to a process of inquiry that has as its goal the resolution of doubt and the establishment of a new mode of belief and action. This new modus operandi, however, will be satisfactory only if it enables us to engage the world truthfully. In this way, that which is experimentally indubitable in perceptual judgments can be, and is, cognitively dubitable when propositionally asserted as perceptual facts and tested against experience. As Peirce said: “The scientific spirit requires a man to to be at all times ready to dump his whole cartload of beliefs the moment experience is against them.” Hence Peirce’s fallibilism.

Surprise and doubt are important concepts in Peirce’s epistemology. The former, Peirce said, “is very efficient in breaking up association of ideas.” What surprises is precisely our being shocked by an unexpected experience of reality. The latter Peirce contrasted with belief. Whereas belief was understood as a self-satisfied habit, doubt was defined as the privation of habit, or as that which “really interferes with the smooth working of the belief-habit.” Peirce insisted, however, that genuine doubt exists not in the laboratory of thought, but in rather the uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves in order to pass into the state of belief. As an example of how the experience of the real duality of secondness caused surprises and raised doubts, Peirce described how the subjective idealist walking down the street and musing about idealism is unable to persist in denying the reality of the external world after being staggered by the flying fist of a drunkard. “What has become of his philosophical reflections now?” Peirce asked.

This discussion shows how Peirce understood all knowledge to be fallible yet truthful. Peirce viewed truth as correspondence (propositionally), and that such propositions connect our cognitions with Reality. This was the case as Peirce viewed truth as exclusively propositional.

Any real proposition, as a semiotic relation, must be categorically triadic in itself (as a first); a proposition is a sign that stands against an object (a second) and is capable of determining an interpretation (a third). The interpretation either gets at the relation between the sign and the object correctly or it does not. This is what allowed Peirce to say “every proposition is either true or false.” But because our initial perceptual judgments are vague they have to be rendered more precise by the many perspectives of interpretation. Propositional signs thus function by addressing and creating in our minds other, more developed signs or interpretations, and so on, potentially ad infinitum. A true proposition, Peirce explained, meant that:

Every interpretation of it is true…When we speak of truth and falsity, we refer to the possibility of the proposition being refuted: and this refutation (roughly speaking) takes place in but one way. Namely, an interpretant of the proposition would, if believed, produce the expectation of a certain description of precept on a certain occasion. The occasion arrives; the percept forced upon us is different. This constitutes the falsity of every proposition of which the disappointing prediction was the interpretant.

This, then, is what allowed Peirce to claim that thought had access to the truth of reality. For Peirce, far from truth being subjective, all truth is supremely objective in that there is a correspondence relation between propositions and Reality. The difference is that Peirce recognized the complex operations of thinking. He understood that the correlation of our assertions with Reality take place not directly, but only by means of a semiotic process of interpretation. This process is a triadic relation between signs, objects, and interpretations, which arise from various experiential perspectives (which are themselves partly determined by neuroplasticity). These aspects of interpretation yield successively more determinate aspects of previously less determinate signs.

Two other elements of Peirce’s theory of truth bears mentioning. First is his insistence that the context of inquiry is always a community of inquirers and never an individual. Although Peirce fully acknowledged the provisional nature of all knowledge, he rejected Kant’s idea that Reality is an unknowable thing-in-itself. Peirce preferred instead to speak of practical (pragmatic) certainty, and to rely on the accumulated wisdom of human experience and the consensus of the community of inquirers to establish both truth and Reality. For Peirce the Real is that which “sooner or later, information and reasoning would finally result in, and which is therefore independent of the vagaries of me or you. Thus the very origin of the conception of Reality shows that this conception essentially involves the notion of community, without definite limits, and capable of a definite increase in knowledge.”

The second aspect of Peirce’s notion of Truth that needs to be mentioned is Truth as that to which opinion converges over the infinite long run. While Peirce’s use of the word opinion is deceiving in that it connotes numerous possible subjective formulations of truth, it should be noted that any particular opinion is always potentially final. Even if there is the notion of Truth as an ideal limit in Peirce, this does not mean that Truth can never be accessed. Because inquiry is the process of setting beliefs, the process of inquiry can terminate whenever particular questions cease to generate doubt, or when satisfactory answers are formulated. In such cases, the community of inquirers has reached a “final opinion”—which “truths” are usually conveyed in textbooks. The fact that any question may be later reopened by a community of inquirers is evidence that later experience calls into question prior conclusions and that doubt has once again arisen; this is unavoidable given the fallibility of all knowledge.

To sum up, getting at truth involves logic or reasoning, the continuous fallible activity of a community of inquirers, beginning physiologically with vague perceptual mental signs, proceeding cognitively via abduction, deduction, and induction to render them more completely determinate, and while never amounting to a direct, one-to-one correspondence between thought and its object, always increasingly approximating this concordance through the potentially indefinite process of inquiry which terminates when doubt is minimized. The proof of pragmatism as Peirce understood it, lies in its following the logic of reasoning. This logic enables the community of inquirers to decipher signs of themselves and the world, interpret experiences, clarify meanings, understand intellectual concepts, be habituated to Reality, and apprehend Truth.

5.3 The Entanglement of Logic, Ethics and Aesthetics

In The Entanglement of Ethics and Logic in Peirce’s Pragmatism (pp. 35-39) Rosella Fabbrichesi quotes from Peirce’s First Harvard Lecture, The Three Normative Sciences where Peirce notes that the meaning of a concept does not correspond with what we observe in given empirical conditions (effects that have practical bearings), but with what would be pursued under all possible circumstances in an indefinitely prolonged course of action.

As a theory of meaning, pragmatism is a realist theory in the sense of (a quasi Hegelian) medieval scholastic realism, and hence grounded in generality, possibility, conditionality and vagueness: “The entire intellectual purport of any symbol consists in the total of all modes of rational conduct which, conditionally, upon all different circumstances and desires, would ensue upon the acceptance of the symbol.” Peirce here is making the point that pragmatism does not teach me that the meaning of a concept can be read in the immediate practical effect it produces, but that meaning must be linked to the entire possible and conditional series of resolutions to act I am willing to put into effect in order to demonstrate understanding of that concept. This cannot refer to any simple action, but to the eventual effectuation of habitual behavior, and no concatenation of actual happening can completely fulfill the meaning of a would be.

Peirce’s pragmatism is the supremacy of the pure possibility of an unlimited totality, something that cannot occupy the arena of experience. So while it is no surprise Peirce binds pragmatism to a form of scholastic realism, this is not to say he considers this logical framework to be based on simple belief or faith.

Fabbrichesi cites another definition of pragmatic meaning found in a letter to Italian philosopher Mario Calderoni. It consists of the conception of what our conduct will be on conceivable occasions, which brings us closer to the “ethical” aspect of his pragmatic doctrine. Pragmatic meaning does not consist of a “fact,” but a habit of conduct. “Theories” are not verified by facts, but exist in a pragmatic context of acceptance founded on a willingness to act in accordance with theories.

Peirce also noted in his Harvard Lecture that, if the meaning of a symbol consists of the way it could make us act, then it is evident this is not reducible to a series of mechanical movements, but refers to an action that has a particular end. Continuity has, therefore, a strong internal, teleological and axiological reference, and pragmatism has to do with the intentions of an action, its ultimate ends, and not with its empirical usefulness. If we are to understand pragmatism “it is incumbent upon us to inquire what an ultimate aim, capable of being pursued in an indefinitely prolonged course of action, can be” in the long run, which defines the space of public truth and reality as an indefinitely future event.

As ethics is precisely the study of what ends of action we are deliberately prepared to adopt, the pragmatist perspective has an invaluable ethical core. More crucially, “an ultimate end of action deliberately adopted” must be a state of things that reasonably recommends itself, aside from any ulterior consideration. It must be an admirable ideal. Aesthetics then is also entangled with logic and ethics; the boundaries between the three are no longer visible.

It is the great fault of learning today that the sentimental side is kept apart, which is the most important side. It is like wanting a person to come, not with his life but as a corpse, as if in order to educate a person the life should be taken out of him, and he should be turned from a living person into a dead one…What is to be revived in the present generation is the capacity of feeling. It is thinking which is developed today, but what is needed now is the battery which stands behind thought, and that is feeling.                                                                                                                                         –Hazrat Inayat Khan

According to Hillary Putnam, the philosophy of science of the last century can be seen as a struggle to escape from this principle. Philosophers attempted to do science using only a deductive logic (Popper), to justify induction deductively (Reichen Bach), to reduce science to a simple algorithm (Carnap), and to select theories according to an enigmatic set of observational conditionals (Quince). Attempts to reduce symbolic mediation to a formalism (20th century logicism), or to equate the working of the human brain with that of a machine by discrete states (current computational cognitivism) could be added to this list. All these approaches attempt to elude the simple conviction that in every acknowledgment of pure fact there is an implicit value judgment. In every assumption of objectivity, we find behavioral and practical habits of who ever understands it as such. Putnam wonders when we will stop avoiding this problem, and give the pragmatist challenge the attention it merits.

What follows is a direct quote from Peirce’s Collected Papers Vol V.

5.4 The Final Interpretant as Universal Experient

Where in the process of cognition does the possibility of controlling it (critiquing it) begin? Certainly not before percept (image) is formed. Even what follows perceptual judgment (formation of a mental proposition combined with an adoption of it or act of assent to it) seems uncontrollable. If we can critique it at all, that criticism would be limited to performing that act of perceptual judgment again and seeing if, with closer attention, we get the same result.

But when performed again, with closer attention, the percept is not such as it was before.

Yet what other means do we have of knowing whether it is the same or not except by comparing the former perceptual judgment with the later one? Therefore I consider perceptual judgments to be utterly beyond control.

It follows then that perceptual judgments are the first premises of all our reasonings, and cannot be critiqued. All other judgments are so many theories whose only justification is that they have been borne out by perceptual judgments. But perceptual judgments are qualia that physicists consider mere illusion as there is no room for them in their theories (if facts disagree with theories, so much the worse for them).

Of course, there is such thing as hallucination (including social hallucination), yet such spectres are not real experience, as real experience is that which forces itself upon one despite contrary beliefs. In such cases a camera can be of service.

Of course, all apparitions are entities (entia). The question is whether they are such as they are independently of any single representation, or if their mode of being depends on abnormal conditions.

But as far as the entire universe of qualia, which the physicist pronounces illusory, there is not the slightest suspicion as to their abnormality.

The next question then is what role qualia plays in the economy of the universe. My reply would be the universe is a great symbol of God’s purpose, working out its conclusions in living realities. Now every symbol must have, organically attached to it, its indices of reactions and its icons of qualities; and such part as these reactions and these qualities play in an argument, that they play in the universe—that universe being precisely an argument.

In the little bit you or I can make out of this huge demonstration our perceptual judgments are the premises for us, and these perceptual judgments have icons as their predicates in which an icon’s qualities are immediately presented.

But what is first for us is not first in nature. The premises of nature’s own processes are all the independent uncaused elements of facts that go to make up the variety of nature which the necessitarian supposes to have been all in existence from the foundation of the world, but which the tychist supposes are continually receiving new accretions.

These premises of nature however, though they are not the perceptual facts that are premises to us, nevertheless must resemble them. In being premises, we can only imagine what they are by comparing them with the premises for us. As premises they must involve qualities.

As to their function in the economy of the universe, the universe as an argument is necessarily a great work of art, a great poem—just as every poem is a sound argument.

But let us compare it rather with a painting—an impressionist seashore piece—then every quality in a premise is one of the elementary colored particles of the painting: they are all meant to go together to make up the intended quality that belongs to the whole as whole—which qualities result from the combinations of elementary qualities that belong to the premises.

This is what’s known as Peirce’s “forgotten argument for God,” further demonstrating a panentheist dimension to Peirce’s philosophy. My sense is that anyone who is able to follow Peirce’s logic (and he is considered by many to be America’s greatest logician) sees the illogic of the materialist position, where memory and qualia are considered illusory. And if you understand the logic behind Peirce’s claim that the interpretant (agent, if you will) in the semiotic process is “nothing human,” it is logical to conclude this final interpretant is akin to what in the east in known as the Universal Experient (See The Doctrine of Recognition: A Translation of the Pratyabhijnahrdayam, by Ksemaraja, p. 103; or Svetasvataropanishad: The Knowledge That Liberates, Devadatta Kali, p. 143-4).

Personally, God and love have now so many conflicting connotations that I prefer Rigden and drala respectively, as the Bon tradition rests on the razor’s edge between sacred and secular, heaven and earth (and I’ve always found the earth quite heavenly).

The message in our time /is the awakening of humanity /to the divinity of man.

–Hazrat Inayat Khan


There was a long drought. Crops dried up. The vineyard leaves turned to black. people were gasping and dying like fish Thrown up on the shore and left there. But one man was always smiling.

A group came and asked, “Have you no compassion for this suffering?” He answered, “To your eyes this is a drought.    But Everywhere in this desert                                              I see green corn growing waist high…

When you think your father guilty of an injustice, his face looks cruel… When you make peace with your father, he will look peaceful and friendly. The whole world is a form of truth.

When someone does not feel grateful to that, The forms appear as he feels. They mirror his anger, his greed, his fear.

Make peace with the universe. Take joy in it. It will turn to gold. Resurrection will be now, Every moment a new beauty…

There are some mysteries I’m not telling you. There’s so much doubt everywhere, so many opinions that say, “What you announce may be true in the future, but not now.”

But this is a form of universal truth that says, “This is not a prediction, This is here in this instant, cash in hand.”







Six Element Practice

Six Element Practice

This version of the Six Element practice from the Pali Canon appeared in the summer 2007 edition of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle. It was written by a Buddhist teacher named Bodhipaska.


First we call to mind the earth element within ourselves. The earth element is everything solid and resistant, everything that gives us form. Notice those aspects of the body you can directly experience: the physical presence and weight of the body, the feeling of the sitting bones pressing into the cushion or bench, the hands resting on the lap, the knees on the floor, the teeth. Simply notice these experiences of solidness.

Besides noticing our immediate sensations, we enter into an imaginative exploration of the whole of the body. Even though we can’t experience all these objects directly, we can call to mind the flesh, sinews, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, and every conceivable solid matter in the body, including the feces in our intestines. Rather than starting trains of thought about the various organs, we can think in terms of visualizing them, or simply knowing that they are there and that they’re composed of solid matter.

Having reflected on the earth element within, we now call to mind the earth element externally—everything solid and resistant outside ourselves—starting with the floor upon which we sit, then expanding outward to recall buildings, vehicles, roads, mountains, rocks, pebbles, soil, the bodies of other beings, trees, wild plants, and crops growing in the fields. Again, we don’t aim to start trains of thought, but to evoke memories in the form of sensory impressions, letting images, sounds, and tactile sensations come into consciousness, and mindfully experiencing them.

Then we reflect that everything solid within the body and everything solid externally is the same earth element. There’s really no “me” earth element or “other” earth element—it’s all the same stuff. We normally think of our form, our body, as being us, as being ourselves, but here we recollect how everything of the earth element that is within us comes from outside and returns to the outside.

Being of a scientific bent—and I think the Buddha was too—I often call to mind the process of conception. My body started with the creation of one cell from the fusion of a sperm and an egg from my parents, who are not me. The fertilized ovum divided and grew into an embryo as it absorbed nutrients from the outside world—from my mother’s bloodstream, but ultimately from the plants and animals she ate. These foodstuffs weren’t me either. And from that point on in my life, every molecule that has contributed to the earth element in this body similarly has come from the outside. We can visualize the flow of the earth element from fields and soil into the body, and know that there’s not a single molecule of solid matter within this body that is self-originated. It’s all borrowed.

And we have to give it back. In fact, we are giving it back, every moment of our lives. The earth element within us is returning to the outside world, right now. We shed hairs and skin cells, and we go to the bathroom and defecate. Solid matter is combusting within the body and being exhaled. Even our bones, which we may think of as the most solid and enduring part of the body, are involved in a continuous process of dissolving and rebuilding. There are cells in your body that have no other function than to dissolve the surrounding bone, while other cells are involved in building it back up again. Even your bones are more processes than things.

So the earth element within is borrowed, and it’s always returning to the outside world, flowing through us like a river. And as we recollect the earth element flowing in this way, we can reflect: “This is not me, not mine, I am not this.” There’s not even a question of “letting go.” The earth element never was “us.” It never was “ours.” We never were holding on to it, because how can you cling to something that’s flowing?

The earth element provides the paradigm for the remaining physical elements, which are all treated in the same way—recollecting the element within us, recollecting the element outside of us, reflecting that everything that is “us” is really just borrowed from the outside world and constantly returning to it, and finally noting, as we contemplate the element flowing through us that this is not me, not mine, that I am not this.


We started with the grossest element, and we will progress through the rest—water, fire, air, space, and consciousness—in order of increasing subtlety. So now we call to mind the water element within the body—that which is liquid. Starting with those manifestations that we can directly experience, we feel the saliva in the mouth, mucus, the pulse of the blood, sweat, the feeling of moisture in the outbreath, the pressure of urine in the bladder. Then we move on to those things we can only experience imaginatively: lymph, fat, synovial fluid in the joints, cerebrospinal fluid, and all the liquid that permeates and surrounds every cell in the body. Even though you can’t experience these things directly, you can know they’re there.

Then we contemplate the water element outside of ourselves: calling to mind the oceans and rivers and streams, the water that permeates the soil, the rain and clouds, the water inside plants and animals. We see, hear, and feel these things as we recall our experience of them.

Then we recognize that all of the water within the body, which we think of as us, and ours, as ourselves, is in reality simply borrowed for a while from the outside world, that it’s quite literally flowing through us, and that we don’t own it. There is only one water element—there’s no “me” water and there’s no “other” water. And so we reflect: “This is not me. This is not mine. I am not this.”


The Buddha defined the fire element as “that by which one is warmed, ages, and is consumed, and that by which what is eaten…gets completely digested.” In other words, the fire element within is metabolism. It’s our energy (heat). So sitting in meditation, we can experience the heat of the body, feeling the cooler air we inhale contrast with the warmth of the air as it leaves the body, feeling the heart pumping, and calling to mind the myriad chemical combustions taking place at the cellular level, sparks of electricity in the muscles, nerves and brain. And knowing that all of this energy is borrowed from the fire element outside us.

The fire element outside us is the raw physical energy in the universe, from the nuclear fusion in the sun to the warmth of a cup of coffee, from the molten core of our planet to the chemical energy stored in our food as fats, sugars, and proteins. We feed the body by taking in the sun’s energy stored in plants or flesh. We warm ourselves in the rays of the sun, either directly or through the burning of fossil fuels that grew in the sunlight of ages past. And we have to keep replenishing the body’s fuel, because the fire element is forever leaving; radiating from our skin, wafting away on our exhaled air, lost in the warmth of our feces and urine. And so the fire element, like earth and water, simply flows through us, unstoppable. We observe and reflect on this.

And as we observe the energy within the body, we can be aware that it’s actually another river—a river of energy—passing through this form, that it’s really not ours at all. “This is not me. This is not mine. I am not this.”


As soon as we call to mind the air element within the body—the air in our lungs and other body cavities, even the gases dissolved in our blood—we’re immediately aware of the breathing, aware that air is flowing rhythmically in and out of the body. So almost simultaneously we recall the air element outside us—the air surrounding us and touching the skin in this very moment, the winds and clouds and breezes that we hear and see moving branches and grasses. We’re taking in and giving out this element right now. Right now, the air element is entering and leaving the body. Right now, air is entering, oxygen is dissolving in the bloodstream, being taken to cells to provide energy, and carbon dioxide is being exhaled.

Where’s the boundary between inner air and outer air? There is only one air element, and what’s within us is simply borrowed for a few moments. We can’t hold on to the air element any more than we can hold on to any of the others. In fact we can only live by letting go, never by holding on. To hold on is to die. And so we reflect that the air element, like the other physical elements, is not me, not mine, that I am not this.

By this point in the practice I usually sense in a very immediate way the impermanent, transient nature of the body. I have a heightened appreciation that what I normally assume to be a relatively fixed and solid physical form is more akin to a dynamic process. I often find myself thinking that to watch the elements flow through this body is like sitting by a river. I can watch the water pass “my” stretch of the riverbank, and say “that’s me, that’s me,” but in every moment of claiming, of grasping, what I’m trying to cling to flows inexorably past. Clinging is futile and painful.

Letting go is to recognize how things are. Letting go is to be free and open.

There’s a sense of curiosity, wonder, and openness. The world is more alive. I’m less attached to my physical form, and my sense of identification has expanded outward: everything that has ever passed through my body—the solid matter, air, water and energy—is now “out there” in the form of fields, clouds, forests, and soil. In a way, those things are all me. And because this very body is made of these same things, I am them. Having this direct sense of interconnectedness is enlivening and empowering. I’m no longer separate and small, but an intimate part of the vast cycle of the elements.


Space is a strange and different element. It’s just there. We can’t see it, can’t touch it, can’t say how far it extends. We can’t even say what, if anything, it’s made of. According to Einstein, it expands and contracts depending on what velocity we’re moving at, and it gets out of shape by the presence of solid matter. That’s all hard for us to get our brain around, conditioned as it is to think in a paltry three dimensions. But there is one thing our deluded mind “knows” about space, which is that there’s space that’s “me” and there’s space that’s “not me.” Cut to Einstein, in one of his less mathematical and more religious moments:

A human being is part of a whole, called by us “Universe”—a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.”

This very basic distinction—or delusion—of there being an inner world and an outer world is so fundamental that we rarely question it. This stage of the Six Element practice gives us an opportunity to question that assump-tion.

So, first of all, as we’re sitting with our eye’s closed in meditation, can we feel any sharp distinction between “me space” and “not-me space”? I’ve noticed that without the “optical delusion” of there being a delineation between inner and outer, the body loses its sense of having fixed boundar-

ies. The hands no longer have five fingers; they become just a mass of interwoven sensations—tingling, warmth, pressure. The whole body becomes a fuzzy ball of energy. That passing car I hear: Is the sound inside me or outside? The sound waves are happening in the air outside, but all hearing takes place in the brain, which is inside. The assumptions begin to show cracks.

Even if the boundaries of my space are fuzzy, I still have some space I can claim as my own, right? Well, maybe not. Even when I’m sitting absolutely still, I’m moving. The planet is spinning on its axis and revolving around the sun, the whole solar system is swinging around the galactic core, and the galaxy itself is rushing away from every other galaxy at an incomprehensible velocity. So although I think there’s a “me space,” I’m never actually in the same space for two consecutive moments.

Space isn’t really divided into “me space” and “not-me space.” It’s all one space, and it flows through us. Space is just borrowed. We can’t own it.


It isn’t obvious that consciousness is an element like the physical elements or even space. Perhaps even more so than with space, we can’t even say what consciousness is. But somehow in the evolution of the material universe life has arisen, and in the evolution of life consciousness has come into being. Perhaps we could say that consciousness is the other elements knowing themselves.

The Buddha introduces the element in this way: “Then there remains only consciousness, bright and purified.” It’s just possible that he was referring here to mind’s intrinsically empty nature, or he may simply have meant that the mind has been brightened and purified by letting go of grasping after the other five elements. In any event, we’ve started to realize at this stage of the practice that there’s nothing we can grasp hold of and so our mind now turns its attention to itself: the grasper.

In this stage of the practice we notice—and reflect upon—the way in which sensations, thoughts, images, emotions, and habitual patterns come into being, persist, then vanish into emptiness. None of them is permanent, and all are simply passing through us in the same way that the earth, water, fire, air, and space elements are flowing through our physical form. So these “elements of consciousness” are not intrinsic to us, are not a fixed part of us, and are not us. Just as there is nothing to grasp, there is no one, ultimately, to do any grasping.

When feelings of fear or discomfort arise in the practice, as they sometimes do, we treat them in just this way, experiencing the feelings in a nonattached way, surrounding them with mindfulness and lovingkindness, and realizing that they are not ultimately a part of us.

Having explained that the contents of consciousness—pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral—arise and pass and cannot be clung to, “there remains,” in the words of the sutta, “only equanimity, purified and bright, malleable, wieldy, and radiant.”

This is the equanimity that comes from letting go, from ceasing to identify with our experience. It’s the equanimity that comes from not getting caught up in our inner dramas, from not reacting to unpleasant feelings with aversion and by not responding to pleasant feelings with grasping. It’s the equanimity of acceptance.

Through the Six Element practice, we come to the insight that we’re not the physical elements, nor the space that contains them, nor again the consciousness that knows those things. So we well may ask, what exactly are we? This is a question that, in this meditation, we can consider experientially rather than through discursive thought. Rather than try to work out an answer in logical terms, we simply ask the question, and sit, and listen patiently for the heart’s intuitive response.

Sometimes what arises is a sense that we are the universe become aware of itself; that we are nothing more than conscious, living energy; that the mind is inherently pure, luminous, wise, and loving; and that we are beginning to know our intrinsic nature, which is emptiness.

Whatever arises from our reflections, we simply continue to sit and to experience the fruits of the practice, until we feel ready to move on. I’d encourage you once again to engage with this practice as an experiential exercise in letting go. To live is to let go, and in order to live fully we must learn to let go fully and to embrace the flow that is the universe.

The Drala Principle

The Drala Principle

The “drala principle” refers to a body of teachings the Tibetan Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa presented in the last decade of his life, from 1978 to 1986 (Shambala, The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Chogyam Trungpa, Shambala Publications, 1984). The roots of the drala principle precede the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet and are found in the indigenous traditions of that country. These teachings speak to the heart, whether one is religiously, artistically, or politically motivated.

Drala is the elemental presence of the world available to us through sense perceptions. When we open to trees, flowers, a creek or clouds we encounter an actual wisdom, though one that is not separate from our own. Beholding a river is much more than merely looking at a river; potentially, we are meeting the dralas. We have failed to see our first responsibility to the world is an aesthetic one.

In the drala teachings, each of the senses is considered an “unlimited field of perception” in which there are sights, sounds and feelings “we have never experienced before.” Each sense moment, if we are present to it, is a gate into the elemental wisdom of the world, Through this kind of perception we discover that we live in a vast, singular and unexplored world.

Sometimes a stone, tree, or violin processes an intangible presence, a numinousity, that cannot be explained. The presence may refer to another dimension. Any being who acts on behalf of the non-dualistic and compassionate nature of existence could be considered a drala. The dralas are not part of some other world, but latent everywhere. The dralas, as Chögyam Trungpa so often said, want very much to meet us.

Discovering the Dralas

Each moment of perception can potentially be experienced as a moment of pure perception—experience not yet mediated through discursive thought and conceptual process. These moments are not yet conditioned by hope and fear, by our opinions, desires and beliefs. This immediate awareness of pure perception is without choice, demand, or anxiety. Moments of pure perception are experiences of beauty expressed though specific details. It is our duty to notice the details that call to us—any taste, sight, or sound. This is the call of the dralas. If we quiet our mind by opening to these details, and if we listen to the response of our heart, we may discover our moment-to-moment, day-to-day direction. Thus we begin to follow our heart, to live beyond conditioning—and to be led by the dralas. Not only is our heart the source of our direction in life, it is the source of our confidence.

What is the Bon praxis?

A Course of Study


The experience of drala is as close as our own eyes, ears and tongue. We don’t have to try to taste, say, an orange, we simply need to relax into the presence of the flavor on our tongue and the orange naturally begins to communicate with us. We are generally too active and our own business drowns out the messages of the world around us. To access the dralas we must do less and be more.

Give yourself a break. Just enjoy the day, your “ordinary” existence. It sounds simplistic, but it has a lot of magic. We have to give ourselves time to be. We often feel hemmed in by school or work—our lives feel cluttered by all sorts of things. We have to learn to be kinder to ourselves, much kinder.

In the stillness of meditation thoughts pass through the mind. Let them pass through—worthy ones leave their seeds. We have to give ourselves time to be. You’re not going to feel the dralas if you don’t leave yourself a minute to be, to smile.

Allow Limitation

Limitation is the practice or discipline that supports being. Becoming receptive or open is a natural byproduct of limitation. Meditation is a quintessential act of limitation. Accepting limitation is a conscious choice in which we have begun to realize the world becomes a far more interesting and abundant place if we limit ourselves.

Become part of a Lineage

A lineage, as the word is used here, means any tradition that evokes and propagates drala. Spiritual or religious lineages have no doubt produced our greatest lineage figures, but the path of drala cannot be defined as strictly sacred or secular. It could occur wherever genuine goodness and devotion are manifested. We might not even realize the lineages we are already part of; anyone who has ever read a poem has made contact with one of humanity’s most universal, primordial and wonderful lineages.

Seek Victory over War

Drala: (Tibetan: “dra,” enemy or opponent; “la,” above: “beyond the enemy.” The unconditioned wisdom and power of the world that are beyond any dualism, therefore drala is above any enemy or conflict. It is wisdom beyond aggression. It is the self existing wisdom and power of the cosmic mirror that are reflected both in us and in our world of perception. One of the key points in discovering drala principle is realizing that your own wisdom as a human being is not separate from the power of things as they are…reflections of the unconditioned wisdom of the cosmic mirror…When you can experience these two things together…then you have access to tremendous vision and power in the world…connected to your own vision, your own being. We actually perceive reality. Any perception can connect us to reality properly and fully.

–Shambala: Path of the Warrior, p. 103

What are the seeds of war? Division We live in a hall of mirrors of mutual perspective taking: I see you. I see you seeing me. I see you seeing me seeing you…and so on. Present is past brought forward. Some of us might see lovely reflections, others not so lovely. The point is all such reflections are relative perspectives, conditioned images—fragile, vulnerable, fragmented. Bringing awareness into the moment, coming to our senses, basking in the power of things as they are, explodes the mirrors—granting a vision of the non-dual, compassionate, unconditioned wisdom of the cosmic mirror where we actually begin to perceive reality. In an experience like satori egological, dualistic thinking collapses and, with self now supervening on drala, a transpersonal personhood emerges. This is what Christ meant when he said “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Matthew 22, verses 34-40, KJ) Once you experience the supervening ground connecting all aspects of the phenomenal world, thy neighbor is thy self (as you now share an actual noumenal ground).

Division breeds fear, and fear aggression. Just as murder is an extreme expression of aggression, war is collective aggression at its utmost—but the seeds of war are in each of us. Aggression alienates us from the drala principle. Aggression divides people from one another, but it also divides us from the world we are in. War is no longer simply a military exercise; we are so at war with our environment that our very survival is imperiled. So great is this threat that our various regional wars—even nuclear war—are overshadowed by our environmental crisis. The drala principle requires an honest study and constant unmasking of our own aggression and an allegiance to non-aggression. Aggression is, no doubt, a natural instinct in more primitive environments, ensuring survival of the fittest, most robust, enduring creatures. By “primitive” I mean environments where basic drives such as food, shelter and safety obtain. In modern environments where a significant percentage of the population rarely experiences a basic drive, drives are literally “pointless”—that is, there is no real point of content which, when reached, extinguishes that drive. In the modern world mind and sense disassociate, making life “senseless.” I would suggest in our current environment nonaggression serves the biological purpose aggression once did—making us robust and enduring.

Only human beings have come to a point where they no longer know why they exist. They don’t use their brains, and they have forgotten the secret knowledge of their bodies, their senses, or their dreams. They don’t use the knowledge that spirit has put into every one of them; they are not even aware of this, and so they stumble along blindly on the road to nowhere—a paved highway they themselves bulldoze and make smooth so that they can get faster to the big empty hole which they’ll find at the end, waiting to swallow them up. It’s a quick comfortable superhighway, but I know where it leads to. I’ve see it. I’ve been there in my vision and it makes me shudder to think about it.

—Lame Deer, Lakota Shaman

Non-aggression is not necessarily pacifism, but an intelligent, firm and awake state of being.

War has an alluring simplicity. It fills our mundane days with passion. It promises to rid us of problems. When it is over many miss it. War destroys families, leaves behind a wasteland, irreconcilable grief. It is a disease, Pity is banished. Fear rules.

Discover that “Luxury is Experiencing Reality”

“Luxury is experiencing reality” is another phrase Trungpa used which goes to the heart of the drala principle. In our consumer driven world a manic pursuit of outward luxury shields us from the elements. Luxury means “excess,” but external luxury is not an excess of drala rooted in the vast wisdom of non-dualistic, compassionate existence. Modern ideals of luxury involve cramming our lives with limitless things devoid of drala that fail to satisfy—leading us to acquire more things. Trungpa’s vision was a call for devotion and sacrifice in the spirit of sanity and as an alternative to the dark future facing humanity if the excesses of our age continue unchecked. When we live with awareness of the elements, we live in luxury. Conversely, nearly everything we call luxury is a distraction, a prison. The experience of rain is one of life’s great luxuries, the source of life falling from the sky! When we live with awareness of the elements,  we live in luxury. Conversely, nearly everything we call luxury is little more than a distraction—a hamster wheel on the road to nowhere.

Absent drala, free flow becomes stultification: attention turns to social gesturing, leading to posturing: posturing leads to status—mansions, palaces and all manner of acquisitiveness leading to fraud and plunder—then rebellion, armament, destruction, and defeat.

The following passage from a Taoist text sums up the Taoist view of the evolution and involution of both individuals and collective processes.

The fading away of the Tao is when openness turns into spirit, spirit into energy, and energy into form. When form is born, everything is thereby stultified. The functioning of the Tao is when form turns into energy, energy into spirit, and spirit into openness. When openness is clear, everything thereby flows freely.

—The Immortal Sisters: Secret Teachings of Taoist Women, translated by Thomas Cleary.

Paradise isn’t found on some remote Himalyan peak. It isn’t an alpha or omega point, or a reward. It is our most fundamental and natural right.

1.3 The Rigden Principle

We must use the energy-awakeness of the unbidden heart to have the courage to journey toward taking our deeply human seat as earth protector, Sakyong. It is only this kind of collective awakening that will save our planet from continued degradations and possible catastrophic collapse. The unbidden energy we sometimes feel in our heart is something more than the constituents of our personality. This energy is connected to the second pertinent Shambhala term, the Ridgen principle. You could say this primordial energy originates from an ultimate or unconditioned space (which all spiritual traditions attempt to evoke, understand or at least speak of). In the Shambhala tradition, it is not conceived of as God but as “The Rigdens,” the highest form of non-dual intelligence or being. The Rigdens are not exactly separate from us, yet we can say—and experience—that they want to help us. The Rigden principle is higher being, intelligence, or instinct we discover by eschewing the mindless acquisitiveness and aggression that results from the collision of primitive instincts and modern conditons.

Rigden means “possessing family heritage.” Our heritage goes back through our mothers and fathers and every ancestral predecessor to the dawn of humanity. But even that is an arbitrary designator, because our genetic heritage not only continues back through apes, but to the the original creatures of our earth’s oceans, then back to single cells, carbon, and stardust.

The dark things of the wood/Are coming from their caves, /Flexing muscle./They browse the orchard,/Nibble the sea of grasses/Around our yellow rooms,/Scarcely looking in/To see what we are doing/As if they still know us./We hear them, or think we do:/The muzzle lapping moonlight,/The tooth in the apple./Put another log on the fire;/Mozart, again, on the turntable./Still, there is a sorrow/With us in the room./We remember the cave./In our dreams we go back/Or they come to visit./They also like music./We eat leaves together./They are our brothers./They are the family/We have run away from.

–Mary Oliver

It is impossible not to possess this heritage, but our minds have acquired endless ideas and conditioning that ultimately makes us feel alone and alienated from any heritage at all. Existence, in the form of The Rigdens, and in every cell of life, has an allegiance to helping us reunite with our true family heritage. The ultimate and highest dralas are the Rigdens. How do the Rigdens help us? There is a simple process we must undertake, and in the undertaking, help arrives inseparable from the process and, perhaps, for a long time unnoticed.

There is a simple process we can undertake, and as we undertake this process help arrives in a manner inseparable from that process and, for a time, perhaps unnoticed. There are steps in this process, but in no particular order.

We must recognize our response-ability

We must recognize our response-ability (to separate the word into its obvious halves). Each of us has a unique ability to respond to our life experience and thus effect the world around us. The great Zen teacher Dogen said, “Everyone has all the provisions they need for their lifetime.” Yet amidst injustice, deformity, starvation, war and poverty it hardly seems believable that we each still have the provisions we need. The provisions Dogen spoke of were the ones needed to wake up, and waking up can never occur from material other than what we have, however awful. To recognize the material of our response-ability is a life-time process that is too infrequently tried.

As we do try to recognize and commit to our response-ability, the world offers a response—you could say the rigdens respond. Small forms of acknowledgment occur; accidents, synchronicities, threads of new possibility. The sense of “moving in the right direction” is palpable though not always tangible; it is a kind of real support that comes to our aid.

We must begin to simplify and risk

When we realize “luxury is experiencing reality,” simplifying is not a hardship but something natural—and natural things tend to do very well if they are allowed to. Simplifying provides the ground to risk. Most of us in the first world have far more resources available to us than the vast majority of humanity. We not only have the possibility but the responsibility to risk some of our so-called security for benefit of finding and taking our seat and in turn, helping others.

We must realize our privilege.

Most of us living in the first-world have tremendous privileges over the greater majority of human beings who live in the third world. A hundred dollars does not necessarily mean a great deal in, say, middle-class United States, but in terms of the overall world economy where the majority of human beings make only a dollar or two a day—one-hundred dollars is a tremendous amount of money.

That we could leverage our life in an entirely different way—and for very different purposes—is the point of realizing our privilege. Recognizing and acknowledging our privilege takes courage because it begins to dissolve the sense we are “special,” entitled to what we have, and that it will always be there.

Simply put, the dralas do not prefer cowards, whereas any expression of the courage to become more vulnerable will potentially attract the dralas. Acknowledging our privilege means to become more vulnerable. The rigden principle—as the ultimate drala principle—is the self-existing sense of fearlessness we find in ourselves. As we become courageous we become anointed—or self-anointed—with courage, and the process of courage then grows on itself.

Supplicate for vision and support.

If we are unwilling to simplify, risk, renounce our privileges and assume responsibility it is unlikely it would occur to us to supplicate for a vision, much less receive one. Conversely, if we do have this willingness, we already have a vision; vision is surrender to what our heart desires. This is not the vision of ego, which +always “wants” that which will make us more comfortable. A vision will have its way with us, but it will also come with a curious way of providing the necessary provisions. Simply to supplicate into the unknown is a act of courage and a link with vision.

What is vision? It is the truth of the human heart, which exists in nowness outside of time and can never be discovered through hope and fear.

My deep sigh rises above the earth as a cry,/And the answer comes from within as a message.                                                                                                                                                              –Hazrat Inayat Khan

Drala: (Tibetan: “dra,” enemy or opponent; “la,” above: “beyond the enemy.” The unconditioned wisdom and power of the world that are beyond any dualism, therefore drala is above any enemy or conflict. It is wisdom beyond aggression.

The condition of the world at this moment has more to do with forces acting on this world than forces acting within this world. These are not supernatural forces in the sense presumed by the prophetic theologies of the west, where God, angels, and demons are presumed to have an existence prior to the evolution of the natural world. as entities entirely separate from that world. But neither are they “natural’ in the limited sense presumed by current science. In The Singularity is Near Ray Kurtzweil discusses attempts in neuroscience to map consciousness in such a manner we would then be able to download our minds into computers or, using nanotechnology, into rocks or even clouds. So even within the current purview of modern science the distinction between what we call “embodied” and “disembodied” beings might not hold in the way we think it does. We need to start using the term “instantiation” of being rather than “embodied” beings, as this implies the idea of a certain configuration of information rather than what we call “physical” bodies.

So what I’m saying is that there are somewhat malevolent instantiated forces who feed off discord and pain trying to ensure they continue to be fed. Mass media can be thought of, at the moment, as their preferred delivery device. Every tale of some pharmacist refusing to fill a morning-after pill, or some racist calling the cops on someone because their skin color is black, simultaneously encourages other malcontents to act in a similar fashion, and stirs up outrage in those upset by this sort of behavior–both reactions serve their purposes.

How do such beings come to be? By doubling down on angry and stupid–a common choice in the world at the moment–no?  Imagine folks like the Koch brothers who avail themselves of life extension technologies like Mr. Kurtzweil discussed, and you begin to get the picture.

There is a line in the I Ching that reads, “Be like the sky with the mountains. No matter who far the mountains rise up, they never touch the sky.” When we know the truth of our being, that we live beyond dualisms like self/world, self/other, life/death, then we begin to live beyond aggression and fear.

And this is the only thing such forces fear–that we will awaken to, be informed of, our true nature, becoming fearless and loving, thereby aligning ourselves with the Rigdens.  Hatred and fear is how they sustain themselves–without it they will have to prey on some other part of the universe or die off.

And this is why the drala principle is such a crucial message at this moment in time. Despite how things look, this is an auspicious moment to awaken, as the forces of beauty and love are eager to help us awaken to our true being. Help is there like never before. All we need to do is avail ourselves of it, and the Bon Praxis shows us exactly how to do that.


Developmental Stages

Developmental Stages: Piaget

Sensorimotor Stage
0-2 years—Child begins to make use of imitation, memory, and thought.
Begins to recognize that objects do not cease to exist when they are hidden.
Moves from reflex action to goal-oriented action.
Preoperational Stage
2-7 years—The preoperational stage occurs between two and six. Language development is one of the hallmarks of this period. Piaget noted that children in this stage do not yet understand concrete logic, cannot mentally manipulate information, and are unable to take the point of view of other people, which he termed egocentrism.
During the preoperational stage, children also become increasingly adept at using symbols, as evidenced by the increase in playing and pretending. For example, a child is able to use an object to represent something else, such as pretending a broom is a horse. Role playing also becomes important during this stage. Children often play the role of “mommy,” “daddy,” doctor,” and many others.
Egocentrism: Piaget used a number of clever techniques to study the mental abilities of children. One of the famous techniques regarding egocentrism involved using a three-dimensional display of a mountain scene. Children were asked to choose a picture that showed the scene they had observed. Most children are able to do this with little difficulty. Next, children are asked to select a picture showing what someone else would have observed looking at the mountain from a different viewpoint. Invariably, children almost always choose the scene showing their own view of the mountain scene. According to Piaget, children experience this difficulty because they are unable to take on another person’s perspective.
Conservation: Another well-known experiment involves demonstrating a child’s understanding of conservation. In one experiment, equal amounts of liquid are poured into identical containers. The liquid in one container is then poured into a different shaped cup, such as a tall, thin cup, or a short and wide cup. Children are then asked which cup holds the most liquid. Despite seeing that the liquid amounts were equal, children almost always choose the cup that appears fuller.
Concrete Operational
7-11 years—During this stage children begin thinking logically about concrete events, but have difficulty understanding abstract or hypothetical concepts.
Logic: Piaget determined that children in the concrete operational stage were fairly good at the use of inductive logic (going from a specific experience to a general principle). On the other hand, children at this age have difficulty using deductive logic (using a general principle to determine the outcome of a specific event.
Reversibility: One of the most important developments in this stage is an understanding of reversibility, or awareness that actions can be reversed. An example of this is being able to reverse the order of relationships between mental categories. For example, a child might be able to recognize that his or her dog is a Labrador, that a Labrador is a dog, and that a dog is an animal.
Formal Operational
11-15 years—The formal operational stage begins at age twelve and lasts into adulthood. During this time, people develop the ability to think about abstract concepts. Skills such as logical thought, deductive reasoning, and systematic planning also emerge during this state.
Logic: Piaget believed that deductive logic becomes important during this stage. Deductive logic involves hypothetical situations and is often required in science and mathematics.
Abstract Thought: While children tend to think very concretely and specifically in earlier stages, the ability to think about abstract concepts emerges during this stage. Instead of relying solely on previous experiences, children begin to consider possible outcomes and consequences of their actions.
Problem Solving: In earlier stages, children use trial-and-error to solve problems. At the formal operational stage children approach problems in a logical and methodical manner.



Level 1 Preconventional Morality

Stage 1 Obedience and Punishment Orientation
Kohlberg’s stage 1 is similar to Piaget’s first stage of moral thought. The child assumes that powerful authorities hand down a fixed set of rules which he or she must unquestioningly obey. To the Heinz dilemma, the child typically says that Heinz was wrong to steal the drug because “It’s against the law,” or “It’s bad to steal,” as if this were all there were to it. When asked to elaborate, the child usually responds in terms of the consequences involved, explaining that stealing is bad “because you’ll get punished” (Kohlberg, 1958b).
Although the vast majority of children at stage 1 oppose Heinz’s theft, it is still possible for a child to support the action and still employ stage 1 reasoning. For example, a child might say, “Heinz can steal it because he asked first and it’s not like he stole something big; he won’t get punished” (see Rest, 1973). Even though the child agrees with Heinz’s action, the reasoning is still stage 1; the concern is with what authorities permit and punish.
Kohlberg calls stage 1 thinking “preconventional” because children do not yet speak as members of society. Instead, they see morality as something external to themselves, as that which the big people say they must do.
Stage 2 Individualism and Exchange
At this stage children recognize that there is not just one right view that is handed down by the authorities. Different individuals have different viewpoints. “Heinz,” they might point out, “might think it’s right to take the drug, the druggist would not.” Since everything is relative, each person is free to pursue his or her individual interests. One boy said that Heinz might steal the drug if he wanted his wife to live, but that he doesn’t have to if he wants to marry someone younger and better-looking (Kohlberg, 1963, p. 24). Another boy said Heinz might steal it because…maybe they had children and he might need someone at home to look after them. But maybe he shouldn’t steal it because they might put him in prison for more years than he could stand. (Colby and Kauffman. 1983, p. 300)
What is right for Heinz, then, is what meets his own self-interests.
You might have noticed that children at both stages 1 and 2 talk about punishment. However, they perceive it differently. At stage 1 punishment is tied up in the child’s mind with wrongness; punishment “proves” that disobedience is wrong. At stage 2, in contrast, punishment is simply a risk that one naturally wants to avoid.
Although stage 2 respondents sometimes sound amoral, they do have some sense of right action. This is a notion of fair exchange or fair deals. The philosophy is one of returning favors–“If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” To the Heinz story, subjects often say that Heinz was right to steal the drug because the druggist was unwilling to make a fair deal; he was “trying to rip Heinz off,” Or they might say that he should steal for his wife “because she might return the favor some day” (Gibbs et al., 1983, p. 19).
Respondents at stage 2 are still said to reason at the preconventional level because they speak as isolated individuals rather than as members of society. They see individuals exchanging favors, but there is still no identification with the values of the family or community.

Level II. Conventional Morality

Stage 3. Good Interpersonal Relationships.
At this stage children–who are by now usually entering their teens–see morality as more than simple deals. They believe that people should live up to the expectations of the family and community and behave in “good” ways. Good behavior means having good motives and interpersonal feelings such as love, empathy, trust, and concern for others. Heinz, they typically argue, was right to steal the drug because “He was a good man for wanting to save her,” and “His intentions were good, that of saving the life of someone he loves.” Even if Heinz doesn’t love his wife, these subjects often say, he should steal the drug because “I don’t think any husband should sit back and watch his wife die” (Gibbs et al., 1983, pp. 36-42; Kohlberg, 1958b).
If Heinz’s motives were good, the druggist’s were bad. The druggist, stage 3 subjects emphasize, was “selfish,” “greedy,” and “only interested in himself, not another life.” Sometimes the respondents become so angry with the druggist that they say that he ought to be put in jail (Gibbs et al., 1983, pp. 26-29, 40-42). A typical stage 3 response is that of Don, age 13:
It was really the druggist’s fault, he was unfair, trying to overcharge and letting someone die. Heinz loved his wife and wanted to save her. I think anyone would. I don’t think they would put him in jail. The judge would look at all sides, and see that the druggist was charging too much. (Kohlberg, 1963, p. 25)
We see that Don defines the issue in terms of the actors’ character traits and motives. He talks about the loving husband, the unfair druggist, and the understanding judge. His answer deserves the label “conventional “morality” because it assumes that the attitude expressed would be shared by the entire community—”anyone” would be right to do what Heinz did (Kohlberg, 1963, p. 25).
As mentioned earlier, there are similarities between Kohlberg’s first three stages and Piaget’s two stages. In both sequences there is a shift from unquestioning obedience to a relativistic outlook and to a concern for good motives. For Kohlberg, however, these shifts occur in three stages rather than two.
Stage 4. Maintaining the Social Order
Stage 3 reasoning works best in two-person relationships with family members or close friends, where one can make a real effort to get to know the other’s feelings and needs and try to help. At stage 4, in contrast, the respondent becomes more broadly concerned with society as a whole. Now the emphasis is on obeying laws, respecting authority, and performing one’s duties so that the social order is maintained. In response to the Heinz story, many subjects say they understand that Heinz’s motives were good, but they cannot condone the theft. What would happen if we all started breaking the laws whenever we felt we had a good reason? The result would be chaos; society couldn’t function. As one subject explained, I don’t want to sound like Spiro Agnew, law and order and wave the flag, but if everybody did as he wanted to do, set up his own beliefs as to right and wrong, then I think you would have chaos. The only thing I think we have in civilization nowadays is some sort of legal structure which people are sort of bound to follow. [Society needs] a centralizing framework. (Gibbs et al., 1983, pp. 140-41). Because stage 4, subjects make moral decisions from the perspective of society as a whole, they think from a full-fledged member-of-society perspective (Colby and Kohlberg, 1983, p. 27). You will recall that stage 1 children also generally oppose stealing because it breaks the law. Superficially, stage 1 and stage 4 subjects are giving the same response, so we see here why Kohlberg insists that we must probe into the reasoning behind the overt response. Stage 1 children say, “It’s wrong to steal” and “It’s against the law,” but they cannot elaborate any further, except to say that stealing can get a person jailed. Stage 4 respondents, in contrast, have a conception of the function of laws for society as a whole–a conception which far exceeds the grasp of the younger child.

Level III. Postconventional Morality
Stage 5. Social Contract and Individual Rights.
At stage 4, people want to keep society functioning. However, a smoothly functioning society is not necessarily a good one. A totalitarian society might be well-organized, but it is hardly the moral ideal. At stage 5, people begin to ask, “What makes for a good society?” They begin to think about society in a very theoretical way, stepping back from their own society and considering the rights and values that a society ought to uphold. They then evaluate existing societies in terms of these prior considerations. They are said to take a “prior-to-society” perspective (Colby and Kohlberg, 1983, p. 22).
Stage 5 respondents basically believe that a good society is best conceived as a social contract into which people freely enter to work toward the benefit of all They recognize that different social groups within a society will have different values, but they believe that all rational people would agree on two points. First they would all want certain basic rights, such as liberty and life, to be protected Second, they would want some democratic procedures for changing unfair law and for improving society. In response to the Heinz dilemma, stage 5 respondents make it clear that they do not generally favor breaking laws; laws are social contracts that we agree to uphold until we can change them by democratic means. Nevertheless, the wife’s right to live is a moral right that must be protected. Thus, stage 5 respondent sometimes defend Heinz’s theft in strong language:
It is the husband’s duty to save his wife. The fact that her life is in danger transcends every other standard you might use to judge his action. Life is more important than property. This young man went on to say that “from a moral standpoint” Heinz should save the life of even a stranger, since to be consistent, the value of a life means any life. When asked if the judge should punish Heinz, he replied: Usually the moral and legal standpoints coincide. Here they conflict. The judge should weight the moral standpoint more heavily but preserve the legal law in punishing Heinz lightly. (Kohlberg, 1976, p. 38). Stage 5 subjects,- then, talk about “morality” and “rights” that take some priority over particular laws. Kohlberg insists, however, that we do not judge people to be at stage 5 merely from their verbal labels. We need to look at their social perspective and mode of reasoning. At stage 4, too, subjects frequently talk about the “right to
life,” but for them this right is legitimized by the authority of their social or religious group (e.g., by the Bible). Presumably, if their group valued property over life, they would too. At stage 5, in contrast, people are making more of an independent effort to think out what any society ought to value. They often reason, for example, that property has little meaning without life. They are trying to determine logically what a society ought to be like (Kohlberg, 1981, pp. 21-22; Gibbs et al., 1983, p. 83).
Stage 6: Universal Principles.
Stage 5 respondents are working toward a conception of the good society. They suggest that we need to (a) protect certain individual rights and (b) settle disputes through democratic processes. However, democratic processes alone do not always result in outcomes that we intuitively sense are just. A majority, for example, may vote for a law that hinders a minority. Thus, Kohlberg believes that there must be a higher stage–stage 6–which defines the principles by which we achieve justice.
Kohlberg’s conception of justice follows that of the philosophers Kant and Rawls, as well as great moral leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King. According to these people, the principles of justice require us to treat the claims of all parties in an impartial manner, respecting the basic dignity, of all people as individuals. The principles of justice are therefore universal; they apply to all. Thus, for example, we would not vote for a law that aids some people but hurts others. The principles of justice guide us toward decisions based on an equal respect for all.
In actual practice, Kohlberg says, we can reach just decisions by looking at a situation through one another’s eyes. In the Heinz dilemma, this would mean that all parties–the druggist, Heinz, and his wife–take the roles of the others. To do this in an impartial manner, people can assume a “veil of ignorance” (Rawls, 1971), acting as if they do not know which role they will eventually occupy. If the druggist did this, even he would recognize that life must take priority over property; for he wouldn’t want to risk finding himself in the wife’s shoes with property valued over life. Thus, they would all agree that the wife must be saved–this would be the fair solution. Such a solution, we must note, requires not only impartiality, but the principle that everyone is given full and equal respect. If the wife were considered of less value than the others, a just solution could not be reached.
Until recently, Kohlberg had been scoring some of his subjects at stage 6, but he has temporarily stopped doing so, For one thing, he and other researchers had not been finding subjects who consistently reasoned at this stage. Also, Kohlberg has concluded that his interview dilemmas are not useful for distinguishing between stage 5 and stage 6 thinking. He believes that stage 6 has a clearer and broader conception of universal principles (which include justice as well as individual rights), but feels that his interview fails to draw out this broader understanding. Consequently, he has temporarily dropped stage 6 from his scoring manual, calling it a “theoretical stage” and scoring all postconventional responses as stage 5 (Colby and Kohlberg, 1983, p. 28).
Theoretically, one issue that distinguishes stage 5 from stage 6 is civil disobedience. Stage 5 would be more hesitant to endorse civil disobedience because of its commitment to the social contract and to changing laws through democratic agreements. Only when an individual right is clearly at stake does violating the law seem justified. At stage 6, in contrast, a commitment to
justice makes the rationale for civil disobedience stronger and broader. Martin Luther King, for example, argued that laws are only valid insofar as they are grounded in justice, and that a commitment to justice carries with it an obligation to disobey unjust laws. King also recognized, of course, the general need for laws and democratic processes (stages 4 and 5), and he was therefore willing to accept the penalties for his actions. Nevertheless, he believed that the higher principle of justice required civil disobedience (Kohlberg, 198 1, p. 43).
At stage 1 children think of what is right as that which authority says is right. Doing the right thing is obeying authority and avoiding punishment. At stage 2, children are no longer so impressed by any single authority; they see that there are different sides to any issue. Since everything is relative, one is free to pursue one’s own interests, although it is often useful to make deals and exchange favors with others.
At stages 3 and 4, young people think as members of the conventional society with its values, norms, and expectations. At stage 3, they emphasize being a good person, which basically means having helpful motives toward people close to one At stage 4, the concern shifts toward obeying laws to maintain society as a whole.
At stages 5 and 6 people are less concerned with maintaining society for it own sake, and more concerned with the principles and values that make for a good society. At stage 5 they emphasize basic rights and the democratic processes that give everyone a say, and at stage 6 they define the principles by which agreement will be most just.


Developmental Stages: Ken Wilber
Sensorimotor: 0-2 (Archaic and Archaic-Magic):

By the time of birth, the human being has developed from protoplasmic irritability to sensation to perception to impulse to proto-emotion…But none of these functions is yet clearly differentiated (or integrated), and the first years of life are a quick coming-to-terms with the physiosphere (non-biological features of the universe, including stars and planets) and the biosphere (the domain of life, includes but transcends the physiosphere) both within and without, in preparation for the emergence of the noosphere (includes complex sentient life, such as mammals and humans), which begins in earnest around age two with the emergence of language.
Thus Piaget, for example, in speaking of the first year of life, says that “the self is here material, so to speak.” It is still, that is, embedded primarily in the physiosphere. In the first place, the infant cannot easily distinguish between subject and object or self and material environment, but instead lives in a state of “primary narcissism” (Freud) or “oceanic adualism” (Arieti) or “pleromatic fusion” (Jung) or primary “indissociation” (Piaget). The infants self and material environment (and especially the mother) are in a state of primitive nondifferentiation or indissociation. On the psychosexual side, this is the “oral phase” because the infant is coming to terms with food, physical nourishment, life in the physiosphere.
Sometime between the fourth and ninth month, this archaic indissociation gives way to a physical bodyself differentiated from the physical environment—the “real birth” of the individual physical self. Margaret Mahler actually refers to it as “hatching.” The infant bites its thumb and it hurts, bites the blanket and it doesn’t. There is a difference, it learns, between the physical self and the physical other.
Another way to put this is to say that, with this first major differentiation consciousness seats itself in the physical body, grounds itself in the physiosphere…Many researchers…have concluded that if, due to physiological/genetic factors or repeated trauma, consciousness fails to seat itself in the physical self, the result is psychosis of one sort or another. Psychosis is many things…but it certainly includes a failure to establish a rounded physical self clearly differentiated from the environment. The psychotic, R.D. Laing put it, is constantly “jumping out of the body”; he or she cannot easily differentiate where the body stops and the chair begins; subject and object collapse in a state of fusion and confusion, with hallucinatory blurring of boundaries, and so forth. Psychosis, we may say, is a failure to differentiate and integrate the physiosphere.
If all goes relatively well, then the infant transcends the archaic fusion state and emerges or hatches as a grounded self.
The sensorimotor period (0-2) is thus predominantly concerned with differentiating the physical self from the physical environment, and results, toward the end of the second year, in what Piaget calls physical “object permanence,” the capacity of the infant to understand that physical objects exist independently of him or her (i.e., the physical world exists independently of ones egocentric wishes about it).
Thus, out of an initial state of primary indissociation (“protoplasmic,” Piaget also calls it), the physical self and the physical other emerges.
It is through a progressive differentiation that the internal world comes into being and is contrasted with the external. Neither of these two terms is given at the start…During the
early stages the [physical] world and the self are one; neither term is distinguished from the other. But when they become distinct, these two terms begin by remaining very close to each other: the world is still conscious and full of intentions, the self is still material, so to speak, and only slightly interiorized. At every stage there remain in the conception of nature what we might call “adherences,” fragments of internal experience still cling to the external world.
At the end of the sensorimotor period, the physical self and physical other are clearly differentiated, but as the mind begins to emerge with preop, the mental images and symbols themselves are initially fused and confused with the external world, leading to what Piaget calls “adherences,” which children themselves will eventually reject as being inadequate and misleading. We have distinguished [several] varieties of adherences defined in this way. There are, to begin with, during a very early stage, feelings of participation accompanied sometimes by magical beliefs; the sun and moon follow us, and if we walk, it is enough to make them move along; things notice us and obey us, like the wind, the clouds, the night, etc.; the moon, the street lamps, etc., send us dreams “to annoy us,” etc., etc. In short, the world is filled with tendencies and intentions which are [centered on} our own. A second form of adherence, closely allied to the preceding, is that constituted by animism, which makes a child endow things with consciousness and life [oriented solely toward the child]…In this magico-animistic order: on the one hand, we issue commands to things (the sun and the moon, the clouds and the sky follow us), on the other hand, these things acquiesce in our desires because they wish to do so. A third form is artificialism [anthropocentrism]. The child begins by thinking of things in terms of his own “I”: the things around him take notice of man and are made for man; everything about them is willed and intentional, everything is organized for the good of men. If we ask the child, or the child asks himself, how things began, he has recourse to man to explain them. Thus artificialism is based on feelings of participation which constitute a very special and very important class of adherences.
As we shall see, Piaget believes that the major and in many way defining characteristic of all adherences is egocentrism, or an early and initial inability to transcend one’s own perspective and understand that reality is not self-centered. Development proceeds slowly from egocentrism to perspectivism, from realism to reciprocity and mutuality, and from absolutism to relativity:
This formula means that the child, after having regarded his own point of view as absolute,
comes to discover the possibility of other points of view and to conceive of reality as constituted, no longer by what is immediately given, but by what is common to all points of view taken together. One of the first aspects of this process is the passage from realism of perception to interpretation properly so called. All the younger children take their immediate perceptions as true, and then proceed to interpret them according to their own egocentric relations.
The most striking example is that of the clouds and the heavenly bodies, of which children believe that they follow us. The sun and moon are small globes traveling a little way above the level of the roofs of houses and following us about on our walks. Even the child of 6-8 years does not hesitate to take this perception as the expression of truth, and, curiously enough, he never thinks of asking himself whether these heavenly bodies do not also follow other people.
When we ask the cautious question as to which of two people walking in the opposite direction the sun would prefer to follow, the child is taken aback and shows how new the question is to him. [Older children,} on the other hand, have discovered that the sun follows everybody. From this they conclude that the truth lies in the reciprocity of the points of view: that the sun is very high up, that it follows no one…
Piaget is at pains to indicate that the process of differentiation/ integration between internal and external world is a long and slow one. It is not, for example, that magico-animistic beliefs are present at one stage and then completely disappear at the next, but rather that cognitions referred to as “magical” become progressively less and less as development proceeds, moving from a “pure magical autism” to mental egocentricity to reciprocal and mutual sharing. In a very important passage Piaget gets to the heart of the matter.
For the construction of the objective world and the elaboration of strict reasoning both consist in a gradual reduction of egocentricity in favor of…reciprocity of viewpoints. In both cases, the initial state is marked by the fact that the self is confused with the external world and with other
people.; the vision of the world is falsified by subjective adherences, and the vision of other people is falsified by the fact that the personal point of view predominates, almost to the exclusion of all others. Thus in both cases, truth is obscured by the ego. Then, as the child discovers that others do not think as he does, he makes efforts to adapt himself to them, he bows to exigencies of control and verification which are implied by discussion and argument, and thus comes to replace egocentric logic by the logic created by social life. We saw that exactly the same process took place with regard to the idea of reality. There is therefore an egocentric logic and an egocentric ontology, of which the consequences are parallel; they both falsify the perspective of relations and of things, because they both start from the assumption that other people understand us and agree with us from the first, and that things’ revolve around us with the sole purpose of serving us and resembling us.
A note on terminology: Piaget divides each of the major cognitive stages into at least two substages (early and late preop, early and late conop, early and late formop), and I have generally followed Piaget in this regard. Since we have also been using Gebser’s general worldview terminology of archaic, magic, mythic, and mental (with clear implication that they are referring to essentially similar stages), I will often hybridize Gebser’s terminology to match Piaget’s substages, so that we have a continuum of archaic, archaic-magic, mythic, mythic-rational, rational, rational-existential (and into vision-logic, psychic, etc.)…
The preponderance of indissociations and adherences at the sensorimotor and early preoperational have lead Piaget to refer to this general early period as one of “magical cognitions” or “magic proper.” As he explains:
The first [general stage] is that which precedes any clear consciousness of the self, and may be arbitrarily set down as lasting until the age of 2-3, that is, till the appearance of the first “whys,” which symbolize in a way the first awareness of resistance in the external world. As far as we can conjecture, two phenomena characterize this first stage [the overall archaic-magic]. From the [internal] point of view, it is pure autism, or thought akin to dreams and daydreams, thought in which truth is confused with desire. To every desire corresponds immediately an image or illusion which transforms this desire into reality, thanks to a sort of pseudo-hallucination or play. No objective observation or reasoning is possible: there is only a perpetual play which transforms perceptions and creates situations in accordance with the subject’s pleasure [this is a stage that is often eulogized and “elevated” by the Romantics, such as Norman O. Brown, to a “spiritual non dual” state, whereas it is actually, as we have seen, a very egocentric, narcissistic state: operational, not transrational. From the ontological viewpoint, what corresponds to this manner of thinking is primitive psychological causality, probably in a form that implies magic proper: the belief that any desire whatsoever can influence objects, the belief in the obedience of external things. Magic and autism are therefore two different sides of one and the same phenomena—that confusion between the self and the world…
Preoperational (Magic And Magic—Mythic) 2-7 Years
If all goes relatively well, the infant transcends the early archaic fusion state and emerges or hatches as a grounded physical self. But if the infant’s physical body is now separated from the environment, its emotional body is not. The infant’s emotional self still exists in a state of indissociation from other emotional objects, in particular the mothering one. But then, around eighteen months or so, the infant learns to differentiate its feelings from the feelings of others (this is the second major differentiation, or “second fulcrum”). Its own biosphere is differentiated from the biosphere of those around it—in other words, it transcends its embeddedness in the undifferentiated biosphere…
Mahler refers to this crucial transformation (the second fulcrum) as the “separation-individuation phase,” or the differentiation-and-integration of a stable emotional self (whereas the previous fulcrum, as we saw, was the differentiation/integration of the physical self.) Mahler actually calls this fulcrum “the psychological birth of the infant,” because the infant emerges from its emotional fusion with the (m)other.
A developmental miscarriage at this crucial fulcrum (according to Mahler, Kernberg, and others) results in narcissistic and borderline pathologies, because if the infant does not differentiate-separate its feelings from the feelings of those around it, then it is open to being “flooded” and “swept away” by its emotional environment, on the one hand (the borderline syndromes), or it can treat the entire world as a mere extension of its own feelings (the narcissistic condition)—both of which result from a failure to transcend an embeddedness in the undifferentiated biosphere. One remains in indissociation with, or “merged” with, the biosphere, stuck in the biosphere, just as with the previous psychoses one remains merged with or stuck in the physiosphere.
By around age three, if all has gone well, the young child has a stable and coherent physical and emotional self; it has differentiated and integrated, transcended and preserved, its own physiosphere and biosphere. By this time language has begun to emerge, and development in the noosphere begins in earnest.
Thus, the intensity of the early archaic-magic declines with the differentiation of the emotional self and the emotional other (24-36 months)—but, according to Piaget, magical cognitions continue to dominate the entire preoperational period (2-4 years), the period I simply call “magic.”
In other words, the first major layer of the noosphere is magical. During this period, the newly emerging images and symbols do not merely represent objects; they are thought to be concretely part of the things they represent, and thus “word magic” abounds:
Up to the age 4-5, [the child] thinks that he is “forcing” or compelling the moon to move; the relation takes on an aspect of dynamic participation or of magic. From 4-5 he is more inclined to think that the moon is trying to follow him: the relation is animistic. Closely akin to this participation is magical causality, magic being in many respects simply participation: the subject regards his gestures, his thoughts, or the objects he handles, as charged with efficacy, thanks to the very participations which he establishes between those gestures, etc., and the things around him [“adherences”]. Thus, a certain word acts upon a certain thing; a certain gesture will protect one from a certain danger; a certain white pebble will bring about the growth of the water lilies, and so on…
Piaget refers to such magical cognitions as a form of “participation”— that is, the subject and the object, and various objects themselves, are “linked” by certain types of adherences, or felt connections, connections that nonetheless violate the rich fabric of relations actually constituting the object.
This is very much what Freud referred to as the primary process, which is governed by two general laws, that of displacement and that of condensation. In displacement, two different objects are equated or “linked” because they share similar parts or predicates (a relation of
similarity; if one Asian person is bad, all Asians must be bad). In condensation, different objects are related because they exist in the same space (a relation of contiguity: a lock of hair of a great warrior “contains” in condensed form the power of the warrior)…
Put simply, such primary process or magical cognition…does not set whole and part in a rich network of mutual relationships, but short-circuits the process by merely collapsing or confusing various wholes and parts—what Piaget called syncretism and juxtaposition (again, similarity and contiguity). Magical cognition, then, is fused and confused wholes and parts, and not mutually related wholes and parts. These “fused networks” of “syncretic whole” appear very holistic (or “holographic”), but are actually not very coherent and do not even match the already available sensorimotor evidence.
[This] type of relation is participation. This type is more frequent than would at first appear
to be the case, but it disappears after the age of 5-6. It’s first principle is the following: two things between which there subsist relations either of resemblance [similarity; metaphor] or of general affinity [contiguity; metonym], are conceived as having something in common which enables them to act upon one another at a distance, or more precisely, to regard one as a source of emanation, the other as the emanation of the first. Thus air or shadows in a room emanate from the air and shadows out of doors. Thus also dreams, which are sent to us by birds “who like the wind.” [The child] begins, indeed, as we do, by feeling the analogy of the shadow cast by the brook with the shadows of trees, houses, etc. But this analogy does not lead him to identify the particular cases with one another. So that we have here, not an analogy proper, but syncretism. The child argues as follows: “This book makes a shadow; trees, houses, etc., make shadows. The book’s shadow (therefore) comes from the trees and the houses. Thus, from the point of view of the cause or of the structure of the object, there is participation, syncretistic schemas resulting from the fusion of singular terms…
The Shift From Magic to Mythic
As we move from early preoperational (2-4 years; “magic”) to late peroperational (4-7 years; “magic-mythic”), similar types of adherences continue to dominate awareness. But one crucial difference comes to the fore: magic proper—the belief that the subject can magically alter the object—diminishes rapidly. Continued interaction with the world eventually leads the subject to realize that his or her thoughts do not egocentrically control, create, or govern the world. The “hidden linkages” don’t hold up in reality.
Magic proper thus diminishes, or rather, the omnipotent magic of the individual subject—a magic that no longer “works”—is simply transferred to other subjects. Maybe I can’t order the world around, but Daddy (or God or the volcano spirit) can.
And thus onto the scene come crashing a hundred gods and goddesses, all capable of doing what I can no longer do: miraculously alter the patterns of nature in order to cater to my wants. Whereas in the earlier magical stages proper, the secret of the universe was to learn the right type of magic that would directly alter the world, the focus now is to learn the right rituals and prayers that will make the gods and goddesses intervene and alter the world for me. Piaget:
The possibility of miracles is, of course, admitted, or rather, miracles form the part of the child’s conception of the world, since law [at this stage] is a moral thing with the possibility of numerous exceptions [“suspended by God” or a powerful other]. Children have been quoted who asked their parents to stop the rain, to turn spinach into potatoes, etc.
Thus the shift from magic to magic-mythic. Piaget: “The first stage is magical: we make the clouds move by walking. The cloud obeys us at a distance. The average age of this stage is 5. The second stage [magic-mythic] is both artificialist and animistic. Clouds move because God or [other] men make them move. The average age of this stage is 6.” It is from this magic-mythic structure that so many of the world’s classical mythologies seem in large part to issue. As Phillip Cowan points out, “During the [late preop or magic-mythic] stage, there is still a confusion between physical and personal causality; the physical world appears to operate much the way people do. All of these examples [show that the late preop] children already have developed elaborate mythologies about cosmic questions such as the nature of life (and death) and the cause of wind [and so forth}. Further, these mythologies show many similarities from child to child across cultures and do not seem to have been directly taught by adults.”
Myth And Archetype
This directly brings us, of course, to the work of Carl Jung and his conclusion that the essential forms and motifs of the world’s great mythologies—the “archaic forms” or “archetypes”—are inherited in the individual psyche of each of us.
It is not often realized that Freud was in complete agreement with Jung about the existence of this archaic heritage. Freud was struck by the fact that individuals in therapy kept reproducing essentially similar “phantasies,” phantasies that seemed therefore somehow to be collectively inherited. “Whence comes the necessity for these phantasies and the material for them?” he asks. “How is it to be explained that the same phantasies are always formed with the same content? I have an answer to this which I know will seem to you very daring. I believe that these primal phantasies are a phylogenetic possession. In them the individual stretches out to the experiences of past ages.”
This phylogenetic or “archaic heritage” includes, according to Freud, “abbreviated repetitions of the evolution undergone by the whole human race through the long-drawn-out periods and from the pre-historic ages.” Although, as we will see, Freud and Jung differed profoundly over the actual nature of this archaic heritage, Freud nevertheless made it very clear that “I fully agree with Jung in recognizing the existence of this phylogenetic heritage.”
Piaget has also written extensively on his essential agreement with and appreciation of Jung’s work. But he differs with Jung in that he does not see the archetypes themselves as being directly inherited from past ages, but rather as being the secondary by-products of cognitive structures which themselves are similar where ever they develop and which, in interpreting a common physical world, generate common motifs.
But whether we follow Freud, Jung, or Piaget, the conclusion is essentially the same: all the world’s great mythologies exist today in each of us, in me and in you. They are produced, and can at any time be produced, by the archaic, the magic, and the mythic structures of our own compound individuality (and classically by the magic-mythic structure).
The question then centers—and here Freud and Jung bitterly parted ways—on the nature and function of these mythic motifs, these archetypes. Are they merely infantile and regressive (Freud), or do they also contain a rich source of spiritual wisdom (Jung)? Piaget, needless to say, sided with Freud on this particular issue. I have already suggested that I do not see these particular “archetypes” as being quite the high source of transpersonal wisdom that Jung
believed; but the situation is very subtle and complex, and we will return to it later…in connection with Joseph Campbell…
Campbell, we will see, believes that in certain circumstances…the early mythic archetypes can carry profound religious and spiritual meaning and power. But even Campbell clearly acknowledges (and indeed stresses) that the early and late preoperational stages themselves are both marked by a great deal of egocentrism, anthropocentrism, and geocentrism.
Put differently, still lying “close to the body,” preoperational cognition does not easily take the role of other, nor does it still clearly differentiate the noosphere and the biosphere. Even in late preoperational thinking, the child firmly believes that names are a part of, or actually exist in, the objects named. “What are names for?” a child of five was asked. “They are what you see when you look at things.” “Where is the name of the sun?” “Inside the sun.” As one child summarized it: “If there weren’t any words it would be very bad. You couldn’t make anything. How could things have been made?” Joseph Campbell comments:
In the cosmologies of archaic man, as in those of infancy, the main concern of the creator was in the weal and woe of man. Light was made so that we should see; night so that we might sleep; stars to foretell the weather; clouds to warn of rain. The child’s view of the world is not only geocentric, but egocentric. And if we add to this simple structure the tendency recognized by Freud, to experience all things in association with the subjective formula of the family romance[Oedipus/Electra], we have a rather tight and very slight vocabulary of elementary ideas, which we may expect to see variously inflected and applied in the mythologies of the world.
The emergence of the noosphere: First images (at around 7 months), then symbols (the first full-fledged symbol probably being the word “no!”), then concepts (around 3-4 years), all aided immeasurably by the emergence of language.
“No” is the first form of specifically mental transcendence. Images begin this mental transcendence, but images are tied to their sensory referents. With “no” I can for the first time decline to act on my bodily impulses or on your desires (which every parent discovers in the child during the “terrible twos”). For the first time in development, the child can begin to transcend its merely biological or biocentric or egocentric embeddedness, begin to exert control over bodily desires and bodily discharges and bodily instincts, while also “separating-individuating” itself from the will of others. The Freudian fuss over “toilet training” and the “anal phase” simply refers to the fact that a mental-linguistic self is beginning to emerge and beginning to exert some type of conscious will and conscious control over its spontaneous biospheric productions, and over its being “controlled” by others as well.
In short, it is only with language that the child can differentiate its mind and body, differentiate its mental will and its bodily impulses, and then begin to integrate its mind and body. This is the third major differentiation, or the third fulcrum. The failure to differentiate mind and body—the failure to transcend this stage—is another way to say “remains stuck in the body or the biosphere,” which…is the primary developmental lesion underlying the narcissistic/borderline pathologies.
But “no!” can go too far, and therein lies all the horrors of the noosphere. For it is indeed with language that the child can differentiate mind and body, differentiate the noosphere and the biosphere, that differentiation (as always) can go too far and result in disassociation. The mind does not just transcend and include the body, it represses the body, represses its sensuality, represses its sexuality, represses its rich roots in the biosphere. Repression, in the Freudian (and Jungian) sense, comes into existence only with the “language barrier,” with a “no!” carried to extremes. And the result of this extreme “no!” is technically called “neurosis” or “psychoneurosis.”
Every neurosis, in other words, is a miniature ecological crises. It is a refusal to include in the compound individual some aspect of organic life, emotional-sexual life, reproductive life, sensuous life, libidinal life, biospheric life. It is a denial of our roots and our foundation. Neurosis, in this sense, is an assault on the biosphere by the noosphere…neurotic symptoms—anxieties and depressions and obsessions…now (forces) itself into consciousness in hidden forms, attempts to get the noosphere off its back.
And the neurotic symptoms disappear, or are healed, only as consciousness relaxes its repression, recontacts and befriends the biosphere that exists in its own being, and then reintegrates that biosphere with the newly emergent noosphere…This is called “uncovering the shadow,” and the shadow is…the biosphere.
Thus, if remaining stuck in the biosphere results in the borderline/ narcissistic conditions, going to the other extreme and alienating the biosphere results directly in the psychoneuroses. It follows that our present-day worldwide ecological crises is, in the very strictest sense of the terms, a worldwide collective neuroses—and is about to result in a worldwide nervous breakdown.
This crises is…in no way going to “destroy the biosphere”—the biosphere will survive, in some form or another (even if just viral and bacterial), no matter what we do to it. What we are doing, rather, is altering the biosphere in a way that will not support higher life forms and especially will not support the noosphere. That ‘alteration’ is, in fact, a repression, an alienation, a denial of our common ancestry, a denial of our relational existence with all of life. It is not a destruction of the biosphere but a denial of the biosphere, and that is the precise definition of psychoneurosis.
What Freud found his patients doing on a couch in Vienna, we have now collectively managed to do to the world at large. And who shall be our doctor?
Concrete Operational (7-12, Mythic And Mythic-Rational)
Assuming development goes relatively smoothly, then with the first significant differentiation of the mind and the body, the mind can transcend its embeddedness in a merely bodily orientation—absorbed in itself (egocentric)—and begin to enter the world of other minds. But to learn to do so it must learn to take the role of other—a new, emergent, and very difficult task.
In other words, the self has gone from a physiocentric identity (first fulcrum) to a biocentric identity (second fulcrum) to an early noospheric identity (third fulcrum), all of which are thoroughly egocentric and anthropocentric (magic and magic-mythic all centered on the self and oriented exclusively to the self, however “otherworldly” or “sacred” it might all appear).
If the sensorimotor and preoperational world is egocentric, the concrete operational world is sociocentric (centered not so much on a bodily identity as on a role identity, as we shall see). It still contains “mythic” and “anthropocentric” elements because, as Cowan puts it, “there are still various colorings of the previous stages” (which is why I call early and late conop, respectively, mythic and mythic-rational). A more differentiate causation by “five elements” (water, earth, fire, ether) tends to replace more syncretic explanation, and there often emerges a belief in causation by “preformation” (the acorn contains a fully formed but miniature oak tree).
But by far the most significant transformation or transcendence occurs in the capacity to take the role of other—not just to realize that others have a different perspective, but to be able to mentally reconstruct that perspective, to put oneself in the other’s shoes.
In what became known as the Three Mountains Task, Piaget exposed children from four to twelve years old to a play set that contained three clay mountains, each of a different color, and a toy doll. The questions were simple: what do you see, and what does the doll see?
The typical response of the preoperational child is that the doll sees the same thing that the child is looking at, even if the doll is facing only, say, the green mountain. The child does not understand that there are different perspectives involved. At a later stage of preop, the child will correctly indicate that the doll has a different perspective, but the child cannot say exactly what it is.
But with the emergence of concrete operational, the child will easily and readily describe the true perspective of the doll (e.g., “I am looking at all three mountains, but the doll is only looking at the green mountain”).
Investigation of these and similar tasks…has confirmed the general conclusion: only with the emergence of concrete operational thought can the child transcend his or he egocentric perspective and take the role of other. As Habermas would put it, a role identity supplements a natural (or bodily) identity (the body cannot take the role of other). The child learns his or her role in a society of other roles, and must now learn to differentiate that role from the role of others and then integrate that role in the newly emergent worldspace (this is the fourth major fulcrum, the fourth major differentiation/integration of self-development). The fundamental locus of self-identity thus switches from egocentric to sociocentric.
Initially the child is indissociated from his or her role, is embedded or “stuck” in it (just as he or she was initially stuck in the physiosphere and then stuck in the biosphere). This unavoidable (and initially necessary) “sociocentric embeddedness” leas to what is variously know as the conventional stages of morality (Kohlberg/Gilligan), the belongingness needs (Maslow), the conformist mode (Loevinger).
Which is why pathology at this stage is known generally as “script pathology.” One is having trouble not with the physiosphere (psychoses), not with the biosphere (borderline and neuroses)—rather, one is stuck in the early roles and scripts given by one’s parents, one’s society, one’s peer group: scripts that are not, and initially cannot be, checked against further evidence, and therefore scripts that are often outmoded, wrong, even cruel (“I’m no good, I’m rotten to the core, I can’t do anything right,” etc.; these do not so much concern bodily impulses, as in the psychoneuroses, but rather social judgments about one’s social standing, one’s role).
Therapy here involves digging up these scripts and exposing these myths to the light of more mature reason and more accurate information, thus “rewriting the script.” (This is, for example,
the primary approach of cognitive therapy and interpersonal therapy; not so much the digging up of buried and alienated bodily impulses, as important as that may be, but replacing false and distorting cognitive maps with more reasonable judgments).
Equally important to the taking of roles is the capacity of conop to work with mental rules. We saw that preop works with images (pictorial representation), symbols (nonpictorial representation), and concepts (which represent an entire class of things). Rules go one step further and operate upon concrete classes, and thus these rules (like multiplication, class inclusion, hierarchization) begin to grasp the incredibly rich relationships between various wholes and parts.
That is, concrete operational is the first structure that can clearly grasp the nature of a holon, of that which in one relationship is a whole and at the same time in another is merely a part (which is why value holarchies start to emerge spontaneously at that point; they switch from the rather strong “either-or” desires of preop to a continuum of preferences). All of this, of course, depends upon the capacity of conop to begin to take different perspectives and relate those perspectives to each other.
Because of its capacity to operate with both rules and roles, I also call this structure the rule/role mind. In relation to the previous stages, it represents a greater transcendence, a greater autonomy, a greater interiority, a higher and wider identity, a greater consciousness, but one that, as in all previous stages, is initially “captured” by the self and the objects—now a social self and now social objects (roles)—that dominate this stage.
And thus a self now open to new and higher pathologies, which demand new and different therapies. No longer stuck in the physiosphere, stuck in the biosphere, or stuck in the early “egosphere,” the pathological self is here stuck in the sociosphere, embedded in a particular society’s rules and myths and dogmas, with no way to transcend that mythic-membership, and thus destined to play out the roles and rules of a particular and isolated society.
Mythic-membership is sociocentric and thus ethnocentric: one is in the culture ( a member of the culture) if one accepts the prevailing mythology, and one is excommunicated from the culture is the belief system is not embraced. In this structure, there is no way a global or planetary culture can even be conceived unless it involves the imposing of one’s particular mythology on all people’s: which is just what we saw with the mythic imperialism of the great empires, from the Greek and Roman to the Khans and Sargons to the Incas and Aztecs. These great empires all overcame the egocentrism of local and warring tribes by subsuming their regimes into that of the empire (thus negating and preserving them in a larger reach or communion), and this was accomplished in part…the umbrella of a mythology that unified different tribes, not by blood or kinship (for that is impossible, since each tribe has a different lineage), but rather by a common mythological origin that could unite the various roles (as the twelve Tribes of Israel were united by a common Yahweh).
But as mature eogic-rationality begins to emerge, ethonocentric gives way to worldcentric.
The Ego
We saw that Habermas referred to the transcendence from conop to formop as a transformation from a role identity to an ego identity. “Ego” here doesn’t mean “egocentric”’; on the contrary, it means moving from a sociocentric to a worldcentric capacity, a capacity to distance oneself from one’s egocentrtic and ethnocentric embeddedness and consider what would be fair for all peoples and not merely one’s own.
It would be helpful, then, to discuss the meaning of the word ego. Particularly in transpersonal circles, no word has caused more confusion. Ego, along with rationality, is generally the dirty word in mystical, transpersonal, New Age circles, but few researchers seem even to define it, and those who do, do so differently.
We can, of course, define ego any way we like as long as we are consistent. Most New Age writers use the term very loosely to mean a separate-self sense, isolated from others and from a spiritual Ground. Unfortunately, these writers do not clearly distinguish states that are pre-egoic from those that are transegoic, and thus half of their recommendations for salvation are often recommendations for various ways to regress, and this rightly sends alarms through orthodox researchers. Nontheless, their general conclusion is that all truly spiritual states are ‘beyond ego,” which is true enough as far as it goes, but which terribly confuses the picture unless it is carefully qualified.
In most psychoanalytically oriented writers, the ego has come to mean “the process of organizing the psyche,” and in this regard many researchers, such as Heinz Kohut, now prefer the more general term self. The ego (or self), as the principle that gives unity to the mind, is thus a crucial and fundamental organizing pattern, and to try to go “beyond ego” would mean not transcendence but disaster, and so these orthodox theorists are utterly perplexed by what “beyond ego” could possibly mean, and who could possibly desire it—and, as far as that definition goes, they too are quite right.
Furthermore, according to such philosophers as Fichte, this pure Ego is one with absolute Spirit, which is precisely the Hindu formula Atman=Brahman. To hear Spirit described as pure Ego often confuses New Agers, who generally want ego to mean only “the devil” (even though they heartily embrace the identical notion Atman=Brahman).
They are equally confused when someone like Jack Engler, a theorist studying the interface of psychiatry and meditation, states that “meditation increases ego strength,” which it most certainly does, because “ego strength” in the psychiatric sense means “capacity for disinterested witnessing.” But the New Agers think that meditation means “beyond ego,” and thus anything that strengthens the ego is simply more of the devil. And so the confusions go.
Ego is simply Latin for “I.” Freud, for example, never used the term ego; he used the German pronoun das Ich, or “the I,” which was unfortunately translated as the ‘ego.” And contrasted to “the I” was what Freud called the Es, which is German for “it,” and which, also unfortunately, was translated as the “id” (Latin for “it”), a term Freud never used. Thus Freud’s great book The Ego and the Id was really called “The I and the It.” Freud’s point was that people have a sense of I-ness or selfness, but sometimes part of their own self appears foreign, alien, separate from them—appears, that is, as an “it” (we say, “The anxiety, it makes me uncomfortable,” or “The desire to eat, it’s stronger than me!” and so forth, thus relinquishing responsibility for our own states). When parts of the I are split off or repressed, they appear as symptoms or “its” over which we have no control.
Freud’s basic aim in therapy was therefore to reunite the I and the it and thus heal the split between them. His most famous statement of the goal of therapy—“Where id was, there ego shall be”—actually reads, “Where it was, there I shall be.” Whether one is a Freudian or not, this is still the most accurate and succinct summary of all forms of uncovering psychotherapy, and it simply points to an expansion of ego, an expansion of I-ness, into a higher and wider identity that integrates previously alienated processes.
The term ego obviously can be used in a large number of quite different ways, from the very broad to the very narrow, and it is altogether necessary to specify which usage one intends, or else interminable arguments arise that are generated only by an arbitrary semantic choice.
In the broadest sense, ego means “self” or “subject,” and thus when Piaget speaks of the earliest stages being “egocentric,” he does not mean that there is a clearly differentiated self or ego set apart from the world. He means just the opposite: the self is not differentiated from the world, there is no strong ego, and thus the world is treated as an extension of the self, “egocentrically.” Only with the emergence of a strong and differentiated ego (which occurs from the third to the fifth fulcrums, culminating in formop, or rational perspectivism)—only with the emergence of the mature ego does egocentrism die down! The “pre-egoic” stages are the most egocentric!
Thus, it is only at the level of formal operational thought that a truly strong and differentiated self or ego emerges from its embeddedness in bodily impulses and pre-given social roles; and that, indeed, is what Habermas refers to as ego identity, a fully separated-individuated sense of self.
To repeat: the “ego,” as used by psychoanalysis, Piaget, and Habermas (and others), is thus less egocentric than its pre-eogic predecessors!
I will most often use the term ego in that specific sense, similar to Freud, Piaget, Habermas, and others—a rational, individuated sense of self, differentiated from the external world, from its social roles (and the superego), and from its internal nature (id).
In this usage, there are pre-egoic realms where the self is poorly differentiated from the internal and external world (there is only “ego nuclei,” as psychoanalysis puts it). These pre-egoic realms are, to repeat, the most egocentric (since the infant or child doesn’t have a strong ego, it thinks that the world feels what it feels, wants what it wants, caters to its every desire: it does not clearly separate self and other, and thus treats the other as an extension of the self).
The ego begins to emerge more stably in the mythic stage (as a persona or role) and finally emerges, in the formal operational stage, as a self clearly differentiated from the external world and from it various roles (personae), which is the culmination of the overall egoic realms. Higher developments into more spiritual realms are then referred to as being transegoic, with the clear understanding that the ego is being negated but also preserved (as a functional self in conventional reality). The self in these higher stages I will refer to as the Self (and not the pure Ego, unless otherwise indicated, because this confuses everybody), and I will explain all of that in more detail as we proceed.
These three large realms are also referred to, in very general terms, as the subconscious (pre-egoic), the self-conscious (egoic), and the superconscious (transegoic); or as the prepersonal, the personal, and the transpersonal; or as the prerational, the rational, and the transrational.
The point is that each of those stages is a lessening of egocentrism as one moves closer to the pure Self. The maximum of egocentrism, as Piaget demonstrated, occurs in the primary or physical indissociation (the first fulcrum, where self-identity is physiocentric), because the entire material world is absorbed in the self-sense and cannot even be considered apart from the self-sense. This archaic-autistic stage is not “one with the entire world in bliss and joy,” as many Romantics think, but a swallowing of the material world into the self: the child is all mouth, and everything else is merely food.
As identity switches from the physiocentric to biocentric or ecocentric (fulcrum-2), there is a lessening of “pure autism” (“self-only!”) but a blossoming of emotional narcissism or emotional egocentrism (fulcrum-2), which Mahler summarized as “narcissism at its peak!” (She also summarized it as “the world is the infant’s oyster”: grandiose-omnipotent fantasies). The emergence of preop mind (fulcrum-3) is a lessening of that emotional egocentrism, but a blossoming of egocentric (and geocentric) magic—less primitive than the previous stage, but still shot through with egocentric adherences: the world exists centered on humans.
The emergence of the conop mind (fulcrum-4) is a lessening of that egocentric magic (where the self is central to the cosmos), but it is replaced with ethnocentrism, where one’s particular group, culture, or race is supreme. Nontheless, at the same time this allows the beginning of what Piaget calls decentering, where one can decenter or stand aside from egocentrism of the early mind and instead take the role of other, and this comes to a fruition with a further decentering, a further lessening of egocentrism, in formal operational (where one can take the perspective, not just of others in one’s group, but of others in other groups: worldcentric or non-ethnocentric).
As we will see when we follow evolution into the transpersonal domain, these developments converge on an intuition of the Divine as one’s very Self, common in and to all peoples (in fact, all sentient beings), a Self that is the great omega point of this entire series of decreasing egocentrism, of decentering from the small self in order to find the big Self—a Self common in and to all beings and thus escaping the egocentrism (and ethnocentrism) of each. The completely decentered self is the all-embracing Self (as Zen would say, the Self that is no-self).
Formal Operational (12-17+)
At this point, we are tracing the emergence of a strong rational ego out of its embeddedness in mythic-membership, and this brings us to Piaget’s formal operational stage.
Formal operational awareness transcends but includes concrete operational thought, and thus formop can operate upon the holons that constitute conop—and that, in fact, is the primary definition of formal operational. Where concrete operational uses rules of thought to transcend and operate on the concrete world, formal operational uses a new interiority to transcend and operate on the rules of thought themselves. It is a new differentiation allowing a new integration (and a deeper and wider identity).
First and foremost, formal operational awareness brings with it a new world of feelings, of dreams, of wild passions and idealistic strivings. It is true that rationality introduces a new and more abstract understanding of mathematics, logic, and philosophy, but those are all quite secondary to the primary and defining mark of reason: reason is a space of possibilities, possibilities not tied to the obvious, the given, the mundane, the profane. Reason, we said earlier, is the great gateway to the unseen, the beginning of the invisible worlds, which is usually the last way people think of rationality.
But think of the great mystics such as Plato and Pythagoras, who saw rational Forms or Ideas as the grand patterns upon which all of manifestation was based, patterns that were utterly invisible to the eye of flesh and could only be seen interiorly, with the eye of the mind. Or think of the great physicists such as Heisenberg and Jeans, who maintained that the ultimate building blocks of the universe are mathematical Forms, also seen only with the mind’s eye. Or of the great Vedantin and Mahayana sages, who maintained that the entire visible world is just a precipitate of the mind’s interior Forms or “seed-syllables.” For all of these theorists, Reason was not an abstraction from the concrete physical world; rather, the concrete world was a reduction or condensation of the great Forms lying beyond the grasp of the senses, Forms which contained en potentia all possible manifest worlds.
Piaget approaches this whole topic by showing that, whereas the concrete operational child can indeed operate upon the concrete world, the child at that stage ultimately remains tied to the obvious and the given and the phenomenal, whereas the formal operational adolescent will mentally see various and different possible arrangements of the given.
(In) a typical Piagetian experiment a child is presented with five glasses which contain colorless liquids. Three of the glasses contain liquids that, if mixed together, will produce a yellow color. The child is asked to produce a yellow color.
The preop child will randomly combine a few glasses, then give up. If she accidentally hits upon the right solution, she will give a magical explanation (“The sun made it happen”; “It came from the clouds”).
The conop child will eagerly begin by combining the various glasses, three at a time. She does this concretely; she will continue the concrete mixing until she hits upon the right solution or eventually gets tire and quits.
The formop will begin by telling you that you have to try all the possible combinations of three glasses. She has a mental plan or formal operation that lets her see, however vaguely, that all possible combinations have to be tried. She doesn’t have to stumble through the actual concrete operations to understand this. Rather, she sees, with the mind’s eye, that all possibilities must be taken into account.
In other words, this is a very relational type of awareness: all the possible relations that things can have with each other need to be held in awareness—and that is radically new. This is not the “wholeness” of syncretic fusion, where the integrity of wholes and parts is violated in a magical fusion, but rather a relationship of mutual interaction and mutual interpenetration, where wholes and parts, while remaining perfectly discrete and intact, are also seen to be what they are by virtue of their relationships to each other. The preop child, and to a lesser extent the conop child, thinks the color yellow is a simple property of the liquids; the formop adolescent understands that the color is a relationship of various liquids.
Formal operational awareness, then, is the first truly ecological mode of awareness, in the sense of grasping mutual interrelationships. It is not embedded in ecology (it transcends ecology without denying it), and thus can reflect on the web of relationships constituting it. As various researchers have pointed out, to use Cowan’s particular phrasing: “Again the emphasis in formal schemes is on the coordination of [various] systems. Not only can adolescents [at this stage] observe and reason about changes in the interior of [and individual], they can also be concerned with the reciprocal changes in the surrounding environment. Only then, for example, will they be able to conceptualize an ecological system in which changes in one aspect may lead to a whole system of changes in the balance between other aspects of nature.
So the first formulation is : formal operational = ecological
The fact that formop is also strong enough to potentially repress the biosphere, resulting in ecological catastrophe, indicates merely that ecological catastrophe is an unfortunate possibility, but not an inherent component, of rationality. We want to tease apart the pathological manifestations of any stage from its authentic achievements, and celebrate the latter even as we try to redress the former. The fact that ecological awareness becomes even greater at the next stage, the centauric, should not detract from the fact that it begins here, with the formal operational understanding of mutual relationships.
The second equation we need is: formal operational = understanding of relativity.
The capacity to take different perspectives, we saw, begins in earnest with conop. But with the emergence of formop, all the various perspectives can be held in mind, however loosely, and thus all of them become relative to each other. “In a set of experiments, a snail moves along a board, which itself is moving along a table. Only children at the formal operational stage can understand the distance which the snail travels relative to the board and to the table. Here we find the intellectual equipment necessary for conceptions of relativity—that time taken or space traveled cannot be absolute, but must be measured relative to some arbitrary point.”
The third equation we need is: formal operational = non-anthropocentric
The egocentric, geocentric, anthropocentric notions of reality, so prevalent in the earlier magic and mythic stages, and so defining of those stages, finally begin to wind down and lose their grip on awareness…
And not merely egocentrism but sociocentrism or ethnocentrism begins to wind down. With the coming of formop, the rules and the norms of any given society can themselves be reflected upon and judged by more universal principles, principles that apply not just to this or that culture, or this or that tribe, but to the multiculturalism of universal perspectivism. Not “My country right or wrong,” but “Is my country actually right?” Not concrete moral rules such as the Ten Commandments (“Thou shalt have no other gods before me”—intertribal squabbling), but more universal statements, principles of justice and mercy and compassion, of reciprocity and equality, based on mutual respect for individuals and the dictates of conscience based on rights and responsibilities…
Thus Kohlberg, Gilligan, and Habermas all refer to this general stage as postconventional…Socrates vs. Athens. Martin Luther King, Jr., vs. segregation. Gandhi vs. cultural imperialism.
Thus, we have seen moral development move from a preconventional orientation, which is strongly egocentric, geocentric, biocentric, narcissistic, bound to the body’s feelings and nature’s
impulses (the first three fulcrums), to a conventional or sociocentric or ethnocentric orientation bound to one’s society, culture, tribe, or race, to a postconventional or worldcentric orientation, operating in the space of universal pluralism and global grasp…
For all these reasons, the individual at this stage, who can no longer rely on society’s given roles in order to establish an identity, is thus thrown back on his or her own resources. Who am I?” becomes, for the first time, a burning question, and the self-esteem needs to emerge from the belongingness needs (Maslow), or a “conscientious” self emerges from a “conformist” mode (Lovinger).
A failure to negotiate this painfully self-conscious ;phase (fulcrum 5”)—a differentiation from ethnocentrism and sociocentrism—results in the characteristic pathology of this stage, which Erickson called an “identity crisis.” This is not a problem of merely finding an appropriate role in society (that would be script pathology); it is one of finding a self that may or may not fit with society at all (Thoreau on civil disobedience comes to mind).
In addition to formal operational awareness being ecological, relational, and nonanthropocentric, we have already mentioned several of its other properties: it is the first structure that is highly reflexive and highly introspective; it is experimental and relies on evidence to settle issues; it is universal as pluralism and perspectivism; and it is propositional (can understand “what if” and “as if” statements; the fact that formop is the first structure to grasp “as if” statements turns out to be extremely important when it comes to interpreting mythology, as we will see in the following section on Joseph Campbell). But all of these are just variations on the central theme: reason is a space of possibilities.
No wonder adolescence and the emergence of formop is a time of wild passions and explosive idealisms, of fantastic dreaming and heroic urges, of utopian yells and revolutionary upsurge, of desires to change the entire world and idealistically straighter it all out, of feelings and emotions unleashed from the merely given and offered instead the space of all possibilities, a space through which they roam and rampage with love and passion and wildest terror. And all of this, all of it, comes from being able to see the possibilities of what might be, possibilities seen only with the mind’s eye, possibilities that point toward worlds not yet in existence and worlds not yet really seen, the great, great doorway to the invisible and the beyond, as Plate, and Pythagoras, and Shankara, and every mystic worth his or her salt has always known.
The higher the developments do indeed lie beyond reason, but never beneath it.
Joseph Campbell
There is no greater friend of mythology than Joseph Campbell, and I mean that in a good sense. In a series of articulate and extremely well-researched books, Campbell has done more than any other person, with the possible exception of Mircea Eliade and Carl Jung, to champion the position that mythological thought is the primary carrier of spiritual and mystical awareness. I and countless researchers have drawn on his works time and again, and his meticulous scholarship and detailed analysis never fail to inspire…
And yet his position, I believe, is finally untenable, and can be demonstrated to be so using his own assumptions and his own conclusions. For his position is, in the last analysis, a form of elevationism, and it is necessary to face this directly if we are ever to make sense of the truly deeper or higher developments of genuine spiritual and mystical experience. For one of the best ways to know what authentic mystical experience is, is to know what it is not.
To begin with, Campbell openly accepts the essentials of the Piagetian system. That is, he accepts the fact that the basic motifs of mythological thought are produced by the infantile and childhood structures of preop and early conop, and he explicitly say so using Piagetian terms. As just one of hundreds of instances:
The two orders—the infantile and the religious—are at least analogous, and it may well be that the latter is simply a translation of the former to a sphere out of range of critical observation [reason]. Piaget has pointed out that although the little myths of genesis invented by children to explain the origins of themselves and of things may differ, the basic assumption underlying all is the same: namely, that things have been made by someone, and that they are alive and responsive to the commands of their creators. The origin myths of the world’s mythological systems differ too; but in all the conviction is held [as in childhood], without proof, that the living universe is the handiwork…of some mother-father God [artificialism/anthropocentrism].
These three principles [magical participation, animism, and anthropocentrism] may be said to constitute the axiomatic, spontaneously supposed frame of reference of all childhood experience, no matter what the local details of this experience happen to be. And these three principles, it is no less apparent, are precisely those most generally represented in the mythologies and religious systems of the world.
Campbell cheerfully, and even enthusiastically acknowledges all of this, and he does so because he has a plan. He has a plan, this is, to salvage mythology, to prove that mythology is “really” religious and genuinely spiritual, and is not, in fact, merely a device of childhood.
The plan is this: The mythological productions of preop and conop, he says, are always taken literally and concretely, a point I have also been at pains to emphasize. But, Campbell says, in a very few individuals, the myths are not taken literally, but are rather taken in an “as if” fashion (his terms), in a playful fashion that releases one from the concrete myth and ushers one into more transcendental realms.
And this, he says, is the real function of myth, and therefore this is how all myths have to be judged. For the masses it remains true that myth is an illusion, a distortion, an infantile and childish approach to reality (all his phrases), but for the very few who can see through them, myths become the gateway to the genuinely mystical. And he belabors the point that myths, not reason, alone can do this, and this is their wonderful function. And here he starts running into grave difficulties.
When myths are take concretely and literally, Campbell says, they serve the mundane function of integrating individuals into the society and worldview of a given culture, and in that ordinary function, he says, they serve no spiritually transcendental or mystical purpose at all, which is true enough. I myself see that mundane integration as the central, enduring, and extremely important function of myths at that stage of development—simple cultural meaning and correlative social integration (at a preop and conop level).
Campbell acknowledges that function, but since he is looking for a way to elevate myths to a transpersonal status, those functions become quite secondary to him. In fact, he says, when people take myths literally—which, he says,99.9% of mythic believers do—then those myths become distorted. He is emphatic about this: “It must be conceded, as a basic principle of our natural history of the gods and heroes, that whenever a myth has been taken literally its sense has been perverted.”
Let us ignore, for the moment, that this implies that 99.9% of mythic believers are perverted (instead of stage-specifically quite adequate), and look instead to those very few individuals who do not take myth literally but rather in an “as if” fashion. By “as if” Campbell explicitly means the use given to it by Kant in his Prolegomena to Every Future System of Metaphysics, where Kant says that we can hold our knowledge of the world in an “as if” or “possible realities” fashion. Campbell then drives to the heart of his argument:
I am willing to accept the world of Kant, as representing the view of a considerable metaphysician. And applying it to the range of festival games and attitudes just reviewed [by which he means the attitude that does not take the myth seriously or literally]—from the mask of the consecrated host and temple image, transubstantiated worshiper and transubstantiated world—I can see, for believe I can see, that the principle of release operates throughout the series by way of an “as if”;and that, through this, the impact of all so-called “reality” upon the psyche is transubstantiated.
In other words, a myth is being a “real myth” when it is not being taken as true, when it is being held in an “as if” fashion. And Campbell knows perfectly well that an “as if” stance is possible only with formal operational awareness. Thus, according to his own conclusions, a myth offers its “release” only when it is transcended by, and held firmly in, the space of possibilities and as-ifs offered by rationality. It is reason, and reason alone, that can release myth from its concrete literalness and hold it in a playful, as-if, what-if fashion, using it as an analogy of what higher states might be like, which is something that myth, by itself, could never do (as Campbell bizarrely concedes).
It is people such as Campbell and Jung and Eliade, operating from a widespread access to rationality something the originators of myth did not have—who then read deeply symbolic “as ifs” into them, and who like to play with myths and use them as analogies and have great good fun with them, whereas the actual myth-believers do not play with the myths at all, but take them deadly seriously and refuse in the least to open them to reasonable discourse of any sort of “as if” at all.
In short, a myth serves Campbell’s main function only when it ceases to be a myth and is released into the space of reason, into the space of alternatives and possibilities and as-ifs. What structure does he think Kant is operating from?
Thus, in all of Campbell’s presentations, he takes two tacks: he first lays out the concrete and literal way that 99.9 percent of believers take the myth. And here he is not often kind. He clearly despises concrete mythic-beliefs (“On the popular side, in their popular cults, the Indians [i.e., from India] are, of course, as positivistic in their readings of their myths as any farmer in Tennessee, rabbi in the Bronx, or pope in Rome. Krishna actually danced in manifold rapture with the gopis, and the Buddha walked on water”).
Instead of seeing the concrete myth as the only way that myth can be believed as that stage of development, and thus being perfectly adequate and noble (if partial and limited) for that stage, he takes the concrete belief in magic and myth as a “perversion,” as if this structure actually had a choice for which it could be condemned. He is in fact denigrating an entire series of developmental stages that represented extraordinary advances in their own ways, and were no more a perversion of spiritual development than an acorn is a perversion of an oak. But he must condemn these stages per se because he judges them against his elevated version of “real mythology,” whereas I am not condemning these stages per se because they were the real McCoy, they genuine item: they were doing exactly what is appropriate and definitive and stage-specific for mythology.
Second, Campbell then suggests the ways that those very few (who do not take the myth literally) have used to transcend the myth (and are therefore, I would like to point out, no longer doing anything that could remotely be called mythology). This involves first and foremost, for Campbell, holding the myth in the space of “as if”; that is, holding it in the space of reason (with the possibility of then going further and transcending reason as well).
And here Campbell commits the classic pre/trans fallacy. Since the prerational realms are definitely mythological, then Campbell wants to call the transrational realms “mythological” as well, since they too are nonrational (and since he wants to salvage mythology with a field promotion). So on one side he lumps together all nonrational endeavors (from primitive mythology to highly developed contemplative encounters), and on the other side—the “bad” side—he dumps poor reason, even as he himself is in fact (and rather hypocritically) using the space of reason to salvage his myths. “Mythological symbols touch and exhilarate centers of life beyond the reach of the vocabularies of reason.” There is indeed a “beyond reason,” but how much more so is it “beyond mythology.”
And, in fact, it is not “in praise of mythology,” but rather “beyond mythology,” to which the entire corpus of Campbell’s work inexorably points. In surveying his truly magnificent, four-volume masterpiece, The Masks Of God, Campbell leaves us with one final message: As any ethnologist, archaeologist, or historian would observe, the myths of the differing civilizations have sensibly varied throughout the centuries and broad reaches of mankind’s residence in the world, indeed to such a degree that the “virtue” of one mythology has often been the “vice” of another, and the heaven of the one the other’s hell. Moreover, with the old horizons now gone that formerly separated and protected the various culture worlds and their pantheons, a veritable Gotterdammerung has flung its flames across the universe. Communities that were once comfortable in the consciousness of their own mythologically guaranteed godliness find, abruptly, that they are devils in the eyes of their neighbors.
The ethnocentric and divisive nature of mythology is fully conceded. Lamenting this state of affairs (even though it is inherent in mythology as mythic-imperialism), Campbell concludes that some more global understanding “of a broader, deeper kind than anything envisioned anywhere in the past is now required.” The hope, indeed, lies beyond parochial and provincial mythology. And beyond mythology is global and universal reason (and then beyond reason…).
Nowhere is Campbell’s pre/trans confusion more painfully obvious than in his attempt to displace or deconstruct rational science (and thus simultaneously elevate mythology). And again, the embarrassment is established by his own premises and his own logical conclusions, which a mind as fine as Campbell’s can ignore only by prejudice.
Since Campbell’s aim is to prove that reason and science are in no sense “higher” than “real” mythology, he begins fist by pointing out that even the worldview of science is actually a mythology. If he can do this successfully, he will have put science and mythology on the same level. He proceeds to outline four factors (or four functions) that all mythologies have in common. The first he calls “metaphysical,” whose function is “to reconcile waking consciousness to…the universe as it is.” The second function is to provide “an interpretative total image of the same,” an interpretive cosmology. The third is sociocultural, “the validation and maintenance of a social order.” And the fourth is psychological, or individual orientation and integration…
And, of course, defined that way, science (or the scientific worldview) does indeed perform all four functions of mythology. But then, adds Campbell, science of course does some other things that mythology per se does not, such as its spectacular discoveries in evolution, medicine, engineering, and so forth.
In other words, rationality/science does everything myth does, plus something extra.
That, of course, is the definition of a higher stage. Campbell recognizes that mythology originates from a particular stage of human development (which he happily concedes is the childhood of men and women), and then he also defines it as what all stages have in common…By this sneaky dual definition he hopes to be able both to concede mythology’s childishness and run it through all higher stages, thus allowing him not only to salvage mythology (since it is now what all stages have in common) but also to push it all the way to infinity, all the way to transpersonal Spirit.
But the four functions…are not a definition of mythology’s functions; they are a definition of evolution’s functions…Which only leaves Campbell’s other definition: mythology can only rightly lay claim to the childhood of men and women.
And running that definition to infinity simply results in the infantalization of Spirit. Campbell’s dual definitions actually undo each other, and point instead to the inexorable conclusion: beyond mythology is reason, and beyond both is Spirit…
The capacity to go beyond and look at rationality results in going beyond rationality, and the first stage of that going-beyond is vision-logic. If you are aware of being rational, what is the nature of that awareness, since it is now bigger than rationality? To be aware of rationality is no longer to have only rationality, yes?
Numerous psychologists (Bruner, Flavell, Arieti, Cowan, Kramer, Commons, Basseches, Arlin, etc.) have pointed out that there is much evidence for a stage beyond Piaget’s formal operational. It has been called “dialectical,” “integrative,” “creative synthetic,” “integral-aperspectival,” “postformal,” and so forth. I…am using the term vision-logic or network logic. But the conclusions are all essentially the same: “Piaget’s formal operational is considered to be a problem-solving stage. But beyond this stage are the truly creative scientists and thinkers who define important problems and ask important questions. While Piaget’s form model is adequate to describe the cognitive structures of adolescents and competent adults, it is not adequate to describe the towering intellect of Nobel laureates, great statesmen and stateswomen, poets, and so on.
True enough. But I would like to give a different emphasis to this structure, for while very few people might actually gain the “towering status of a Nobel laureate,” the space of vision-logic (its worldspace or worldview) is available for any who wish to continue their growth and development. In other words, to progress through the various stages of growth does not mean
that one has to extraordinarily master each and every stage, and demonstrate a genius comprehension at that stage before one can progress beyond it. This would be like saying that no individuals can move beyond the oral stage until they become gourmet cooks.
It is not necessary to be able to articulate the characteristics of a particular stage (children progress beyond preop without ever being able to define it). It is merely necessary to develop an adequate competence at that stage, in order for it to serve just fine as a platform for the transcendence to the next stage. In order to transcend the verbal, it is not necessary to first become Shakespeare.
Likewise, in order to develop formal rationality, it is not necessary to learn calculus and propositional logic. Every time you imagine different outcomes, every time you see a possible future different from today’s, every time you dream the dream of what might be, you are using formal operational awareness. And from that platform you can enter vision-logic, which means not that you have to become a Hegel or a Whitehead in order to advance, but only that you have to think globally, which is no so hard at all. Those who will master this stage, or any stage for that matter, will always be relatively few; but all are invited to pass through.
Because vision-logic transcends but includes formal operational, it completes and brings to fruition many of the trends begun with universal rationality itself (which is why many writers refer to vision-logic as “mature reason” or “dialectical reason” or “synthetic reason,” and so on.
In other words, rationality is global, vision-logic is more global. Take Habermas, for example…Formal operational rationality establishes the postconventional stages of, first, “civil liberties” or “legal freedom” for “all those bound by law,” and then, in a more developed stage, it demands not just legal freedom but also “moral freedom” for “all human as private persons.” But even further, mature and communicative reason (our vision-logic) demands both “moral and political freedom” for “all human beings as members of a world society.” Thus, where rationality began the worldcentric orientation of universal pluralism, vision-logic brings it to a mature fruition by demanding not just legal and moral freedom, but legal and moral and political freedom…
In just the same way, ecological and relational awareness, which started to emerge in formal operational, come to a major fruition with vision-logic and centauric worldview. For, in beginning to differentiate from rationality (look at it, operate upon it), vision-logic can, for the first time, integrate reason with its predecessors, including life and matter…
In other words…centauric vision-logic can integrate physiosphere, biosphere, and noosphere in its own compound individuality (and this is…the next major leading-edge global transformation, even though most of the “work yet to be done” is still getting the globe up to decentered universal pluralism in the first place).
This overall integration (physiosphere, biosphere, and noosphere, or matter, body, mind) is borne out, for example, by the researches of Broughton, Loevinger, Selman, Maslow, and others. As only one example…we can take the work of John Broughton.
As usual, this new centauric stage possesses not just a new cognitive capacity (vision-logic)—it also involves a new sense of identity (centauric), with new desires, new drives, new needs, new perceptions, new terrors, and new pathologies: it is a new and higher self in a new and wider world of others. And Broughton has very carefully mapped out the developmental stages of self and knowing that lead up to this new centauric mode of being-in-the-world.
To simplify considerably, Broughton asked individuals from preschool age to early adulthood: what or where is your self?
Since this was a verbal study, Broughton began with the late preop child (magic-mythic), which he calls level zero. At this stage, children uniformly reply that the self is “inside” and reality is “outside.” Thoughts are not distinguished from their objects (still magical adherences).
At level one, still in the late preop stage, children believe that the self is identified with the physical body, but the mind controls the self and can tell it what to do, so it is the mind that moves the body. The relation of mind to body is one of authority: the mind controls the self and can tell it what to do, so it is the mind that moves the body. The relation of mind to body is one of authority: the mind is the big person and the body is a little person (i.e., mind and body are slowly differentiating). Likewise, thoughts are distinguished from objects, but there is no distinction between reality and appearance (“naïve realism”).
Level two occurs at about ages seven to twelve years (conop). Mind and body are initially differentiated at this level (completion of fulcrum three) and the child speaks of the self as being, not a body, but a person (a social role or persona, fulcrum four), and the person includes both mind and body. Although thoughts and things are distinguished, there is still a strong personalistic flavor to knowledge (remnants of egocentrism), so facts and personal opinions are not easily differentiated.
At level three, occurring around eleven to seventeen years (early formop), “the social personality or role is seen as false outer appearance, different from the true inner self.” Here we see clearly the differentiation of the self (the rational ego) from its embeddedness in sociocentric roles—the emergence of a new identity or relative autonomy which is aware of, and thus transcends or disidentifies from, overt social roles. “The self is what the person’s nature normally is: it is a kind of essence that remains itself over changes in mental contents.”
At level four, or late formop, the person becomes capable of hypothetic deductive awareness (what if, as if), and reality is conceived in terms of relativity and interrelationships…The self is viewed as a postulate “lending unity and integrity to personality, experience, and behavior” (this is the “mature ego”).
But, and this is very telling, development can take a cynical turn at this stage. Instead of being the principle lending unity and integrity to experience and behavior, the self is simply identified with experience and behavior. In the cynical behavioristic turn of this stage, “the person is a cybernetic guided to fulfillment of its material wants [quick note—“the essential goal of cybernetics is to understand and define the functions and processes of systems that have goals and that participate in circular, causal chains that move from action to sensing to comparison with desired goal, and again to action.” Wikipedia]. At this level, radical emphasis on seeing everything within a relativistic or subjective frame of reference leaves a person close to a solipsistic position.”                                                                                                          The world is seen as a great relativistic cybernetic system so “holistic” that it leaves no room for the actual subject in the objective framework. The self therefore hovers above reality, disengaged, disenchanted, disembodied. It is “close to a solipsistic position”: hyperagency cut off from all communions. And this, as we have seen, is essentially the fundamental
Enlightenment paradigm: a perfectly holistic world that leaves a perfectly atomistic self.
A transcendental self can bond with other transcendental selves, whereas a merely enlightened empirical self disappears into the empirical web and interlocking order, never to be heard from again. (No strand in the web is ever or can be ever aware of the whole web; if it could, then it would cease to be merely a strand. This is not allowed by systems theory, which is why, as Habermas demonstrated, systems theory always ends of isolationist and egocentric, or “solipsistic.”)
But for a transcendental self to emerge, it has first to differentiate from the merely empirical self, and thus we find, with Broughton: “At level five the self as observer is distinguishing from the self-concept as known.” In other words, something resembling a pure observing Self (a transcendental Witness or Atman, which we will investigate in a moment) is beginning to be clearly distinguished from the empirical ego or objective self—it is new interiority, a new going within that goes beyond, a new emergence that transcends but includes the empirical ego. This beginning transcendence of the ego we are, of course, calling the centaur (the beginning of fulcrum six, or the sixth major differentiation that we have seen so far in the development of consciousness). This is the realm of vision-logic leading to centauric integration, which is why at this stage, Broughton found that “reality is defined by the coherence of the interpretive framework.”
This integrative stage comes to fruition at Broughton’s last major level (late centauric), where “mind and body are both experiences of an integrated self,” which is the phrase I have most often used to define the centauric or bodymind-integrated self. Precisely because awareness has differentiated from (or disidentified from, or transcended) an exclusive identification with body, persona, ego, and mind, it can now integrate them in a unified fashion, in a unified fashion, in a new and higher holon with each of them as junior partners. Physiosphere, bioshpere, noosphere—exclusively identified with none of them, therefore capable of integrating all of them.
But everything is not sweetness and light with the centaur. As always, new and higher capacities bring with them the potential for new and higher pathologies. As vision-logic adds up all the possibilities given to the mind’s eye, it eventually reaches a dismal conclusion: personal life is a brief spark in the cosmic void. Not matter how wonderful it all might be now, we are still going to die: dread, as Heidegger said, is the authentic response to the existential (centauric) being, a dread that calls us back from self-forgetting to self-presence, a dread that seizes not this or that part of me (body or persona or ego or mind), but rather the totality of my being-in-the-world. When I authentically see my life, I see its ending, I see its death; and I see why that my “other selves,” my ego, my personas, were all sustained by inauthenticity, by an avoidance of the awareness of lonely death.
A profound existential malaise can set in—the characteristic pathology of this stage (fulcrum six). No longer protected by anthropocentric gods and goddesses, reason gone flat in its happy capacity to explain away the Mystery, not yet delivered into the hands of the superconsious—we stare blankly into that dark and gloomy night, which will very shortly swallow us up as surely as it once spat us forth. Tolstoy:
The question, which in my fiftieth year had brought me to the notion
of suicide, was the simplest of all questions, lying in every soul of every man: “What will come from what I am doing now, and may do tomorrow?
What will come from my whole life?” Otherwise expressed—“Why should I live? Why should I wish for anything?” Again, in other words, “Is there any meaning in my life which will not be destroyed by the
Inevitable death awaiting me?”
That question would never arise to the magical structure; that structure has abundant, even exorbitant meaning because the universe centers always on it, was made for it, caters to it daily: every raindrop soothes its soul because every confirming drop reassures it of its cosmocentricity: the great spirit wraps it in the wind and whispers to it always, I exist for you.
That question would never arise to the mythic-believer: the soul exists only for its God, a God that, by a happy coincidence, will save this soul eternally if it professes belief in this God: a mutual admiration society destined for a bad infinity. A crises of faith and meaning is impossible from within this circle ( a crises occurs only when this soul suspects this God).
That question would never beset the happy rationalist, who long ago became a happy rationalist by deciding never to ask such questions again, and then forgetting, rendering unconscious, this question, and sustaining the unconscious by ridiculing those who ask it.
No, that question arises from a self that knows too much, sees too much, feels too much. The consolations are gone; the skull will grin in at the banquet; it can no longer tranquilize itself with the trivial. From the depths, it cries out to gods no longer there, searches for a meaning not yet disclosed, still to be incarnated. Its very agony is worth a million happy magics and a thousand believing myths, and yet its only consolation is it unrelenting pain—a pain, a dread, an emptiness that feels beyond the comforts and distractions of the body, the persona, the ego, looks bravely into the face of the Void, and can no longer explain away either the Mystery or the Terror. It is a soul that is much too awake. It is a soul on the brink of the transpersonal.
The Transpersonal Domains
We have repeatedly seen that the problems of one stage are only “defused” at the next stage, and thus the only cure for existential angst is the transcendence of the existential condition, that is, the transcendence of the centaur, negating and preserving it in a yet higher and wider awareness. For we are here beginning to pass out of the noosphere and into the theosphere, into the transpersonal domains, the domains not just of the self-conscious but the superconscious.
A great number of issues need to be clarified as we follow evolution…into the higher or deeper forms of transpersonal unfolding.
First and foremost, if this higher unfolding is to be called “religious” or “spiritual,” it is a very far cry from what is ordinarily meant by those terms. We have…painstakingly (reviewed) the earlier developments of the archaic, magic, and mythic structures (which are usually associated with the world’s great religions), precisely because those structures are what transpersonal and contemplative development is not. And here we can definitely agree with Campbell: if 99.9 percent of people want to call magic and mythic “real religion,” then so be it for them (that is a legitimate use); but that is not what the world’s greatest yogis, saints, and sages mean by mystical or “really religious” development, and in any event is not what I have in mind.
Campbell, however, is quite right that a very, very few individuals, during the magic and mythic and rational eras, were indeed able to go beyond magic, beyond mythic, and beyond rational—into the transrational and transpersonal domains. And even if their teachings (such as those of Buddha, Christ, Pantanjali, Padmasambhava, Rumi and Chih-I) were snapped up by the masses and translated downward into magic and mythic and egoic terms—“the salvation of the individual soul”—that is not what their teachings clearly and even blatantly stated, no did they intentionally lend support to such endeavors. Their teachings were about the release from individuality, and not about its everlasting perpetuation, a grotesque notion that was equated flat-out with hell or samsara.
Their teachings, and their contemplative endeavors, were (and are) transrational through and through. That is, all of the contemplative traditions aim at going within and beyond reason, and they all start with reason, start with the notion that truth is to be established by evidence, that truth is the result of experimental methods, that truth is to be tested in the laboratory of personal experience, that these truths are open to all those who wish to try the experiment and thus disclose for themselves the truth or falsity of the spiritual claims—and that dogmas or given beliefs are precisely what hinder the emergence of deeper truths and wider visions.
Thus, each of these spiritual or transpersonal endeavors…claims that there exist higher domains of awareness, embrace, love, identity, reality, self, and truth. But these claims are not dogmatic; they are not believed in merely because an authority proclaimed them, or because sociocentric tradition hands them down, or because salvation depends upon being a “true believer.” Rather, the claims about these higher domains are a conclusion based on hundreds of years of experimental introspection and communal verification. False claims are rejected on the basis of consensual evidence, and further evidence is used to adjust and fine-tune the experimental conclusions.
These spiritual endeavors, in other words, are scientific in any meaningful sense of the word, and the systematic presentations of these endeavors follow precisely those of any reconstructive science.
Objections To The Transpersonal
The common objections to these contemplative sciences are not very compelling. The most typical objection is that these mystical states are private and interior and cannot be publicly validated; they are “merely subjective.”
This simply is not true; or rather, if it is true, then it applies to any and all nonempirical endeavors, from mathematics to literature to linguistics to psychoanalysis to historical interpretation. Nobody has ever seen, “out there”
in the “sensory world,” the square root of a negative one. That is a mathematical symbol seen only inwardly, “privately,” with the mind’s eye. Yet a community of trained mathematicians know exactly what that symbol means, and they can share that symbol easily in intersubjective awareness, and they can confirm or reject the proper and consistent uses of that symbol. Just so, the “private” experiences of contemplative scientists can be shared with a community of trained contemplatives, grounded in a common and shared experience, and open to confirmation or rebuttal based on public evidence…
There is, of course, one proviso: the experimenter must, in his or her own case, have developed the requisite cognitive tools. If, for example, we want to investigate concrete operational thought, a community of those who have only developed to the preoperational level will not do. If you take a preop child, and in front of the child pour the water from a short fat glass into a tall thin glass, the child will tell you that the tall glass has more water. If you say, no, there is the same amount of water in both glasses, because you saw me pour the same water from one glass to the other, the child will have no idea what you’re talking about. “No, the tall glass has more water.” No matter how many times you pour the water back and forth between the two glasses, the child will deny they have the same amount of water…The preop child is immersed in a world that includes conop realities, is drenched in those realities, and yet cannot “see” them: they are all “otherworldly.”

The Mental LIfe Of Plants


The Mental Life of Plants and Worms, Among Others
Oliver Sacks

April 24, 2014 Issue
The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms: with Observations on Their Habits
by Charles Darwin
London: John Murray (1881)

Charles Darwin’s last book, published in 1881, was a study of the humble earthworm. His main theme—expressed in the title, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms—was the immense power of worms, in vast numbers and over millions of years, to till the soil and change the face of the earth. But his opening chapters are devoted more simply to the “habits” of worms.
Worms can distinguish between light and dark, and they generally stay underground, safe from predators, during daylight hours. They have no ears, but if they are deaf to aerial vibration, they are exceedingly sensitive to vibrations conducted through the earth, as might be generated by the footsteps of approaching animals. All of these sensations, Darwin noted, are transmitted to collections of nerve cells (he called them “the cerebral ganglia”) in the worm’s head.
When a worm is suddenly illuminated,” Darwin wrote, it “dashes like a rabbit into its burrow.” He noted that he was “at first led to look at the action as a reflex one,” but then observed that this behavior could be modified—for instance, when a worm was otherwise engaged, it showed no withdrawal with sudden exposure to light.
For Darwin, the ability to modulate responses indicated “the presence of a mind of some kind.” He also wrote of the “mental qualities” of worms in relation to their plugging up their burrows, noting that “if worms are able to judge…having drawn an object close to the mouths of their burrows, how best to drag it in, they must acquire some notion of its general shape.” This moved him to argue that worms “deserve to be called intelligent, for they then act in nearly the same manner as a man under similar circumstances.”
As a boy, I played with the earthworms in our garden (and later used them in research projects), but my true love was for the seashore, and especially tidal pools, for we nearly always took our summer holidays at the seaside. This early, lyrical feeling for the beauty of simple sea creatures became more scientific under the influence of a biology teacher at school and our annual visits with him to the Marine Station at Millport in southwest Scotland, where we could investigate the immense range of invertebrate animals on the seashores of Cumbrae. I was so excited by these Millport visits that I thought I would like to become a marine biologist myself.
f Darwin’s book on earthworms was a favorite of mine, so too was George John Romanes’s 1885 book Jelly-Fish, Star-Fish, and Sea-Urchins: Being a Research on Primitive Nervous Systems, with its simple, fascinating experiments and beautiful illustrations. For Romanes, Darwin’s young friend and student, the seashore and its fauna were to be passionate and lifelong interests, and his aim above all was to investigate what he regarded as the behavioral manifestations of “mind” in these creatures.
I was charmed by Romanes’s personal style. (His studies of invertebrate minds and nervous systems were most happily pursued, he wrote, in “a laboratory set up upon the sea-beach…a neat little wooden workshop thrown open to the sea-breezes.”) But it was clear that correlating the neural and the behavioral was at the heart of Romanes’s enterprise. He spoke of his work as “comparative psychology,” and saw it as analogous to comparative anatomy.
Louis Agassiz had shown, as early as 1850, that the jellyfish Bougainvillea had a substantial nervous system, and by 1883 Romanes demonstrated its individual nerve cells (there are about a thousand). By simple experiments—cutting certain nerves, making incisions in the bell, or looking at isolated slices of tissue—he showed that jellyfish employed both autonomous, local mechanisms (dependent on nerve “nets”) and centrally coordinated activities through the circular “brain” that ran along the margins of the bell.
By 1883, Romanes was able to include drawings of individual nerve cells and clusters of nerve cells, or ganglia, in his book Mental Evolution in Animals. “Throughout the animal kingdom,” Romanes wrote,
nerve tissue is invariably present in all species whose zoological position is not below that of the Hydrozoa. The lowest animals in which it has hitherto been detected are the Medusae, or jelly-fishes, and from them upwards its occurrence is, as I have said, invariable. Wherever it does occur its fundamental structure is very much the same, so that whether we meet with nerve-tissue in a jelly-fish, an oyster, an insect, a bird, or a man, we have no difficulty in recognizing its structural units as everywhere more or less similar.
At the same time that Romanes was vivisecting jellyfish and starfish in his seaside laboratory, the young Sigmund Freud, already a passionate Darwinian, was working in the lab of Ernst Brücke, a physiologist in Vienna. His special concern was to compare the nerve cells of vertebrates and invertebrates, in particular those of a very primitive vertebrate (Petromyzon, a lamprey) with those of an invertebrate (a crayfish). While it was widely held at the time that the nerve elements in invertebrate nervous systems were radically different from those of vertebrate ones, Freud was able to show and illustrate, in meticulous, beautiful drawings, that the nerve cells in crayfish were basically similar to those of lampreys—or human beings.
And he grasped, as no one had before, that the nerve cell body and its processes—dendrites and axons—constituted the basic building blocks and the signaling units of the nervous system. Eric Kandel, in his book In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (2006), speculates that if Freud had stayed in basic research instead of going into medicine, perhaps he would be known today as “a co-founder of the neuron doctrine, instead of as the father of psychoanalysis.”
Although neurons may differ in shape and size, they are essentially the same from the most primitive animal life to the most advanced. It is their number and organization that differ: we have a hundred billion nerve cells, while a jellyfish has a thousand. But their status as cells capable of rapid and repetitive firing is essentially the same.
The crucial role of synapses—the junctions between neurons where nerve impulses can be modulated, giving organisms flexibility and a whole range of behaviors—was clarified only at the close of the nineteenth century by the great Spanish anatomist Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who looked at the nervous systems of many vertebrates and invertebrates, and by C.S. Sherrington in England (it was Sherrington who coined the word “synapse” and showed that synapses could be excitatory or inhibitory in function).
In the 1880s, however, despite Agassiz’s and Romanes’s work, there was still a general feeling that jellyfish were little more than passively floating masses of tentacles ready to sting and ingest whatever came their way, little more than a sort of floating marine sundew.
But jellyfish are hardly passive. They pulsate rhythmically, contracting every part of their bell simultaneously, and this requires a central pacemaker system that sets off each pulse. Jellyfish can change direction and depth, and many have a “fishing” behavior that involves turning upside down for a minute, spreading their tentacles like a net, and then righting themselves, which they do by virtue of eight gravity-sensing balance organs. (If these are removed, the jellyfish is disoriented and can no longer control its position in the water.) If bitten by a fish, or otherwise threatened, jellyfish have an escape strategy—a series of rapid, powerful pulsations of the bell—that shoots them out of harm’s way; special, oversized (and therefore rapidly responding) neurons are activated at such times.
Of special interest and infamous reputation among divers is the box jellyfish (Cubomedusae)—one of the most primitive animals to have fully developed image-forming eyes, not so different from our own. The biologist Tim Flannery, in an article in these pages, writes of box jellyfish:
They are active hunters of medium-sized fish and crustaceans, and can move at up to twenty-one feet per minute. They are also the only jellyfish with eyes that are quite sophisticated, containing retinas, corneas, and lenses. And they have brains, which are capable of learning, memory, and guiding complex behaviors.
We and all higher animals are bilaterally symmetrical, have a front end (a head) containing a brain, and a preferred direction of movement (forward). The jellyfish nervous system, like the animal itself, is radially symmetrical and may seem less sophisticated than a mammalian brain, but it has every right to be considered a brain, generating, as it does, complex adaptive behaviors and coordinating all the animal’s sensory and motor mechanisms. Whether we can speak of a “mind” here (as Darwin does in regard to earthworms) depends on how one defines “mind.”
We all distinguish between plants and animals. We understand that plants, in general, are immobile, rooted in the ground; they spread their green leaves to the heavens and feed on sunlight and soil. We understand that animals, in contrast, are mobile, moving from place to place, foraging or hunting for food; they have easily recognized behaviors of various sorts. Plants and animals have evolved along two profoundly different paths (fungi have yet another), and they are wholly different in their forms and modes of life.
And yet, Darwin insisted, they were closer than one might think. He wrote a series of botanical books, culminating in The Power of Movement in Plants (1880), just before his book on earthworms. He thought the powers of movement, and especially of detecting and catching prey, in the insectivorous plants so remarkable that, in a letter to the botanist Asa Gray, he referred to Drosera, the sundew, only half-jokingly as not only a wonderful plant but “a most sagacious animal.”
Darwin was reinforced in this notion by the demonstration that insect-eating plants made use of electrical currents to move, just as animals did—that there was “plant electricity” as well as “animal electricity.” But “plant electricity” moves slowly, roughly an inch a second, as one can see by watching the leaflets of the sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica) closing one by one along a leaf that is touched. “Animal electricity,” conducted by nerves, moves roughly a thousand times faster.2
Signaling between cells depends on electrochemical changes, the flow of electrically charged atoms (ions), in and out of cells via special, highly selective molecular pores or “channels.” These ion flows cause electrical currents, impulses—action potentials—that are transmitted (directly or indirectly) from one cell to another, in both plants and animals.
Plants depend largely on calcium ion channels, which suit their relatively slow lives perfectly. As Daniel Chamovitz argues in his book What a Plant Knows (2012), plants are capable of registering what we would call sights, sounds, tactile signals, and much more. Plants know what to do, and they “remember.” But without neurons, plants do not learn in the same way that animals do; instead they rely on a vast arsenal of different chemicals and what Darwin termed “devices.” The blueprints for these must all be encoded in the plant’s genome, and indeed plant genomes are often larger than our own.
The calcium ion channels that plants rely on do not support rapid or repetitive signaling between cells; once a plant action potential is generated, it cannot be repeated at a fast enough rate to allow, for example, the speed with which a worm “dashes…into its burrow.” Speed requires ions and ion channels that can open and close in a matter of milliseconds, allowing hundreds of action potentials to be generated in a second. The magic ions, here, are sodium and potassium ions, which enabled the development of rapidly reacting muscle cells, nerve cells, and neuromodulation at synapses. These made possible organisms that could learn, profit by experience, judge, act, and finally think.
This new form of life—animal life—emerging perhaps 600 million years ago conferred great advantages, and transformed populations rapidly. In the so-called Cambrian explosion (datable with remarkable precision to 542 million years ago), a dozen or more new phyla, each with very different body plans, arose within the space of a million years or less—a geological eye-blink. The once peaceful pre-Cambrian seas were transformed into a jungle of hunters and hunted, newly mobile. And while some animals (like sponges) lost their nerve cells and regressed to a vegetative life, others, especially predators, evolved increasingly sophisticated sense organs, memories, and minds.
It is fascinating to think of Darwin, Romanes, and other biologists of their time searching for “mind,” “mental processes,” “intelligence,” even “consciousness” in primitive animals like jellyfish, and even in protozoa. A few decades afterward, radical behaviorism would come to dominate the scene, denying reality to what was not objectively demonstrable, denying in particular any inner processes between stimulus and response, deeming these as irrelevant or at least beyond the reach of scientific study.
Such a restriction or reduction indeed facilitated studies of stimulation and response, both with and without “conditioning,” and it was Pavlov’s famous studies of dogs that formalized—as “sensitization” and “habituation”—what Darwin had observed in his worms.
As Konrad Lorenz wrote in The Foundations of Ethology, “an earthworm [that] has just avoided being eaten by a blackbird…is indeed well-advised to respond with a considerably lowered threshold to similar stimuli, because it is almost certain that the bird will still be nearby for the next few seconds.” This lowering of threshold, or sensitization, is an elementary form of learning, even though it is nonassociative and relatively short-lived. Correspondingly, a diminution of response, or habituation, occurs when there is a repeated but insignificant stimulus—something to be ignored.
It was shown within a few years of Darwin’s death that even single-cell organisms like protozoa could exhibit a range of adaptive responses. In particular, Herbert Spencer Jennings showed that the tiny, stalked, trumpet-shaped unicellular organism Stentor employs a repertoire of at least five different responses to being touched, before finally detaching itself to find a new site if these basic responses are ineffective. But if it is touched again, it will skip the intermediate steps and immediately take off for another site. It has become sensitized to noxious stimuli, or, to use more familiar terms, it “remembers” its unpleasant experience and has learned from it (though the memory lasts only a few minutes). If, conversely, Stentor is exposed to a series of very gentle touches, it soon ceases to respond to these at all—it has habituated.
Jennings described his work with sensitization and habituation in organisms like Paramecium and Stentor in his 1906 book Behavior of the Lower Organisms. Although he was careful to avoid any subjective, mentalistic language in his description of protozoan behaviors, he did include an astonishing chapter at the end of his book on the relation of observable behavior to “mind.”
He felt that we humans are reluctant to attribute any qualities of mind to protozoa because they are so small:
The writer is thoroughly convinced, after long study of the behaviour of this organism, that if Amoeba were a large animal, so as to come in the everyday experience of human beings, its behaviour would at once call forth the attribution to it of states of pleasure and pain, of hunger, desire, and the like, on precisely the same basis as we attribute these things to the dog.
Jennings’s vision of a highly sensitive, dog-size Amoeba is almost cartoonishly the opposite of Descartes’s notion of dogs as so devoid of feelings that one could vivisect them without compunction, taking their cries as purely “reflex” reactions of a quasi-mechanical kind.
Sensitization and habituation are crucial for the survival of all living organisms. These elementary forms of learning are short-lived—a few minutes at most—in protozoa and plants; longer-lived forms require a nervous system.
While behavioral studies flourished, there was almost no attention paid to the cellular basis of behavior—the exact role of nerve cells and their synapses. Investigations in mammals—involving, for example, the hippocampal or memory systems in rats—presented almost insuperable technical difficulties, due to the tiny size and extreme density of neurons (there were difficulties, moreover, even if one could record electrical activity from a single cell, in keeping it alive and fully functioning for the duration of protracted experiments).
Faced with such difficulties in his anatomical studies in the early twentieth century, Ramón y Cajal—the first and greatest microanatomist of the nervous system—had turned to study simpler systems: those of young or fetal animals, and those of invertebrates (insects, crustaceans, cephalopods, etc.). For similar reasons, Eric Kandel, when he embarked in the 1960s on a study of the cellular basis of memory and learning, sought an animal with a simpler and more accessible nervous system. He settled on the giant sea snail Aplysia, which has 20,000 or so neurons, distributed in ten or so ganglia of about 2,000 neurons apiece. It also has particularly large neurons—some even visible to the naked eye—connected with one another in fixed anatomical circuits.
That Aplysia might be considered too low a form of life for studies of memory did not discountenance Kandel, despite some skepticism from his colleagues—any more than it had discountenanced Darwin when he spoke of the “mental qualities” of earthworms. “I was beginning to think like a biologist,” Kandel writes, recalling his decision to work with Aplysia. “I appreciated that all animals have some form of mental life that reflects the architecture of their nervous system.”
As Darwin had looked at an escape reflex in worms and how it might be facilitated or inhibited in different circumstances, Kandel looked at a protective reflex in Aplysia, the withdrawal of its exposed gill to safety, and the modulation of this response. Recording from (and sometimes stimulating) the nerve cells and synapses in the abdominal ganglion that governed these responses, he was able to show that relatively short-term memory and learning—as involved in habituation and sensitization—depended on functional changes in synapses; but longer-term memory, which might last several months, went with structural changes in the synapses. (In neither case was there any change in the actual circuits.)
As new technologies and concepts emerged in the 1970s, Kandel and his colleagues were able to complement these electrophysiological studies of memory and learning with chemical ones: “We wanted to penetrate the molecular biology of a mental process, to know exactly what molecules are responsible for short-term memory.” This entailed, in particular, studies of the ion channels and neurotransmitters involved in synaptic functions—monumental work that earned Kandel a Nobel Prize.
Where Aplysia has only 20,000 neurons distributed in ganglia throughout its body, an insect may have up to a million nerve cells, all concentrated in one brain, and despite its tiny size may be capable of extraordinary cognitive feats. Thus bees are expert in recognizing different colors, smells, and geometric shapes presented in a laboratory setting, as well as systematic transformations of these. And of course, they show superb expertise in the wild or in our gardens, where they recognize not only the patterns and smells and colors of flowers, but can remember their locations and communicate these to their fellow bees.
It has even been shown, in a highly social species of paper wasp, that individuals can learn and recognize the faces of other wasps. Such face learning has hitherto been described only in mammals; it is fascinating that a cognitive power so specific can be present in insects as well.
We often think of insects as tiny automata—robots with everything built-in and programmed. But it is increasingly evident that insects can remember, learn, think, and communicate in quite rich and unexpected ways. Much of this, doubtless, is built-in—but much, too, seems to depend on individual experience.
Whatever the case with insects, there is an altogether different situation with those geniuses among invertebrates, the cephalopods, consisting of octopuses, cuttlefish, and squid. Here, as a start, the nervous system is much larger—an octopus may have half a billion nerve cells distributed between its brain and its “arms” (a mouse, by comparison, has only 75 to 100 million). There is a remarkable degree of organization in the octopus brain, with dozens of functionally distinct lobes in the brain and similarities to the learning and memory systems of mammals.
Cephalopods are not only easily trained to discriminate test shapes and objects, but some reportedly can learn by observation, a power otherwise confined to certain birds and mammals. They have remarkable powers of camouflage, and can signal complex emotions and intentions by changing their skin colors, patterns and textures.
Darwin noted in The Voyage of the Beagle how an octopus in a tidal pool seemed to interact with him, by turns watchful, curious, and even playful. Octopuses can be domesticated to some extent, and their keepers often empathize with them, feeling some sense of mental and emotional proximity. Whether one can use the “C” word—consciousness—in regard to cephalopods can be argued all ways. But if one allows that a dog may have consciousness of an individual and significant sort, one has to allow it for an octopus, too.
Nature has employed at least two very different ways of making a brain—indeed, there are almost as many ways as there are phyla in the animal kingdom. Mind, to varying degrees, has arisen or is embodied in all of these, despite the profound biological gulf that separates them from one other, and us from them.4

What Is Enlightenment?
Foucault, Michel. “What is Enlightenment?” In The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow, pp. 32-50. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984
What is Enlightenment?

Today when a periodical asks its readers a question, it does so in order to collect opinions on some subject about which everyone has an opinion already; there is not much likelihood of learning anything new. In the eighteenth century, editors preferred to question the public on problems that did not yet have solutions. I don’t know whether or not that practice was more effective; it was unquestionably more entertaining.
In any event, in line with this custom, in November 1784 a German periodical, Berlinische Monatschrift published a response to the question: Was ist Aufklärung? And the respondent was Kant.
A minor text, perhaps. But it seems to me that it marks the discreet entrance into the history of thought of a question that modern philosophy has not been capable of answering, but that it has never managed to get rid of, either. And one that has been repeated in various forms for two centuries now. From Hegel through Nietzsche or Max Weber to Horkheimer or Habermas, hardly any philosophy has failed to confront this same question, directly or indirectly. What, then, is this event that is called the Aufklärung and that has determined, at least in part, what we are, what we think, and what we do today? Let us imagine that the Berlinische Monatschrift still exists and that it is asking its readers the question: What is modern philosophy? Perhaps we could respond with an echo: modern philosophy is the philosophy that is attempting to answer the question raised so imprudently two centuries ago: Was ist Aufklärung?
Let us linger a few moments over Kant’s text. It merits attention for several reasons.
1. To this same question, Moses Mendelssohn had also replied in the same journal, just two months earlier. But Kant had not seen Mendelssohn’s text when he wrote his. To be sure, the encounter of the German philosophical movement with the new development of Jewish culture does not date from this precise moment. Mendelssohn had been at that crossroads for thirty years or so, in company with Lessing. But up to this point it had been a matter of making a place for Jewish culture within German thought — which Lessing had tried to do in Die Juden — or else of identifying problems common to Jewish thought and to German philosophy; this is what Mendelssohn had done in his Phadon; oder, Über die Unsterblichkeit der Seele. With the two texts published in the Berlinische Monatschrift the German Aufklärung and the Jewish Haskala recognize that they belong to the same history; they are seeking to identify the common processes from which they stem. And it is perhaps a way of announcing the acceptance of a common destiny — we now know to what drama that was to lead.
2.  But there is more. In itself and within the Christian tradition, Kant’s text poses a new problem. It was certainly not the first time that philosophical thought had sought to reflect on its own present. But, speaking schematically, we may say that this reflection had until then taken three main forms.

– The present may be represented as belonging to a certain era of the world, distinct from the others through some inherent characteristics, or separated from the others by some dramatic event. Thus, in Plato’s Statesman the interlocutors recognize that they belong to one of those revolutions of the world in which the world is turning backwards, with all the negative consequences that may ensue.

– The present may be interrogated in an attempt to decipher in it the heralding signs of a forthcoming event. Here we have the principle of a kind of historical hermeneutics of which Augustine might provide an example.

– The present may also be analyzed as a point of transition toward the dawning of a new world. That is what Vico describes in the last chapter of La Scienza Nuova; what he sees “today”; is “a complete humanity … spread abroad through all nations, for a few great monarchs rule over this world of peoples”; it is also “Europe … radiant with such humanity that it abounds in all the good things that make for the happiness of human life”1

Now the way Kant poses the question of Aufklärung is entirely different: it is neither a world era to which one belongs, nor an event whose signs are perceived, nor the dawning of an accomplishment. Kant defines Aufklärung in an almost entirely negative way, as an Ausgang, an “exit,” a “way out.” In his other texts on history, Kant occasionally raises questions of origin or defines the internal teleology of a historical process. In the text on Aufklärung, he deals with the question of contemporary reality alone. He is not seeking to understand the present on the basis of a totality or of a future achievement. He is looking for a difference: What difference does today introduce with respect to yesterday?

3.  I shall not go into detail here concerning this text, which is not always very clear despite its brevity. I should simply like to point out three or four features that seem to me important if we are to understand how Kant raised the philosophical question of the present day.

Kant indicates right away that the “way out” that characterizes Enlightenment is a process that releases us from the status of “immaturity.” And by “immaturity,” he means a certain state of our will that makes us accept someone else’s authority to lead us in areas where the use of reason is called for. Kant gives three examples: we are in a state of “immaturity” when a book takes the place of our understanding, when a spiritual director takes the place of our conscience, when a doctor decides for us what our diet is to be. (Let us note in passing that the register of these three critiques is easy to recognize, even though the text does not make it explicit.) In any case, Enlightenment is defined by a modification of the preexisting relation linking will, authority, and the use of reason.
We must also note that this way out is presented by Kant in a rather ambiguous manner. He characterizes it as a phenomenon, an ongoing process; but he also presents it as a task and an obligation. From the very first paragraph, he notes that man himself is responsible for his immature status. Thus it has to be supposed that he will be able to escape from it only by a change that he himself will bring about in himself. Significantly, Kant says that this Enlightenment has a Wahlspruch: now a Wahlspruch is a heraldic device, that is, a distinctive feature by which one can be recognized, and it is also a motto, an instruction that one gives oneself and proposes to others. What, then, is this instruction? Aude sapere: “dare to know,” “have the courage, the audacity, to know.” Thus Enlightenment must be considered both as a process in which men participate collectively and as an act of courage to be accomplished personally. Men are at once elements and agents of a single process. They may be actors in the process to the extent that they participate in it; and the process occurs to the extent that men decide to be its voluntary actors.
A third difficulty appears here in Kant’s text in his use of the word “mankind”, Menschheit. The importance of this word in the Kantian conception of history is well known. Are we to understand that the entire human race is caught up in the process of Enlightenment? In that case, we must imagine Enlightenment as a historical change that affects the political and social existence of all people on the face of the earth. Or are we to understand that it involves a change affecting what constitutes the humanity of human beings? But the question then arises of knowing what this change is. Here again, Kant’s answer is not without a certain ambiguity. In any case, beneath its appearance of simplicity, it is rather complex.
Kant defines two essential conditions under which mankind can escape from its immaturity. And these two conditions are at once spiritual and institutional, ethical and political.

The first of these conditions is that the realm of obedience and the realm of the use of reason be clearly distinguished. Briefly characterizing the immature status, Kant invokes the familiar expression: “Don’t think, just follow orders”; such is, according to him, the form in which military discipline, political power, and religious authority are usually exercised. Humanity will reach maturity when it is no longer required to obey, but when men are told: “Obey, and you will be able to reason as much as you like.” We must note that the German word used here is räsonieren; this word, which is also used in the Critiques does not refer to just any use of reason, but to a use of reason in which reason has no other end but itself: räsonieren is to reason for reasoning’s sake. And Kant gives examples, these too being perfectly trivial in appearance: paying one’s taxes, while being able to argue as much as one likes about the system of taxation, would be characteristic of the mature state; or again, taking responsibility for parish service, if one is a pastor, while reasoning freely about religious dogmas.
We might think that there is nothing very different here from what has been meant, since the sixteenth century, by freedom of conscience: the right to think as one pleases so long as one obeys as one must. Yet it is here that Kant brings into play another distinction, and in a rather surprising way. The distinction he introduces is between the private and public uses of reason. But he adds at once that reason must be free in its public use, and must be submissive in its private use. Which is, term for term, the opposite of what is ordinarily called freedom of conscience.

But we must be somewhat more precise. What constitutes, for Kant, this private use of reason? In what area is it exercised? Man, Kant says, makes a private use of reason when he is “a cog in a machine”; that is, when he has a role to play in society and jobs to do: to be a soldier, to have taxes to pay, to be in charge of a parish, to be a civil servant, all this makes the human being a particular segment of society; he finds himself thereby placed in a circumscribed position, where he has to apply particular rules and pursue particular ends. Kant does not ask that people practice a blind and foolish obedience, but that they adapt the use they make of their reason to these determined circumstances; and reason must then be subjected to the particular ends in view. Thus there cannot be, here, any free use of reason.
On the other hand, when one is reasoning only in order to use one’s reason, when one is reasoning as a reasonable being (and not as a cog in a machine), when one is reasoning as a member of reasonable humanity, then the use of reason must be free and public. Enlightenment is thus not merely the process by which individuals would see their own personal freedom of thought guaranteed. There is Enlightenment when the universal, the free, and the public uses of reason are superimposed on one another.
Now this leads us to a fourth question that must be put to Kant’s text. We can readily see how the universal use of reason (apart from any private end) is the business of the subject himself as an individual; we can readily see, too, how the freedom of this use may be assured in a purely negative manner through the absence of any challenge to it; but how is a public use of that reason to be assured? Enlightenment, as we see, must not be conceived simply as a general process affecting all humanity; it must not be conceived only as an obligation prescribed to individuals: it now appears as a political problem. The question, in any event, is that of knowing how the use of reason can take the public form that it requires, how the audacity to know can be exercised in broad daylight, while individuals are obeying as scrupulously as possible. And Kant, in conclusion, proposes to Frederick II, in scarcely veiled terms, a sort of contract — what might be called the contract of rational despotism with free reason: the public and free use of autonomous reason will be the best guarantee of obedience, on condition, however, that the political principle that must be obeyed itself be in conformity with universal reason.
Let us leave Kant’s text here. I do not by any means propose to consider it as capable of constituting an adequate description of Enlightenment; and no historian, I think, could be satisfied with it for an analysis of the social, political, and cultural transformations that occurred at the end of the eighteenth century.
Nevertheless, notwithstanding its circumstantial nature, and without intending to give it an exaggerated place in Kant’s work, I believe that it is necessary to stress the connection that exists between this brief article and the three Critiques. Kant in fact describes Enlightenment as the moment when humanity is going to put its own reason to use, without subjecting itself to any authority; now it is precisely at this moment that the critique is necessary, since its role is that of defining the conditions under which the use of reason is legitimate in order to determine what can be known, what must be done, and what may be hoped. Illegitimate uses of reason are what give rise to dogmatism and heteronomy, along with illusion; on the other hand, it is when the legitimate use of reason has been clearly defined in its principles that its autonomy can be assured. The critique is, in a sense, the handbook of reason that has grown up in Enlightenment; and, conversely, the Enlightenment is the age of the critique.
It is also necessary, I think, to underline the relation between this text of Kant’s and the other texts he devoted to history. These latter, for the most part, seek to define the internal teleology of time and the point toward which history of humanity is moving. Now the analysis of Enlightenment, defining this history as humanity’s passage to its adult status, situates contemporary reality with respect to the overall movement and its basic directions. But at the same time, it shows how, at this very moment, each individual is responsible in a certain way for that overall process.
The hypothesis I should like to propose is that this little text is located in a sense at the crossroads of critical reflection and reflection on history. It is a reflection by Kant on the contemporary status of his own enterprise. No doubt it is not the first time that a philosopher has given his reasons for undertaking his work at a particular moment. But it seems to me that it is the first time that a philosopher has connected in this way, closely and from the inside, the significance of his work with respect to knowledge, a reflection on history and a particular analysis of the specific moment at which he is writing and because of which he is writing. It is in the reflection on “today” as difference in history and as motive for a particular philosophical task that the novelty of this text appears to me to lie.
And, by looking at it in this way, it seems to me we may recognize a point of departure: the outline of what one might call the attitude of modernity.
I know that modernity is often spoken of as an epoch, or at least as a set of features characteristic of an epoch; situated on a calendar, it would be preceded by a more or less naive or archaic premodernity, and followed by an enigmatic and troubling “postmodernity.” And then we find ourselves asking whether modernity constitutes the sequel to the Enlightenment and its development, or whether we are to see it as a rupture or a deviation with respect to the basic principles of the 18th century.
Thinking back on Kant’s text, I wonder whether we may not envisage modernity rather as an attitude than as a period of history. And by “attitude,” I mean a mode of relating to contemporary reality; a voluntary choice made by certain people; in the end, a way of thinking and feeling; a way, too, of acting and behaving that at one and the same time marks a relation of belonging and presents itself as a task. A bit, no doubt, like what the Greeks called an ethos. And consequently, rather than seeking to distinguish the “modern era” from the “premodern” or “postmodern,” I think it would be more useful to try to find out how the attitude of modernity, ever since its formation, has found itself struggling with attitudes of “countermodernity.”
To characterize briefly this attitude of modernity, I shall take an almost indispensable example, namely, Baudelaire; for his consciousness of modernity is widely recognized as one of the most acute in the nineteenth century.
1. Modernity is often characterized in terms of consciousness of the discontinuity of time: a break with tradition, a feeling of novelty, of vertigo in the face of the passing moment. And this is indeed what Baudelaire seems to be saying when he defines modernity as “the ephemeral, the fleeting, the contingent.”2 But, for him, being modern does not lie in recognizing and accepting this perpetual movement; on the contrary, it lies in adopting a certain attitude with respect to this movement; and this deliberate, difficult attitude consists in recapturing something eternal that is not beyond the present instant, nor behind it, but within it. Modernity is distinct from fashion, which does no more than call into question the course of time; modernity is the attitude that makes it possible to grasp the “heroic” aspect of the present moment. Modernity is not a phenomenon of sensitivity to the fleeting present; it is the will to “heroize” the present .
I shall restrict myself to what Baudelaire says about the painting of his contemporaries. Baudelaire makes fun of those painters who, finding nineteenth-century dress excessively ugly, want to depict nothing but ancient togas. But modernity in painting does not consist, for Baudelaire, in introducing black clothing onto the canvas. The modern painter is the one who can show the dark frock-coat as “the necessary costume of our time,” the one who knows how to make manifest, in the fashion of the day, the essential, permanent, obsessive relation that our age entertains with death. “The dress-coat and frock-coat not only possess their political beauty, which is an expression of universal equality, but also their poetic beauty, which is an expression of the public soul — an immense cortège of undertaker’s mutes (mutes in love, political mutes, bourgeois mutes…). We are each of us celebrating some funeral.”3 To designate this attitude of modernity, Baudelaire sometimes employs a litotes that is highly significant because it is presented in the form of a precept: “You have no right to despise the present.”
2. This heroization is ironical, needless to say. The attitude of modernity does not treat the passing moment as sacred in order to try to maintain or perpetuate it. It certainly does not involve harvesting it as a fleeting and interesting curiosity. That would be what Baudelaire would call the spectator’s posture. The flâneur, the idle, strolling spectator, is satisfied to keep his eyes open, to pay attention and to build up a storehouse of memories. In opposition to the flâneur, Baudelaire describes the man of modernity: “Away he goes, hurrying, searching …. Be very sure that this man … — this solitary, gifted with an active imagination, ceaselessly journeying across the great human desert — has an aim loftier than that of a mere flâneur, an aim more general, something other than the fugitive pleasure of circumstance. He is looking for that quality which you must allow me to call “modernity.” … He makes it his business to extract from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry within history. As an example of modernity, Baudelaire cites the artist Constantin Guys. In appearance a spectator, a collector of curiosities, he remains “the last to linger wherever there can be a glow of light, an echo of poetry, a quiver of life or a chord of music; wherever a passion can pose before him, wherever natural man and conventional man display themselves in a strange beauty, wherever the sun lights up the swift joys of the depraved animal.”
3. But let us make no mistake. Constantin Guys is not a flâneur; what makes him the modern painter par excellence in Baudelaire’s eyes is that, just when the whole world is falling asleep, he begins to work, and he transfigures that world. His transfiguration does not entail an annulling of reality, but a difficult interplay between the truth of what is real and the exercise of freedom; “natural” things become “more than natural,” “beautiful” things become “more than beautiful,” and individual objects appear “endowed with an impulsive life like the soul of their creator.”5 For the attitude of modernity, the high value of the present is indissociable from a desperate eagerness to imagine it, to imagine it otherwise than it is, and to transform it not by destroying it but by grasping it in what it is. Baudelairean modernity is an exercise in which extreme attention to what is real is confronted with the practice of a liberty that simultaneously respects this reality and violates it.

4. However, modernity for Baudelaire is not simply a form of relationship to the present; it is also a mode of relationship that has to be established with oneself. The deliberate attitude of modernity is tied to an indispensable asceticism. To be modern is not to accept oneself as one is in the flux of the passing moments; it is to take oneself as object of a complex and difficult elaboration: what Baudelaire, in the vocabulary of his day, calls dandysme. Here I shall not recall in detail the well-known passages on “vulgar, earthy, vile nature”; on man’s indispensable revolt against himself; on the “doctrine of elegance” which imposes “upon its ambitious and humble disciples” a discipline more despotic than the most terrible religions; the pages, finally, on the asceticism of the dandy who makes of his body, his behavior, his feelings and passions, his very existence, a work of art. Modern man, for Baudelaire, is not the man who goes off to discover himself, his secrets and his hidden truth; he is the man who tries to invent himself. This modernity does not “liberate man in his own being”; it compels him to face the task of producing himself.
5. Let me add just one final word. This ironic heroization of the present, this transfiguring play of freedom with reality, this ascetic elaboration of the self — Baudelaire does not imagine that these have any place in society itself, or in the body politic. They can only be produced in another, a different place, which Baudelaire calls art.

I do not pretend to be summarizing in these few lines either the complex historical event that was the Enlightenment, at the end of the eighteenth century, or the attitude of modernity in the various guises it may have taken on during the last two centuries.
I have been seeking, on the one hand, to emphasize the extent to which a type of philosophical interrogation — one that simultaneously problematizes man’s relation to the present, man’s historical mode of being, and the constitution of the self as an autonomous subject — is rooted in the Enlightenment. On the other hand, I have been seeking to stress that the thread that may connect us with the Enlightenment is not faithfulness to doctrinal elements, but rather the permanent reactivation of an attitude — that is, of a philosophical ethos that could be described as a permanent critique of our historical era. I should like to characterize this ethos very briefly.
A. Negatively
This ethos implies, first, the refusal of what I like to call the “blackmail” of the Enlightenment. I think that the Enlightenment, as a set of political, economic, social, institutional, and cultural events on which we still depend in large part, constitutes a privileged domain for analysis. I also think that as an enterprise for linking the progress of truth and the history of liberty in a bond of direct relation, it formulated a philosophical question that remains for us to consider. I think, finally, as I have tried to show with reference to Kant’s text, that it defined a certain manner of philosophizing.

But that does not mean that one has to be “for” or “against” the Enlightenment. It even means precisely that one has to refuse everything that might present itself in the form of a simplistic and authoritarian alternative: you either accept the Enlightenment and remain within the tradition of its rationalism (this is considered a positive term by some and used by others, on the contrary, as a reproach); or else you criticize the Enlightenment and then try to escape from its principles of rationality (which may be seen once again as good or bad). And we do not break free of this blackmail by introducing “dialectical” nuances while seeking to determine what good and bad elements there may have been in the Enlightenment.

We must try to proceed with the analysis of ourselves as beings who are historically determined, to a certain extent, by the Enlightenment. Such an analysis implies a series of historical inquiries that are as precise as possible; and these inquiries will not be oriented retrospectively toward the “essential kernel of rationality” that can be found in the Enlightenment and that would have to be preserved in any event; they will be oriented toward the “contemporary limits of the necessary,” that is, toward what is not or is no longer indispensable for the constitution of ourselves as autonomous subjects.

This permanent critique of ourselves has to avoid the always too facile confusions between humanism and Enlightenment.
We must never forget that the Enlightenment is an event, or a set of events and complex historical processes, that is located at a certain point in the development of European societies. As such, it includes elements of social transformation, types of political institution, forms of knowledge, projects of rationalization of knowledge and practices, technological mutations that are very difficult to sum up in a word, even if many of these phenomena remain important today. The one I have pointed out and that seems to me to have been at the basis of an entire form of philosophical reflection concerns only the mode of reflective relation to the present.

Humanism is something entirely different. It is a theme or rather a set of themes that have reappeared on several occasions over time in European societies; these themes always tied to value judgments have obviously varied greatly in their content as well as in the values they have preserved. Furthermore they have served as a critical principle of differentiation. In the seventeenth century there was a humanism that presented itself as a critique of Christianity or of religion in general; there was a Christian humanism opposed to an ascetic and much more theocentric humanism. In the nineteenth century there was a suspicious humanism hostile and critical toward science and another that to the contrary placed its hope in that same science. Marxism has been a humanism; so have existentialism and personalism; there was a time when people supported the humanistic values represented by National Socialism and when the Stalinists themselves said they were humanists.

From this we must not conclude that everything that has ever been linked with humanism is to be rejected but that the humanistic thematic is in itself too supple too diverse too inconsistent to serve as an axis for reflection. And it is a fact that at least since the seventeenth century what is called humanism has always been obliged to lean on certain conceptions of man borrowed from religion science or politics. Humanism serves to color and to justify the conceptions of man to which it is after all obliged to take recourse.

Now in this connection I believe that this thematic which so often recurs and which always depends on humanism can be opposed by the principle of a critique and a permanent creation of ourselves in our autonomy: that is a principle that is at the heart of the historical consciousness that the Enlightenment has of itself. From this standpoint I am inclined to see Enlightenment and humanism in a state of tension rather than identity.

In any case it seems to me dangerous to confuse them; and further it seems historically inaccurate. If the question of man of the human species of the humanist was important throughout the eighteenth century this is very rarely I believe because the Enlightenment considered itself a humanism. It is worthwhile too to note that throughout the nineteenth century the historiography of sixteenth-century humanism which was so important for people like Saint-Beuve or Burckhardt was always distinct from and sometimes explicitly opposed to the Enlightenment and the eighteenth century. The nineteenth century had a tendency to oppose the two at least as much as to confuse them.

In any case I think that just as we must free ourselves from the intellectual blackmail of being for or against the Enlightenment we must escape from the historical and moral confusionism that mixes the theme of humanism with the question of the Enlightenment. An analysis of their complex relations in the course of the last two centuries would be a worthwhile project an important one if we are to bring some measure of clarity to the consciousness that we have of ourselves and of our past.
B. Positively
Yet while taking these precautions into account we must obviously give a more positive content to what may be a philosophical ethos consisting in a critique of what we are saying thinking and doing through a historical ontology of ourselves.
1. This philosophical ethos may be characterized as a limit-attitude. We are not talking about a gesture of rejection. We have to move beyond the outside-inside alternative; we have to be at the frontiers. Criticism indeed consists of analyzing and reflecting upon limits. But if the Kantian question was that of knowing what limits knowledge has to renounce transgressing, it seems to me that the critical question today has to be turned back into a positive one: in what is given lo us as universal necessary obligatory what place is occupied by whatever is singular contingent and the product of arbitrary constraints? The point in brief is to transform the critique conducted in the form of necessary limitation into a practical critique that lakes the form of a possible transgression.

This entails an obvious consequence: that criticism is no longer going to be practiced in the search for formal structures with universal value, but rather as a historical investigation into the events that have led us to constitute ourselves and to recognize ourselves as subjects of what we are doing, thinking, saying. In that sense, this criticism is not transcendental, and its goal is not that of making a metaphysics possible: it is genealogical in its design and archaeological in its method. Archaeological — and not transcendental — in the sense that it will not seek to identify the universal structures of all knowledge or of all possible moral action, but will seek to treat the instances of discourse that articulate what we think, say, and do as so many historical events. And this critique will be genealogical in the sense that it will not deduce from the form of what we are what it is impossible for us to do and to know; but it will separate out, from the contingency that has made us what we are, the possibility of no longer being, doing, or thinking what we are, do, or think. It is not seeking to make possible a metaphysics that has finally become a science; it is seeking to give new impetus, as far and wide as possible, to the undefined work of freedom.
2. But if we are not to settle for the affirmation or the empty dream of freedom, it seems to me that this historico-critical attitude must also be an experimental one. I mean that this work done at the limits of ourselves must, on the one hand, open up a realm of historical inquiry and, on the other, put itself to the test of reality, of contemporary reality, both to grasp the points where change is possible and desirable, and to determine the precise form this change should take. This means that the historical ontology of ourselves must turn away from all projects that claim to be global or radical. In fact we know from experience that the claim to escape from the system of contemporary reality so as to produce the overall programs of another society, of another way of thinking, another culture, another vision of the world, has led only to the return of the most dangerous traditions.

I prefer the very specific transformations that have proved to be possible in the last twenty years in a certain number of areas that concern our ways of being and thinking, relations to authority, relations between the sexes, the way in which we perceive insanity or illness; I prefer even these partial transformations that have been made in the correlation of historical analysis and the practical attitude, to the programs for a new man that the worst political systems have repeated throughout the twentieth century.

I shall thus characterize the philosophical ethos appropriate to the critical ontology of ourselves as a historico-practical test of the limits that we may go beyond, and thus as work carried out by ourselves upon ourselves as free beings.
3. Still, the following objection would no doubt be entirely legitimate: if we limit ourselves to this type of always partial and local inquiry or test, do we not run the risk of letting ourselves be determined by more general structures of which we may well not be conscious, and over which we may have no control?

To this, two responses. It is true that we have to give up hope of ever acceding to a point of view that could give us access to any complete and definitive knowledge of what may constitute our historical limits. And from this point of view the theoretical and practical experience that we have of our limits and of the possibility of moving beyond them is always limited and determined; thus we are always in the position of beginning again.

But that does not mean that no work can be done except in disorder and contingency. The work in question has its generality, its systematicity, its homogeneity, and its stakes.
Its Stakes
These are indicated by what might be called “the paradox of the relations of capacity and power.” We know that the great promise or the great hope of the eighteenth century, or a part of the eighteenth century, lay in the simultaneous and proportional growth of individuals with respect to one another. And, moreover, we can see that throughout the entire history of Western societies (it is perhaps here that the root of their singular historical destiny is located — such a peculiar destiny, so different from the others in its trajectory and so universalizing, so dominant with respect to the others), the acquisition of capabilities and the struggle for freedom have constituted permanent elements. Now the relations between the growth of capabilities and the growth of autonomy are not as simple as the eighteenth century may have believed. And we have been able to see what forms of power relation were conveyed by various technologies (whether we are speaking of productions with economic aims, or institutions whose goal is social regulation, or of techniques of communication): disciplines, both collective and individual, procedures of normalization exercised in the name of the power of the state, demands of society or of population zones, are examples. What is at stake, then, is this: How can the growth of capabilities be disconnected from the intensification of power relations?
This leads to the study of what could be called “practical systems.” Here we are taking as a homogeneous domain of reference not the representations that men give of themselves, not the conditions that determine them without their knowledge, but rather what they do and the way they do it. That is, the forms of rationality that organize their ways of doing things (this might be called the technological aspect) and the freedom with which they act within these practical systems, reacting to what others do, modifying the rules of the game, up to a certain point (this might be called the strategic side of these practices). The homogeneity of these historico-critical analyses is thus ensured by this realm of practices, with their technological side and their strategic side.
These practical systems stem from three broad areas: relations of control over things, relations of action upon others, relations with oneself. This does not mean that each of these three areas is completely foreign to the others. It is well known that control over things is mediated by relations with others; and relations with others in turn always entail relations with oneself, and vice versa. But we have three axes whose specificity and whose interconnections have to be analyzed: the axis of knowledge, the axis of power, the axis of ethics. In other terms, the historical ontology of ourselves has to answer an open series of questions; it has to make an indefinite number of inquiries which may be multiplied and specified as much as we like, but which will all address the questions systematized as follows: How are we constituted as subjects of our own knowledge? How are we constituted as subjects who exercise or submit to power relations? How are we constituted as moral subjects of our own actions?
Finally, these historico-critical investigations are quite specific in the sense that they always bear upon a material, an epoch, a body of determined practices and discourses. And yet, at least at the level of the Western societies from which we derive, they have their generality, in the sense that they have continued to recur up to our time: for example, the problem of the relationship between sanity and insanity, or sickness and health, or crime and the law; the problem of the role of sexual relations; and so on.
But by evoking this generality, I do not mean to suggest that it has to be retraced in its metahistorical continuity over time, nor that its variations have to be pursued. What must be grasped is the extent to which what we know of it, the forms of power that are exercised in it, and the experience that we have in it of ourselves constitute nothing but determined historical figures, through a certain form of problematization that defines objects, rules of action, modes of relation to oneself. The study of modes of problematization (that is, of what is neither an anthropological constant nor a chronological variation) is thus the way to analyze questions of general import in their historically unique form.

A brief summary, to conclude and to come back to Kant.

I do not know whether we will ever reach mature adulthood. Many things in our experience convince us that the historical event of the Enlightenment did not make us mature adults, and we have not reached that stage yet. However, it seems to me that a meaning can be attributed to that critical interrogation on the present and on ourselves which Kant formulated by reflecting on the Enlightenment. It seems to me that Kant’s reflection is even a way of philosophizing that has not been without its importance or effectiveness during the last two centuries. The critical ontology of ourselves has to be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.

This philosophical attitude has to be translated into the labor of diverse inquiries. These inquiries have their methodological coherence in the at once archaeological and genealogical study of practices envisaged simultaneously as a technological type of rationality and as strategic games of liberties; they have their theoretical coherence in the definition of the historically unique forms in which the generalities of our relations to things, to others, to ourselves, have been problematized. They have their practical coherence in the care brought to the process of putting historico-critical reflection to the test of concrete practices. I do not know whether it must be said today that the critical task still entails faith in Enlightenment; I continue to think that this task requires work on our limits, that is, a patient labor giving form to our impatience for liberty.


Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, vol. 7, no. 2, 2011

David Storey, Professor of Philosophy, Fordham

ABSTRACT: Though nihilism is a major theme in late modern philosophy from Hegel onward, it is only relatively recently that it has been treated as the subject of monographs and anthologies. Commentators have offered a number of accounts of the origins and nature of nihilism. Some see it as a purely historical and predominantly modern phenomenon, a consequence of the social, economic, ecological, political, and/or religious upheavals of modernity. Others think it stems from human nature itself, and should be seen as a perennial problem. Still others think that nihilism has ontological significance and issues from the nature of being itself. In this essay, I survey the most important of these narratives of nihilism to show
how commonly the advent and spread of nihilism is linked with changing conceptions of (humanity’s relation to) nature. At root, nihilism is a problem about humanity’s relation to nature, about a crisis in human freedom and willing after the collapse of the cosmos, the erosion of a hierarchically ordered nature in which humans have a proper place. Two themes recur in the literature: first, the collapse of what is commonly called the “great chain of being” or the cosmos generally; and second, the increased importance placed on human will and subjectivity and, correlatively, the significance of human history as opposed to nature.

KEYWORDS: Nihilism; Nature; Cosmos

We typically regard nihilism as a problem about human life. While Nietzsche and Heidegger are undoubtedly the thinkers most closely associated with nihilism, it has an important history (predominantly in Europe) before them and has led an interesting life (especially in American culture) after them. Nietzsche’s proclamation, “God is dead!”, has been taken as the historical and philosophical fountainhead of European nihilism. As with any idea, however, the history of nihilism is more complex, and over the last half-century a handful of scholars have set out to trace its elusive arc.1 Though nihilism is a major theme in late modern philosophy from Hegel onward, it is only relatively recently that it has been treated as the subject of monographs and anthologies. Commentators have offered a number of accounts of the origins and nature of nihilism. Some see it as a purely historical and predominantly modern phenomenon, a consequence of the social, economic, ecological, political, and/or religious upheavals of modernity. Others think it stems from human nature itself, and should be seen as a perennial problem. Still others think that nihilism has ontological significance and issues from the nature of being itself. In this essay, I survey the most important of these narratives of nihilism to show
how commonly the advent and spread of nihilism is linked, as it is by Nietzsche and Heidegger, with changing conceptions of (humanity’s relation to) nature. At root, nihilism is a problem about humanity’s relation to nature, about a crisis in human freedom and willing after the collapse of the cosmos, the erosion of a hierarchically ordered nature in which humans have a proper place. Two themes recur in the literature: first, the collapse of what is commonly called the “great chain of being”2 or the cosmos generally; and second, the increased importance placed on human will and subjectivity and, correlatively, the significance of human history as opposed to nature.
Nihilism originated as a distinct philosophical concept in the 18th century. As Michael Gillespie reports, “the concept of nihilism first came into general usage as a description of the danger [German] idealism posed for the intellectual, spiritual, and political health of humanity. The first to use the term in print was apparently F. L. Goetzius in his De nonismo et nihilism in theologia (1733).”3 Tracts portraying Kantian critical philosophy as a form of nihilism appeared near the end of the century, but it would fall to F.H. Jacobi to give the first explicit formulation of the concept. Convinced that idealism posed an existential threat to traditional Christian belief,
Jacobi attacked both Kant and Fichte, the former in his essay, “Idealism and Nihilism,” and the latter in a letter to Fichte in 1799. He branded Fichte’s philosophy as nihilism by drawing a stark contrast between a steadfast faith in a God beyond human subjectivity and an insatiable reason that, as Otto Poeggeler puts it, “perceives only itself” and “dissolves everything that is given into the nothingness of subjectivity.”4 Jacobi believed that idealism entailed a lopsided focus on human subjectivity that not only shut out the divine, but severed itself from any external
reality whatsoever, including nature. If things-in-themselves cannot be cognized, and actuality itself is but a category of the understanding, then it seems to follow that things-in-themselves do not actually exist. Idealism shifts, to use Gilson’s formulation, from the “exterior to the interior,” but does not make the move from the “interior to the superior”; in fact, it does not “move” at all, since the exterior—nature—is regarded as a realm of mere appearances. For Jacobi, it is only through a decisive act of will, a recognition of the stark either/or before us and a resolute commitment to God, that humans can find their proper place. As Jacobi challenges Fichte: “God is and is outside of me, a living essence that subsists for itself, or I am God. There is no third possibility.”5
Three things stand out in this passage. First, Jabobi is simultaneously charging Fichte with pantheism and atheism, positions he regards as basically identical. Before mounting his assault on idealism, Jacobi had argued that Spinoza’s pantheism was actually atheism. Jacobi seems to have regarded Fichte’s idealism as a doomed attempt to marry the focus on freedom in Descartes and Kant to Spinoza’s holistic and divinized view of nature. So nihilism is portrayed as emerging, roughly speaking, out of attempts to integrate modern conceptions of freedom and nature. Second, Jacobi’s denial of a “third way” is, as we will see, a common complaint among critics of nihilism, or of philosophies alleged to be nihilistic. Those who cannot accept the basic dualities and either/or’s of existence, so the thinking goes, attempt to sublate them in elaborate monistic philosophies that bend logic and language beyond their breaking points in order to chart a third way–to, in Kierkegaard’s turn of biblical phrase, join what God has separated. The attempt to include everything ends up embracing nothing. Third, it is more than a little ironic that Jacobi’s fideistic focus on the will, intended as an antidote to nihilism, would later be pointed to as a symptom of nihilism by Nietzsche because the will is directed toward a false object (God) and by Heidegger because the triumph of the will in modern thought is the fruition of the ancient seed of metaphysics, the drive to frame being as presence. With this story of the origin of the concept of nihilism in place, let us take a look at some of the most sustained attempts to determine the nature of nihilism.’

Nishitani Keiji. Despite nihilism’s presence at the birth of German idealism (and prominence after its death), it was not to be made a subject of study in its own right until the 1930s and ‘40s, by Karl Löwith and the unlikely figure of Nishitani Keiji. Nishitani was a member of Japan’s Kyoto School, a vanguard of Japanese intellectuals, many of whom travelled to Germany to study with leading European thinkers and endeavored to integrate modern Western philosophy, particularly Nietzsche, Heidegger and the German Idealists, with Buddhist thought.6 Graham
Parkes suggests that since, e.g., the Buddhist tradition never took substance or presence as foundational philosophical categories, it is no accident that one of the first relatively unified statements on nihilism was made by a non-Western philosopher: “Nishitani’s perspective has allowed him to see as more unified than Western commentators the stream of nihilism which springs from the decline of Hegelian philosophy through Feuerbach, Stirner, and Schopenhauer to Nietzsche and Heidegger.”7 In other words, from a Buddhist perspective rooted in the belief that all things are empty, finite, and lacking in “own-being,” the Western notions of being as
standing presence or stable substance are obviously a poor foundation to build on.
The hallmarks of Nishitani’s approach to nihilism in this text are a rigorous analysis of Nietzsche’s treatment of nihilism, a spirited defense of Nietzsche’s solution, the application of Buddhist conceptual tools to the problem, and a critique of atheistic positions such as those of Stirner, Marx, and Sartre. He argues that Heidegger’s significance in the history of nihilism lies in his insistence on its connection to ontology: “Heidegger gives us nothing less than an ontology within which nihilism becomes a philosophy. By disclosing nothing at the ground of all beings and summoning it forth, nihilism becomes the basis of a new metaphysics.”8 One of the most important contributions of Nishitani’s account is his insistence that the deepest significance of nihilism is ontological, not merely psychological or cultural, and that its rise in modern Western philosophy is a symptom of a failure to adequately grapple with the concept of the nothing. Karl Löwith. If Nishitani’s approach to nihilism has the virtue of distance, Karl Löwith’s has the advantage of proximity.9 A student of Heidegger and an eye-witness to the real-world ravages of political nihilism in the rise of Nazism, Löwith provides a detailed account of the prominent role nihilism played in post-Hegelian European thought and culture, and he offers a rich account of the intellectual and cultural trends that culminated in Heidegger’s philosophy. On Löwith’s telling,

Ever since the middle of the [19th] century, the construction of the history of Europe has not proceeded according to a schema of progress, but instead according to that of decline. This change began not at the end of the century but rather at its beginning, with Fichte’s lectures, which he saw as an age of ‘perfected iniquity.’ From there, there proceeds through European literature and philosophy an uninterrupted chain of critiques…which decisively condition
not simply the academic but the actual intellectual history between Hegel and Nietzsche. The state of Being in decline along with one’s own time is also the ground and soil for Heidegger’s ‘destruction,’ for his will to dismantle and rebuild, back to the foundations of a tradition which has become untenable.10
Fichte’s indictment of the present age would be the prototype for a long list of scathing critiques of modern society, from Kierkegaard’s The Present Age to Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations. Once Hegel had, as Löwith puts it, “made the negation of what exists” the principle of genuine philosophy, the task of philosophy would widely become identified with Zeitdiagnose, and the role of the philosopher was to become, as Nietzsche put it, the physician of culture. Löwith shows how this spirit is embodied by thinkers as disparate as Marx and Kierkegaard:

Marx’s worldly critique of the bourgeois-capitalist world corresponds to Kierkegaard’s critique of the bourgeois-Christian world, which is as foreign to Christianity in its origins as the bourgeois or civil state is to a polis. That Marx places the outward existential relations of the masses before a decision and Kierkegaard the inward existential relation of the individual to himself, that Marx philosophizes without God and Kierkegaard before God—these apparent  oppositions have as a common presupposition the decay of existence along with
God and the world.11
Both thinkers, he continues, “conceived ‘what is’ as a world determined by commodities and money, and as an existence defined throughout by irony and boredom.”12 Marx’s assertion of a purely “human” world and Kierkegaard’s espousal of a “worldless Christianity” both share in common the severance of the human from the natural. For Marx, nature is merely the positum there to be negated and appropriated by human labor. For Kierkegaard, as Walter Kaufmann quips, nature is irrelevant to human life: “He sweeps away the whole conception of a cosmos as a mere distraction… Here is man, and ‘one thing is needful’: a decision.”13 Hans Jonas, another of Heidegger’s students, detected a similar problem with Heidegger’s own account of human existence: namely, that it did not place humans within any kind of scala natura that is the locus of value. Löwith’s larger point, though, is that the disintegration of the Hegelian vision resulted in a grab bag of incompatible viewpoints usually consisting of a scathing critique of the present, a longing for a lost age, and/or a radical program for individual or social renewal.

C.S. Lewis. Another vital voice in the discourse on nihilism—and who also saw firsthand the fallout from political nihilism in the world wars of the 20th century—is C.S. Lewis. Though Lewis does not explicitly mention the specter of nihilism in his classic The Abolition of Man, he clearly laments its corrosive effects on Western civilization and insists it arose largely due to a disruption in humanity’s relationship to nature. The abolition of human nature, he hypothesizes, is the unintended consequence of the attempt to bend nature to human purposes and is the endgame of scientific naturalism. Moreover, this attempt to defeat nature and scrub it free of undesirables results, paradoxically, in nature’s total victory. The more of reality we concede to the objective, value-free domain of “mere nature,” the less free we become; or more precisely, the more freedom becomes a curse, because its polestars for navigating the field of possibilities—an objective morality rooted in nature or the “Tao,” Lewis’ catchall phrase for premodern notions of nature as a cosmos to which humans must conform—have been snuffed out. The human is left with nothing but his drives and instincts to decide how to act; he is left, in other words, with nothing but nature to guide him. But since this is not a cosmic nature with a logos, an ordered hierarchy of matter, body, soul, and spirit, but a nature bereft of reason or moral value, and since reason has been downgraded to a tool and morality whittled down to
a matter of preference, it is a matter of the blind leading the blind; a matter, in short, of nihilism. What happens, then, is that whatever someone happens to prefer is called natural. Somehow, the attempt to make everything “natural” ends up denaturing the very notion of nature.

Stanley Rosen and Allan Bloom. Two writers who made similar observations about nihilism were both students of the political philosopher Leo Strauss: Stanley Rosen and Allan Bloom. Both trace the phenomenon to a gradual shift in the reigning conceptions of reason, morality, and nature throughout the modern period. Like Lewis, Rosen describes nihilism as partly the collapse in the belief in objective moral truths, which is abetted by the widespread adoption of a non-normative, instrumental view of reason. Once the will is decoupled from the intellect and no longer choosing from among the ends the intellect presents to it, and once the logos is removed from nature, then there are no longer any objective moral truths that the intellect can apprehend and present to the will as worthy candidates for action. Everything falls to the will, and since the will cannot furnish reasons for acting one way or another—and since reason itself has been relieved of command to do so—then everything is permitted. Rosen defines nihilism in this Nietzschean sense, and asserts that “For those who are not gods, recourse to a [value] creation ex nihilo…reduces reason to nonsense by equating the sense or significance of speech with silence.”14

While nihilism is often regarded primarily as a moral position, e.g., value relativism, Rosen contends that the moral implications are in fact derivative and stem from a “contemporary crisis in reason” rooted in the problem of historicism. Rosen defines historicism as “the view that rational speech about the good is possible only with respect to the meaning of history” and “the inability to distinguish being and time.”15 Historicism was ironically the unintended consequence of an attempted expansion of reason: “the influence of mathematical physics led to the secularization of metaphysics by transforming it into the philosophy of history, whereupon the
influence of history, together with the autonomous tendencies of the mathematizing ego, led to the historicizing of mathematical physics.”16 In other words, while the premodern task of philosophy, generally speaking, was (partly) to discern the unchanging logos within nature, in the modern period it is expanded to tracing the logos within history—but this leads, somehow, to the paradoxical view that all rational speech is reducible to historical, i.e., contingent, conditions. The strange thing is that such a nihilism can equally accommodate the view that “everything is
natural”—since there is no reason or necessity governing human affairs and action, they are merely an arbitrary matter of chance, will, or instinct–and “nothing is natural”—since there are no trans-historical or trans-cultural metaphysical or moral truths and everything, including theses about nature, is a product of history. Rosen insists that the notion of “creativity” played an important part in this process. According to this view, a person’s moral life consists not in obeying the dictates of a conscience common to all or by acting in accordance with his rationally knowable nature, but by being faithful to the oracle of his inner genius, the natural creativity welling up from below. Once creativity, not reason, is enshrined as the center of gravity in human nature, the next logical step is to adopt the view that all speech about being—all philosophy, science, and mathematics—is poetry. Rosen thinks that the influence of historicism on the view of reason and metaphysics, and the effect of the notion of creativity on the view of morality and human nature, are the main causes of the advent of nihilism: “the fundamental problem in a study of nihilism is to dissect the language of historicist ontology with the associated doctrine of human creativity.”17 Heidegger and Nietzsche are the most important thinkers in this drama; Heidegger because of his attempt to think being in terms of time, and
Nietzsche because of his reduction of all human faculties to a creative will to power. Though their diagnoses of nihilism are unparalleled, Rosen thinks their solutions are flawed because both are victims of the modern “rationalistic view of reason”:

By detaching ‘reasonable’ from ‘good,’ the friends of reason made it impossible to assert the goodness of reason…. If reason is conceived exclusively on the model of mathematics, and if mathematics is itself understood in terms of Newtonian rather than Pythagorean science, then the impossibility of asserting the goodness of reason is the extreme instance of the manifest evil of reason.
Reason (we are told) objectifies, reifies, alienates; it debases or destroys the genuinely human…. Man has become alienated from his own authentic or creative existence by the erroneous projection of the supersensible world of Platonic ideas…and so of an autonomous technology, which, as the authentic contemporary historical manifestation of ‘rationalism,’ will destroy us or enslave
us to machines.18
As such, since the good was not to be found by the light of reason, it had to found somewhere else; but since the very notion of good becomes unintelligible when severed from reason, it was nowhere to be found, and thus had to be created. But since the goodness of this creativity consists in its spontaneity and novelty, it must supply its own criterion and guarantee its own legitimacy. Allan Bloom devotes the middle act of his The Closing of the American Mind to what
he calls “Nihilism, American Style.” Despite its popular acclaim, the book contains a sophisticated account of nihilism. Though the tenor of his treatment is similar to Rosen’s and though both thinkers emphasize the connection between nihilism and the modern view of nature, Bloom’s account is unique on at least two fronts. First, he illustrates how nihilism has been democratized, normalized, and neutered in American culture; this watered down, latter day version of nihilism represents, for Bloom, the victory of Nietzsche’s “last man.” Second, where for Rosen the main root of nihilism is the conception of reason that arose out of the scientific revolution, for Bloom it is the major shifts in modern political philosophy. I will briefly illustrate
these two fronts.
In Bloom’s genealogy of nihilism, what was once the province of the German high culture of the 19th and early 20th century—the intellectual skyline so exquisitely sketched by Löwith—has been transfused into American popular culture and slang. The post-World War Two generation came to employ a menagerie of terms—“values,” “lifestyle,” “creativity,” “the self,” and “culture,” to name a few—to replace traditional social and religious norms, but divested them of their original meanings, or at least their implications. “Weber,” Bloom observes, “saw that all we care for was threatened by Nietzsche’s insight [that God is dead]…. We require values, which in turn require a peculiar human creativity that is drying up and in any event has no cosmic support.”19 But instead of introducing a mood of despair and a sense of the tragic, nihilism was parlayed into an ethos of self-help, the psychology of self-esteem, a therapeutic culture, and a glib relativism. As Bloom writes, “There is a whole arsenal of terms for talking about nothing—caring, self-fulfillment, expanding consciousness….Nothing determinate, nothing that has a referent…. American nihilism is a mood, a mood of moodiness, a vague disquiet. It is nihilism without the abyss (CAM 154). What irks Bloom is that Americans embraced the language of value and creativity with such ease, without gleaning their darker implications and ignorant of the turbulent intellectual, cultural, and political history that produced them. Reminiscent of Heidegger’s discussion of idle talk, Bloom notes how the nostrums of nihilism calcify into democratic dogma: “these words are not reasons, nor were they intended to be reasons. All to the contrary, they were meant to show that our deep human need to know what we are doing and to be good cannot be satisfied. By some miracle these very terms became our justification: nihilism as moralism” (CAM 238-9). This form of nihilism is the most insidious because the most unconscious, what Nietzsche called “passive nihilism.” It is the most unconscious because its victims are unaware of their condition and incapable of contemplating alternatives.

As we saw with Löwith, the prevailing outlook in European nihilism is one of pessimism and historical decline; but on American soil, seasoned with the spirits of egalitarianism and perpetual progress, nihilism winds up with a “happy ending” and wears a happy face. Bloom thinks this improbable syncretism is more than a fascinating social and cultural phenomenon and has deep philosophical import because it perfectly embodies Nietzsche’s vision of the “last man,” the contented being who lives only for the present and is incapable of self-contempt or reverence for anything greater: “Nihilism in its most palpable sense means that the bourgeois has won, that the future, all foreseeable futures, belong to him, that all heights above him and all depths beneath him are illusory and that life is not worth living on these terms. It is the announcement that all alternatives or correctives…have failed” (CAM 157). Bloom shares with Rosen the view that “Western rationalism has resulted in a rejection of reason,” and thinks that we live, in John Ralston Saul’s term, in an “unconscious civilization”: “We are like ignorant shepherds living on a site where great civilizations once flourished. The shepherds play with the fragments that pop up to the surface, having no notion of the beautiful structures of which they were once a part” (CAM 239).

Bloom is convinced that most of this stems from the revolution in modern political thought brought about by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Whereas the ancients, generally speaking, relegated the best regime to the realm of speech and thought, doubtful about its possible instantiation in history, the moderns aimed to put the best regime into practice. One of the most important instruments for doing so was positing a “state of nature,” a primal condition from which humanity extricates itself in order to achieve an optimal way of communal life. A stark contrast has to be created between the natural and social orders in order for the rationality, legitimacy, and desirability of the political order to stick. Nature has to be branded as indifferent if not hostile to human flourishing in order for the project to make sense, and human nature must be redrawn as a- or pre-political. As Bloom puts it, “Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau all found that one way or another nature led men to war, and that civil society’s purpose was not to cooperate with a natural tendency in man toward perfection but to make peace where nature’s imperfection causes war” (CAM 163). Moreover, nature’s obstacles have to be conceived as surmountable through applied science: “if, instead of fighting one another, we band together and make war on our stepmother [nature], who keeps her riches from us, we can at the same time provide for ourselves and end our strife. The conquest of nature, which is made possible by the insight of science and by the power it produces, is the key to the political” (CAM 165). But nature has to be conquered in two senses. Before it can be literally conquered via applied science, it must be theoretically transformed from a great chain of being, a cosmos, into an ontologically homogenous plane of extended matter in motion. Just as nature is reduced to its lowest common denominator, politics comes to be based not on virtue or the good, but on the most basic human drives: the fear of death, the desire for comfort, and the goal of self-preservation. This lowering of the human center of gravity—what Strauss called the “low but solid ground”20 on which the moderns built—is what eventually leads to Nietzsche’s last man .

However, this foundation is highly unstable and its implications are deeply ambiguous. Rousseau was the first to tap the fissure that would grow into the abyss addressed by Nietzsche, and this gap has to do with the new concept of nature. As Bloom writes, “For Hobbes and Locke nature is near and unattractive, and man’s movement into society was easy and unambiguously good. For Rousseau nature is distant and attractive, and the move was hard and divided man” (CAM 169). Rousseau, Bloom writes, realizes just how difficult it is to sever the ontological bond between nature and human nature, and that the attempt to do so creates great confusion: “Now there are two competing views about man’s relation to nature, both
founded on the modern distinction between nature and society. Nature is the raw material of man’s freedom from harsh necessity, or else man is the polluter of nature. Nature in both cases means dead nature, or nature without man and untouched by man…” (CAM 173). One view sees nature as the problem, while the other sees humanity as the problem; but both views, and all three thinkers, share the prejudice that nature is “dead,” i.e., bereft of soul or subjectivity and flatly opposed to the human order of history, politics, and society. Bloom gives an excellent summary of the difference between the ancient and modern views of nature:

[In the modern view,] all higher purposiveness in nature, which might have been consulted by men’s reason and used to limit human passion, had disappeared. Nature tells us nothing about man specifically and provides no imperatives for his conduct…. Man somehow remains a part of nature, but in a different and much more problematic way than in, say, Aristotle’s philosophy, where soul is at the center and what is highest in man is akin to what is highest in nature, or where soul is nature. Man is really only a part and not the microcosm. Nature has no rank order or hierarchy of being, nor does the self (CAM 176).
This is the consequence of the collapse of the cosmos, the same disproportion between humanity and nature that Rosen points to. There are no “natural limits” to the passions, because only the passions are natural, and all claims of reason are taken to be in some way derived from or motivated by them. Humans have longings that formerly would have been correlated with dimensions of the cosmos, but since the higher levels of the great chain have been shorn off, leaving only the “low but solid ground,” Rousseau, determined to reprise the pursuit of wholeness that was formerly headed by reason, had nowhere to go but “back” before society and “down” into the pre-rational nether reaches of human nature. Rousseau was seeking the norms that he would try to incorporate in his political vision, primarily equality. Since reason—which Rousseau, much like Heidegger, interprets as calculation—is responsible for disrupting the equality of the state of nature, it cannot be the source of the ideal order; instead, the sources for bringing about a harmony between humans and nature are freedom and sympathy. In showing that the so-called “natural” bases of human life according to Hobbes and Locke were actually stones laid down by society, Rousseau attempted to drill down to the real state of nature, but ended up opening pandora’s box: “Having cut off the higher aspirations of man, those connected with the soul, Hobbes and Locke hoped to find a floor beneath him, which Rousseau removed….And there, down below, Rousseau discovered all the complexity that, in the days before Machiavelli, was up on high…. It is here that the abyss opened up” (CAM 176-7). This is the fountainhead of what would become Nietzschean nihilism and eventuate in value-relativism.

Donald Crosby. While Rosen and Bloom give a heavily historical account of the rise of nihilism, Donald Crosby offers perhaps the most systematic and analytical account in The Specter of the Absurd: Sources and Criticisms of Modern Nihilism, detailing its different types, reconstructing the myriad arguments in its favor, and exposing its philosophical and theological sources. Like both of them, though, he effectively shows how nihilism is a pervasive power in modern thought that underwrites seemingly contrary philosophical positions, such as voluntarism and determinism, and plagues thinkers as different as Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell. But he follows Nietzsche and Heidegger in holding that Greek metaphysics and especially Christianity prepare the way for nihilism, and maintains that other traditions, such as process thought, might provide us with resources for confronting it. Moreover, Crosby follows Lewis in
calling for a new conception of nature, insisting, with philosopher of science Ivor Leclerc, that to combat nihilism, “what is urgently needed…is a restoration of the philosophy of nature to its former position in the intellectual life of our culture, a position it had prior to the scientific revolution and continued to have up to the triumph of Newtonian physics in the 18th century.”21

A) Types of Nihilism. Crosby describes five types of nihilism: political, moral, epistemological, cosmic, and existential. Crosby is more concerned with the last two types. He cites Schopenhauer and Russell as unlikely bedfellows representing these views. For Schopenhauer, he says, “All striving is rooted in deficiency and need, and thus in pain. Each organized form of nature, including human beings, everywhere encounters resistance to its strivings and must struggle to wrest from its surroundings whatever satisfaction it can achieve” (SA 28). For Russell, the cosmos is alien and inhuman and the values we cherish have no realization in it. We must learn to accept that the natural world is oblivious to all distinctions between good and evil and that it is nothing but an arena of blind forces or powers…that combined by sheer chance in the remote past to effect
conditions conducive to the emergence of life (SA 27).
Whereas Schopenhauer holds that the cosmos has no intelligible structure whatsoever, Russell’s view is less extreme, in that he holds that mathematics and natural science can provide us with an accurate picture of nature, but one that will not include human values. Russell’s universe is rationally knowable but finally meaningless. Cosmic nihilism is then something of an oxymoron, since it means that there is no such thing as a “cosmos” in the sense of an intelligible and moral order in nature that humans can discover and conform to.
From here, it is a short step to existential nihilism. This view has been advanced most pointedly by writers such as Sartre and Camus. Honesty demands that we face the absurdity of our existence and accept our eventual demise; religion and metaphysics are dismissed as happy hedges against death. The mature person accepts all of this and slogs through, manufacturing meaning through projects chosen for no reason. He cannot provide a reason for living, for the particular life he chooses, or for choosing not to live.

Now Löwith, as noted above, saw the rise of existentialism and nihilism as consequences of the collapse of a view of nature as cosmos or creation. Crosby notes the major shift from the medieval to the modern view of nature: “The medieval method made the needs, purposes, and concerns of human beings the key to its interpretation of the universe; the scientific method tended to exclude human beings altogether from its concept of nature, thereby leaving the problem to philosophy of how to find a place for humans in, or in relation to, the natural order” (SA 202). Moreover, whereas the modern method conceived nature as a uniform plane of being, the medieval method “took for granted…the twin notions that the universe was a domain of quality and value, and that it was a hierarchically ordered, pluralistic domains, consisting of fundamentally different levels or grades of being” (SA 203). Moderns of different stripes all accept the former prejudice. The positivist and the existentialist may have quite different views, but they share the presupposition of cosmic nihilism. My point here is that existential nihilism—the type that garners the most attention, both literary and philosophical—is derivative of cosmic nihilism. Here I think Crosby is wrong in claiming that existential nihilism is the primary philosophical type of nihilism. Cosmic nihilism (a view about the status of nature) is more fundamental than existential nihilism (a view about the status of human beings).
B) Sources of Nihilism. Crosby traces many religious and philosophical sources of nihilism through the Western tradition, but here I just want to focus on two of the more general ones, since they bear directly on our conceptions of nature: anthropocentrism and value externalism. Anthropocentrism, he explains, involves the subordination of nature to human beings and stems from the Judeo-Christian assumption that nature must revolve around us: “we humans are either at the pinnacle of a nature regarded as subservient to our needs and concerns, or we are nowhere. Everything in the universe must focus mainly on us and the problems and prospects of our personal existence, or else the universe is meaningless and our lives are drained of purpose” (SA 128). Once these unrealistic expectations are disappointed and we fall back to earth, the alternatives—dualism and materialism—seem unsatisfying. It is as though we had resided so long on a mountaintop that the lowlands came to seem inhospitable. But Crosby points out that our pique at realizing we are not the center of the universe is conditioned by our clinging to anthropocentric views. Hence while Crosby laments the loss in the transition from the medieval to the modern view of nature that I mentioned above, he approves of, e.g., Nietzsche’s critique of the Christian view: “Nietzsche is correct when he claims that the anthropomorphic assumption is a fundamental cause of nihilism. ‘We have measured the value of the world,’ he says, ‘according to the categories that refer to a purely fictitious world…. What we find here is still the hyperbolic naievete of man: positing himself as the meaning and measure of the value of things’” (SA 129). The premodern cosmos is thus criticized as (at least in part) an unwarranted projection of human interests, qualities, and desires. Whitehead shows how this is echoed in the modern period: “The individual subject of experience has been substituted for the total drama of reality. Luther asked, ‘How am I justified?’; modern philosophers have asked, ‘How do I have knowledge?’ The emphasis lies upon the subject of
This brings us to the second source of nihilism, what Crosby calls the “externality of value.” This notion, he says, “requires that we deny that nature has, or can have, any intrinsic significance; it supposes that the only value or importance it may have is that which is externally bestowed” (SA 131). Originally this assumption took root in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the idea that the goodness of nature and natural beings lay in the fact that they were created by God. Later, however, once the cosmos is collapsed and God disappears, humans replace him as the value-bestowers in chief. In conclusion, Crosby thinks that though nihilism has considerable problems as a philosophy—especially its embrace of “false dichotomies” such as “faith in God or existential despair, a human centered world or a meaningless world” –it is a necessary halfway house between untenable modern and premodern philosophies and something new (SA 364). In addition to having a useful debunking function and a laudable emphasis on human freedom, it drives home the “perspectival nature of all knowledge, value, and meaning” (SA 366). When viewed against the backdrop of the Western tradition, perspectivism—such as that of Nietzsche—comes off as a great calamity and a crass relativism. But Crosby submits that this reaction is not necessary: “To be finite and time-bound is no disaster but simply the character of our life in the world. The philosophy of nihilism can help us to acknowledge and accept our finite state by forcing us to give up the age-old dream of attaining a God’s-eye view of things” (SA 366). Though Crosby appears to cast Nietzsche as a nihilist, I think this was precisely Nietzsche’s conviction: that nihilism is a painful but necessary and even salutary stage through which humans come to terms with the interpretive aspect of their view of nature, abandon otherworldly visions, and realize that nature is an ever-evolving complex of perspectives, none of which command a total view of reality. Nihilism opens us up to a “constructivist” view of nature; the difficult part, as Crosby notes, is not lapsing into a radical idealism, where nature is dissolved into a positum of the human subject, precisely Jacobi’s critique of Fichte. But here we just need to note that Crosby, one of the most astute contemporary scholars of nihilism, draws the connection between nihilism and nature.
Michael Gillespie. Michael Gillespie offers perhaps the most revisionist account of nihilism, arguing that its roots can be traced from late medieval nominalism to Descartes’ epistemological revolution, Fichte’s absolute idealism, and the “dark side” of Romanticism. The principle source of the concept, he contends, is the rise of the capricious, voluntaristic, omnipotent God unleashed by nominalism. Long before Nietzsche pronounced the death of God, the seed of nihilism was sown by the birth of the God of nominalism. It was not the weakness of the human will that lead to nihilism, but its apotheosis. According to Gillespie, Nietzsche’s definition of nihilism is actually a reversal of the concept as it was originally understood, and…his solution to nihilism is in fact only a deeper entanglement in the problem of nihilism. Contrary to Nietzsche’s account, nihilism is not the result of the death of God but the consequence of the birth or
rebirth of a different kind of God, an omnipotent God of will who calls into question all of reason and nature and thus overturns all eternal standards of truth and justice, and good and evil. This idea of God came to predominance in the fourteenth century and shattered the medieval synthesis of philosophy and theology…. This new way was in turn the foundation for modernity as the realm of human self-assertion. Nihilism thus has its roots in the very foundations of

Not only is Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the cause of nihilism—the death of God—wrongheaded, but his cure fails because he is unconscious of the prejudices guiding his valorization of the will to power. Nietzsche’s spirituality of the Dionysian overgod-man, try as it might to escape the gravity of Christianity, remains squarely within the ambit of one of its mutations in the transition from the medieval to the modern period. “The Dionysian will to power,” Gillespie writes, “is in fact a further development of the absolute will that first appeared in the nominalist notion of God and became a world-historical force with Fichte’s notion of the absolute I….Nietzsche’s Dionysus…is thus not an alternative to the Christian God but his final and in a sense greatest modern mask” (NBN xxi). Gillespie’s account is, by his own admission, not entirely original in that it is a modification of Heidegger’s view that Nietzsche was merely the crest of the wave of the will that motored modern philosophy from Descartes onward, but his novel claim is that that power was unleashed by the rupture of the medieval cosmos at the hands of the nominalists.
Here, I want to look more closely at a few of the planks in Gillespie’s account in order to highlight the centrality of two themes we have seen again and again throughout this essay: the collapse of the premodern cosmos and the increased focus on subjectivity and the will.

Gillespie contrasts nominalism with the thoroughgoing realism of medieval scholasticism. Though the latter certainly embraced divine omnipotence, this was usually seen as somehow limited by the perfect order of creation which reflected the perfect order of the divine mind. The divine will and the divine intellect are seen asintegrated. The notion of a completely arbitrary and all-powerful divine will would be seen not as a true representation of God’s freedom but as a reflection of fallen, human freedom. Moreover, for realism the divine will is not entirely inscrutable, since it produces an order that can be understood by observing nature, an intelligible cosmos reflecting it. As Gillespie recounts,

The metaphysics of traditional scholasticism is ontologically realist in positing the extramental existence of universals such as species and genera as forms of divine reason known either by divine illumination…or through an investigation of nature, God’s rational creation. Within such an ontology, nature and logic reflect one another…. On this basis, it is possible to grasp the fundamental
truth about human beings and their earthly duties and obligations (NBN 12).

The “loose end” of this realism that the nominalists would exploit, however, is divine omnipotence. “While no one denied God’s potentia absoluta (absolute power),” Gillespie writes, “scholastics generally thought that he had bound himself to a potential ordinate (ordered power) though his own decision. The possibility that God was not bound in this way but was perfectly free and omnipotent was a terrifying possibility that nearly all medieval thinkers were unwilling to accept” (NBN 14). It is the widespread acceptance of this possibility, Gillespie contends, that formed the foundations of modernity and spurred the rise of nihilism. The compound influence of Ockham and others was to normalize what had been a minority view in the medieval period: negative theology, the general notion that the ontological difference between God and humans (and God and nature) is so great that we cannot achieve any positive or analogical knowledge of his nature. The decoupling of human reason and God and the prioritization of divine omnipotence laid the groundwork not only for a new theology focused on revelation and faith alone (instead of natural theology and the complementarity of faith and reason), but a new understanding of nature. As Gillespie notes, “The effect of the notion of divine omnipotence on cosmology was…revolutionary. With the rejection of realism and the assertion of radical individuality, beings could no longer be conceived as members of species of genera with a certain nature or potentiality…. The rejection of formal causes was also the rejection of final causes” (NBN 21). Denied access to God, reason would now be focused squarely on knowing nature in a more precise, certain, and complete way, and in the process, as we saw Rosen describe above, reason itself would undergo a decisive change. Since reason can no longer discover teloi in nature—including the human telos—it loses its normative status, and its sole task is instrumental, and the ends to which it is put are prescribed not by reason itself, but by the will. Gillespie notes that this is the root of Descartes’ project of doubt: “The will as doubt seeks its own negation in science in order to reconstitute itself in a higher and more powerful form for the conquest of the world. Science and understanding in other words become mere tools of the will” (NBN 43). Doubt is undertaken as a security measure needed to protect against a dangerous and unpredictable nature created and unregulated by a capricious God. God and nature can no longer be looked to for practical guidance. Humanity must seek its proper ends within itself.
But since its reason can no longer recognize itself as an instance of a natural kind that fits within an ordered cosmos (in the sense of both intelligible and purposive), its reason cannot do the job, and all that is left is the will. In Gillespie’s view, all of this signals a drastic shift from a model of God as “craftsman” to a vision of God as “artist”:

The nominalist emphasis upon divine omnipotence overturned [the] conception of natural causality and established divine will and efficient causality as preeminent. God was thus no longer seen as the craftsman who models the world on a rational plan, but as an omnipotent poet whose mystically creative freedom foams forth an endless variety of absolutely individual beings…. This ‘cosmos’ is devoid of form and purpose, and the material objects that seem to
exist are in fact mere illusions (NBN 53).

As I mentioned near the start, the first philosophical usage of the term nihilism occurred when F.H. Jacobi alleged that Fichte’s absolute idealism was nihilistic. As Gillespie writes,

In [Fichte’s] interpretation of Kant…it became his goal to break the enslaving chains of the thing-in-itself and develop a system in which freedom was absolute…. Such a system in Fichte’s view could be established only by a metaphysical demonstration of the exclusive causality of freedom, and this in turn could be achieved only by a deduction of the world as a whole from freedom (NBN 76).

Freedom must be conceived not as a mere postulate that must be assumed because of a nature thoroughly determined by efficient causality (i.e., nature according to Kant via Newton), but as the principle of this nature in the first place. Fichte exacerbated the fault line between freedom and necessity broached by nominalism and wedged wider by Descartes: “Nihilism…grows out of the infinite will that Fichte discovers in the thought of Descartes and Kant. Fichte, however, radicalizes this notion of will…transforming the notion of the I into a world creating will” (NBN 66). This world-creating will is not, however, the will of the individual ego, but the source of all manifestation that alienates itself in nature: “Reality is merely a by-product of this creative will that seeks only itself…. The I of the I am is not a thing or a category but the primordial activity which brings forth all things and categories” (NBN 79). Nature is not an independent order: it is a spontaneous, free creation of the will, a negation of the absolute I. For Fichte, the moral struggle of humanity is the story of the I becoming reconciled to itself. Nature is nothing but the obstacle in the finite self’s path toward recollecting its original infinitude; or, put differently, nature is nothing other than an instrument for the perfection of humanity.

In presenting these accounts, I have highlighted their tendency to see the origins and nature of nihilism as tightly bound up with the concept of nature. This was done to bring to light the gamut of influences informing Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s engagements with the problem of nihilism. The sources are several: Greek metaphysics, Christian theology, late medieval nominalism, modern science, politics and culture, the advent of the philosophy of history, and German Idealism. The diagnoses are different: some see nihilism as a historically contingent phenomenon; some think it is rooted in human nature; and some think it issues from the nature of being itself. What they all have in common, though, is the notion that nihilism has something to do with a disruption in the relationship between humanity and nature, and many of them hold that overcoming or at least attenuating it involves developing a new conception of nature. There must be an alternative, in other words, to the positivism and scientific naturalism that rule the day because such a universe has no place for meaning and value; it offers no ground or justification for human values, and mocks human intuitions about the value of nature. Moreover, a common thread in the accounts is that nihilism involves the emergence of the view that the human will is the source of all meaning and value, and that the latter are in no way discovered but are purely created.

In closing, my hope is that this narrative of the origins, development, and nature of nihilism might serve as a conceptual and historical backdrop for the contemporary project in environmental philosophy to “re-enchant the world” by recovering the meaning, value, and purpose that modern conceptions of nature by and large drained from the world. The search for a new cosmology or an alternative, non-reductive nihilism springs from a recognition of the nihilistic consequences of scientific naturalism.
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