This is the second edition of Mind’s I Explorations, a series I began with a view to base my reflections on the nature of reality (and how we come to learn it) on the anthology: The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul.
On having no head
The second piece of the anthology is a ‘charmingly childish’* narration of how one day in the Hamalyas, the author↓1 discovered (or rather realized) that he had in fact no head on his shoulders! In his own words, the discovery (or rediscovery) was an ultimate outcome of pondering a question for a long time: “What am I?”
*according to editors of the anthology, in their commnetary following the original piece.
If there was no head, what was there?:
It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything—room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snow-peaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world.
Indeed imagine not having grown up mentally, only developing the sharpened skill of seeing. And what would you have seen? No, you won’t see a head on your shoulders!
We conclude the presence of this head by comparing ourselves with others who have two sets of limbs and an overall physique similar to ours, and who speak, walk, eat and generally live like us. And based on this comparison, we deduce, that if they have a head, we must have one too. For although we can see our heads in the mirrors, can the testimony of a mirror (in a way, an optical illusion) be trusted?
This is the apparently naive explanation of the author. It’s not a philosophical explanation, rather it’s intuitive, describing things on an strictly ‘as is’ basis rather than distorting the first native experience of the world through rational logic. When we are born we have no idea of how the ‘uppermost part’ of our body looks. Our view is just like those film camera views when the directors are trying to show things from the ‘eyes’ of a particular character. Again, no head is visible in that view, only the body and limbs. And in place of the head is the view, the scene, itself.
In the author’s own words:
It was self-luminous reality for once swept clean of all obscuring mind … It was a ceasing to ignore something which (since early childhood at any rate) I had always been too busy or too clever to see.
The essence of this way of thinking really is: that the experience we go through at first hand must always be fundamentally different from all others. Yet, in this subjective experience lies a greater and more peaceful unity with the external world, than in reliance on logically deduced objective experiences.↓2(the anthology editors who comment on every piece seem to have interpreted it slightly differently).
All twoness—all duality of subject and object—has vanished.
The subject and the object: dichotomous, complementary, or uniform?
A duality or dichotomy refers to “two mutually exclusive, opposed or contradictory groups (such as): a dichotomy between thought and action”. Such dichotomies or dualities are of concern in nearly all major fields of knowledge. In human sciences and philosophy, often such dichotomies are subject of much debate as to their respective significance in some area and as to how much in distinction &/or opposition they stand with respect to each other. Examples include wave-particle duality, mind and matter/body, good and evil, creationism vs evolution, etc. Complement is what supplies the lack of another entity; literally, something which makes another thing complete, whole, or perfect. Uniformity may refer to an overall sameness, homogeneity and regularity.
In philosophy, the subject-object problem is concerned with delineating what is objective and what is subjective in our experience. As a starting point, we can think of ‘objects’, different beings in the universe, being perceived by an observer: the ‘subject’. Thus on the face of it, the two entities appear to be dichotomous. However, we encounter various problems when we attempt to further elaborate this basic premise. For instance, if we depend on our own sensory experience to perceive an object, discerning only those properties which our capacities enable us to, can we really know the object objectively, as it really is?↓3 This also relates to the ‘observer vs the observed’ problem in physics epitomzied by the uncertainty principle so recently discussed on this blog. And then, to what extent our own properties (i.e. the subject’s) affect what has been observed?
Thus, the way we actually experience the object (or the universe) certaintly seems to unify us (the subject) with it (the object). This is despite the fact that, through logical analysis, we may feel certain that the object (or the universe) has its own reality independent of our sensibility of it↓4, and also despite the fact that the total dependence for our own experience on our own devises of sensation and perception may also lead us to doubt whether ‘it’s all in the head’ or not↓5. Perhaps it’s best to say that what is out there complements what is in here (in me and in you), and that they are unified into one experience by the device of the mind which has no way to see the separation of the two.
Now, let us return to the original piece for further deliberations:
On regaining the pure nativity of one’s original perspective on the world:
What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking … as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories … like a sudden waking from the sleep of ordinary life, an end to dreaming.
I had been blind to the one thing that is always present, and without which I am blind indeed—to this marvellous substitute-for-a-head, this unbounded clarity, this luminous and absolutely pure void, which nevertheless is—rather than contains—all things.
…no arguement can add to or take away from an experience which is as plain and incotrovertible as hearing middle-C* or tasting strawberry jam.
— *a note in music
There arose no questions, no reference beyond the experience itself, but only peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden.
These quotes let us infer four different aspects about the experience.
i) Our intuitive experience is pre-verbal; language is not involved. All thinking and speaking is learned from the world. The nature of the kind of thinking and speaking we learn from the world is rational: we learn to associate features with specific objects, objects with specific categories. We usually learn not to cross-over between concepts. As we grow older our creativity dies down since we are taught to think in terms of what’s rational and familiar, not what’s new and different.
ii) The ‘burden’ of all this rational knowledge and way of thinking tends to bury our own sources of pre-verbal thought (let’s call them intuition and the freshness and naitvity of creativity) farther and farther beyond the boundaries of conscious life. Whereas, the fact remains that this intuitive thought is as basic and primary to us as ‘tasting jam’ or hearing a melody.
iii) The burden is not just metaphorical, it’s literal: The more thought we put into issues, the more we experience generally negative emotions and the more the issue (that we have been thinking on) seems like a ‘pressure’ or ‘full of stress’. The most peaceful moments of our lives are indeed those when we are simply submerged in an experience rather than caught in the tangles of thought.
iv) Hence, the sense of joy and peace on having reconnected with one’s innate perspective on the world: that the whole world is unified by the fabric of first-hand experience. It’s the artifact of logic that ‘divides’ the world into things and categories and hierarchies, and into I and it. This is this and that is that. The author has replaced it with the original ‘I≡universe≡reality’ kind of experience that would have remained in our consciousness if we had not been trained otherwise by the rigors of reason.
In addition to explaining how we come to loose the freshness of our inborn perspective, these conclusions also touch upon another commonly discussed ‘duality’: nature and environment. However, the whole discussion might remain a heady philosphical or incomprehensibly mystical narrative if not made plainer.
How the world conditions us
The best way to clarify the subject is to recast it in terms of a famous (though not very widely known in mass media) person-centered theory of personality by Carl Rogers. In addition to becoming more familiar, an additional advantage in speaking in terms of this theory is that a lot of general psychological insights abour how life works might be gained.
In Rogers’ theory, the counterpart of the ‘native perspective on things’ is a process called ‘organismic valuing’. The counterpart for ‘the perspective the world imposes on us’ is ‘conditions of worth’. Before coming to these concepts, however, we must first consider what Rogers meant by conditional and unconditional positive regard.
When we give a person our trust and acceptance, with an expression of genuine positive sentiment towards them, despite their shortcomings, faults and mistakes, they have recieved ‘unconditional positive regard’.
On the other hand, when we treat a person based on how they behave, and how well they perform tasks, we are treating them with conditional positive regard: we love them when they are good to us, and neglect or mistreat them when they are incapable of goodness. In a way, we expect them to ‘conform’ to our standards of behavior; if they don’t meet those standards they are somehow worthy of inferior treatment.
These standards that others must meet to obtain our regard are what Rogers called as the conditions of worth.
Typically, learning takes place through the application of these conditions on the growing child. The child is given the impression of being a ‘bad child’ and treated with various forms of punishments (at the very least, the withdrawal of positive objects such as attention, praise or toys), when he/she fails in behaving as expected. It is the incentives of parents’ love and attention (positive regard) that prompts the child to learn speech, get toilet-trained, and learn to eat with manners. If parents are not very mindful of the balance in their attitude (specifically, in giving the child a steady sense of unconditional positive regard through all the ups and downs of child development) the child might well loose the innate interest and ‘fun’ in learning and exploring new things. As such, the child will learn to do every new thing just to obtain someone’s regard or to avoid someone’s punishment. That is also how many children come to despise any new learning, except what they learn from play-at-will.
Many a children have ‘discovered’ that playing with a certain child was ‘bad’ given his/her background; that someone we never thought of as good or bad is now definitely good or certainly bad since we have heard some of our elders announce and reinforce that; that even thought the idea that an act of dishonesty is unjust and harmful makes perfect sense, whether it’s ok to engage in it or not depends on who does it. Thus even when children have received noble and valuable guidelines for living at a formal level, they are more often than not negated by actual conditioning.
In adulthood, the primary forms of conditions may be replaced by other more sophisticated ones: money, power, status, achievement, renown and fame, and a luxurious life. Even though we come to experience them as our own needs, their common sense definitions contain the sense of comparison with ‘others’: more money than others, power over others, satus higher than others, achievement better than or different from others’, renown and fame among others, more luxury and comfort than others…. Our life is reduced to nothing but a race for meeting more and more worthy conditions of being.
What we loose in the process
What we loose in the process is our own pre-verbal, intuitive, and emotionally tinged sense of things—what Rogers called as ‘organismic valuing’. According to Rogers, all organisms (humans or lower) have a tendecy to develop as fully as possible. For lower organisms, this is restricted more or less to the physical sense: body needs and survival. For humans however, there is an additional dimension called as self-actualizing. This tendency refers to our innermost urge to realize all the possibilities of experience and capacity innate to us. This urge creates in us ‘organismic valuing’: an inner voice (of course, experienced as a feeling rather than a thought) that tells us that some things are superior and make us more content and peacefully satisfied from the inside than some other things, without anybody’s commentary as a go-between. In cases where conditioning has been rather foolproof, we never even come to realize that there are whole undiscovered, and unexplored sides of us suppressed beneath the life of society-imposed ‘values’ we are pursuing.
This rosy existence is unfortunately uncommon. We remain pressurized by the need to do more for others and for ourselves as our worth has been attached to certain objects valued by our society. We have to force ourselves to ways of behaving and thinking that are inferior in our own eyes, but suit others. We have to hide our true inclinations, attitudes, and opinions on grave matters of character and way of life so that they don’t meet with censure, ridicule, indifference, bigotry, or plain misunderstanding. Our happiness comes to reside solely in other’s being happy with us; moments of peace, contentment, and joy that originate solely from inside are few and far between.
And buried deep beneath the compost of all the negated inner and intuitive knowledge of good and right, bad and wrong, must be that original and fresh perspective on the world: of being at one with the whole universe, of experiencing the whole universe at first hand.↓6
Where do our innate knowledge and perspective come from
Scientists may call it nature; but nature means what is there already existing before worldly learning takes place. Hence ‘nature’ is not an answer to the above question; if used, it’d merely be a ‘circular’ definition. Nature is what has been created by God:
فِطْرَتَ اللَّـهِ الَّتِي فَطَرَ النَّاسَ عَلَيْهَا
… this (faith) being the nature designed by Allah on which He has originated mankind. (in Ar-Rum, 30)
According to the Ma’ariful- Qur’an, English version, two interpretations of ‘nature’ are derivable from sources. One is that nature here means Islam, in reference to the following Ahadith in Sahih Muslim, Book 33, Chapter 6:
There is none born but is created to his true nature. It is his parents who make him a Jew or a Christian or a Majoosi… (#6423)
Every new-born babe is born on the millat, and remains on this until his tongue is enabled to express himself. (#6427)
According to the second, equally acceptable interpretation, “Allah Ta’ala has bestowed the capability to every human being to discern his Creator and believe in Him”. Once this capacity is allowed to develop, it will ultimately lead the person to submission to God in the form of Islam. In fact, Maulana Taqi (the author of the Tafseer) presents arguments clarifying that the meaning that resonates with both the context of the full ayah and the ahadith quoted above is this second one:
All children are born with the natural instinct to perceive and identify the truth through an observation of their environment; however, once they develop the skill of speaking (which actually means the ability to understand logical concepts and think accordingly) their conscious development falls dependent on the teachings of their respective social environments.
Where does it all fit in the subject-object problem?
In Qur’an the world has been described many times as a thing of play and pastime:
وَمَا هَـٰذِهِ الْحَيَاةُ الدُّنْيَا إِلَّا لَهْوٌ وَلَعِبٌ
… the life of this world is nothing but a passing delight and a play… (in Al-Ankabut, 64)
And it’s objects a vehicle of deception:
وَمَا الْحَيَاةُ الدُّنْيَا إِلَّا مَتَاعُ الْغُرُورِ
THE worldly life is no more than a deceitful possession. (in Al-i-Imran, 185)
And it has indeed succeded in deceiving a majority of the people:
وَغَرَّتْهُمُ الْحَيَاةُ الدُّنْيَا
… and they have been deceived by the life in this world… (in Al-An’am, 70)
And the real life will be the one to come after:
وَإِنَّ الدَّارَ الْآخِرَةَ لَهِيَ الْحَيَوَانُ
… whereas, the life in the hereafter is indeed the real life: if they but knew this! (in Al-Ankabut, 64)
Even research in astrophysics has progressed to the point that some authors have speculated on the ‘tentative’ and ‘image-like’ nature of this world. According to Michael Talbot, in his book The Holographic Universe:
… there is evidence to suggest that our world and everything in it. . . are also only ghostly images, projections from a level of reality so beyond our own it is literally beyond both space and time.
The interesting part is that the way we experience it, we are never in a position to ascertain whether this world is a literal inter-play of light and other energies. All our experience tells us directly is the uniqueness of one’s own window on the world — a window we cannot share with anyone else, nor can we ever succeed in ‘peeping’ out from any one else’s window. What we call red, is what we have heard others calling red and teaching us to do the same; we are not even sure (by direct experience) that what looks as red in our eyes looks the same in anyone else’s eye or not!
On the other hand, the tangibility of the objects of this world is also directly experienced by us. So we can’t be inherently sure of any ‘philosophical idealism’ either (the idea that we experience nothing but what our minds make up). Moreover, at the level of daily life, questions of what is good and bad behavior, what is just and unjust, etc affect us more though deeper deliberations do have their effect.
We also get a similar attitude from the Qur’an. While, at least at the meaningful level, the belief in the transience of this life (meant to be ever inexplicable at the level of this world and this humanity) is a direct corollary of the belief in a more real and eternal life; pondering too much on ‘how to explain it all in terms understandable to us’ won’t serve us in any practical matters:
هُوَ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ
فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ ابْتِغَاءَ الْفِتْنَةِ وَابْتِغَاءَ تَأْوِيلِهِ
وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلَّا اللَّـهُ ۗ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ يَقُولُونَ آمَنَّا بِهِ كُلٌّ مِّنْ عِندِ رَبِّنَا
وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلَّا أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ
He it is Who has revealed the Book to you; some of its verses are decisive, they are the basis of the Book, and others are allegorical; then as for those in whose hearts there is perversity they follow the part of it which is allegorical, seeking to mislead and seeking to give it (their own) interpretation. but none knows its interpretation except Allah, and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say: ‘We believe in it, it is all from our Lord’; and only people of who are wise take heed. (Al-i-Imran, 7)
This wisdom is again pre-endowed; the same inner wisdom that begins to loose its voice pressured by the outward-imposed ‘lessons’. Attempts to scientifically analyze and study this wisdom will again fail; one cannot expect the ‘subject’ to turn back on itself and to study itself ‘objectively’. This wisdom is our side of the reality: our window of the world, whether blurred termporarily by the conditions of worth; or, open and receptive and accepting of all the mysticalities of the world, humbly accepting its own and the world’s true nature for what it is.
This wise consciousness could well be the primary fact of life; that elusive insightfulness that imbues with belief on and certain and intimate knowledge of the only Source deservant of that belief. Interestingly, I stumbled upon but last night on an online ‘course on the consciousness‘ by a Professor Emeritus in physics, in the University of Virginia, Stanley Sobottka. It resonates nearly perfectly with the above conclusion:
Because most scientists of all types are mentally wedded to a belief in an external reality, they are unable to see an alternative picture. In particular, they are unable to see that Consciousness, rather than external reality, is the fundamental Reality. Thus, they persist in attempting (and in failing) to create an objective theory of Consciousness. When the contents of Awareness try to objectify Awareness, it is like a puppet trying to “puppetize” the puppet master, a picture on a movie screen trying to “pictureize” the actors, a shadow striving to “shadowize” the object that is casting it, or humans trying to “humanize” God.
The problem of trying to create an objective theory of subjective experience has been labeled the “hard problem” of consciousness by David Chalmers… In fact, there is no hard problem for those who are aware they are aware.↓7
1. D. E. Harding was a mystical writer on the nature of self and reality.
2. The commenting editors have not articulated this angle. To read the chapter along with the commentary, click this link.
3. Read “the problem of substance” on the pertinent wikipedia page. I mentioned a relevant example formerly in Prophetic revelation and subjectivity.
4. A view called as philosophical realism.
5. The issue is examplified by this famous question that if there is no one in the jungle to hear a sound produced, can we say that the sound was really there? Yes is the answer given by subjective idealists who say, in essence, that the mind makes the world (or the subject makes the object).
6. This idea, of course, is not part of Rogers theory but links this psychological discourse with the more philosophical one we began with.
7. For flow reading I have removed internal hyperlinks in the quote pointing to sections in the course which have already elaborated in various points in here. I have also removed the cross-reference to David Chalmers. To see the original go to the section of the course here: http://faculty.virginia.edu/consciousness/new_page_13.htm#9.6.
Related posts from this blog:
On scientific speculativeness vs certainty of Divine knowledge: Assumptions vs Certainty (Synopsis)
Note that all the related links noted down in the above-linked post page are relevant to this discussion as well.
Also, more on mysteries of consciousness ordinarily hidden from our perception: Outrageous Sensations: What can we learn from LSD?