The two great mysteries-- why there is anything at all and why there is conscious experience of it-- are related in the fact that it is only in consciousness that we know anything of the existence of the world. The being of the world and the being of the conscious self have in common a certain insubstantiality. Of what, ultimately is the physical universe made? Physics and cosmology incline more and more to answer that the difference between something and nothing is ultimately very subtle. And of what are our perceptions, thoughts and dreams made? Any adequate answer will surely involve us in even greater subtleties.
The ancient sage wondered whether he had awakened from dreaming of himself as a butterfly, or whether he was indeed a butterfly dreaming himself to be a man. The metaphor of dreaming recognizes the subjective status of experience, a realm independent of the physical world as the object of scientific inquiry. There are tides in paradigms as in fashions; an ebb and flow of faith in realism, in science, and in rationality itself, as well as in specific theories. By placing such changes in the context of fashion, one is already attempting to establish a framework larger than competing camps-- a meta-rational perspective within which cycles of interest in one or another world view have their births and suffer their declines.
Whether we are free spirits dreaming this conditional existence, or material organisms dreaming of unconditional freedom, is fair enough to ask-- from a purely existential point of view. Are we to understand the experience and the journey of the individual (and also that of the collective) in the evolving terms of Western science or in terms of the world's timeless spiritual teachings? Which is fundamental, mind or matter, subject or object? Facing such questions intellectually, the ancient sage might have hedged his bets, dividing existence between butterfly and man, or merging the two in some monstrous hybrid. Usual strategies in philosophy have considered one or the other primary and real, its complement derivative or illusory. My approach will be to seek a higher ground on which a grasp of the true nature and difficulty of the problem itself constitutes a solution of sorts-- as close, perhaps, as the self-conscious intellect can come to understanding the dilemma of its own existence.
If we are spiritual beings whose essential stuff is idea, the great mystery is our relationship to bodily life in this physical world. And if we are material beings, the mystery is the inner theater of our conscious experience and our capacity for self-transcendence.
The storyline of spiritual idealism holds that mind consciously chooses (or chose) its identification with matter-- or even creates matter! The storyline of scientific materialism holds that the system of mind arises (or arose) from matter through complexification driven by the competition to survive. The concept of intentionality, however, is capable of linking these outlooks. The principle of intentionality is that something within the system is chosen to represent something else (whether outside it or within it). The choice is free insofar as the system is considered formally, as an abstraction. It is bound in that it is driven concretely by reality. In the spiritual story, we voluntarily (and perhaps mistakenly) made a choice to identify with matter, to be bound by survival, and we struggle to regain a free state. In the materialist version, we began in bondage to matter and the game of survival, have conceived the possibility of freedom, and strive to make it actual. These parallel explanations point in the same direction, and promise to meet on a not-too-distant horizon.
The search in both worlds is for underlying unity and first principles. Science inquires about the physical world, the object of experience. Spirituality inquires about the subject and its relationship to experience at large. Both science and spiritual practice seek to purify experience of subjective values; both aim at objectivity. Science seeks the underlying unity of objects, while religion seeks the underlying oneness of subjects. Science inquires into the ultimate truth of the object, spirituality into that of the subject.
These dualities-- of subject and object, inner and outer, mental and physical, "mere experience" versus "reality"-- are known collectively in philosophy as the Mind-Body Problem. At root the "problem" is the awareness that the contents of consciousness may refer either to something material in the world or to some artifact of the mind. Because this awareness presupposes consciousness of self, the mind-matter split is intimately involved with subjectivity and selfhood.
Self-consciousness may be defined as the ability to place a frame around some portion of experience, so as to consider its contents as the property of a self rather than of the world. Subjective consciousness implies the existence of a self separate from the phenomenal contents of its experience. Standing back to appreciate experience as such, rather than as an attribute of reality, defines the observer as a presence distinct from the scene observed. Without the category of experience, as opposed to the world, the mind could not be aware of itself.
Traditionally, the Realist (or Materialist) believes in the physical world, or some other order external to the mind, as fundamental. The Realist points to the scene itself, thereby treating the frame as a transparent window on an objective world beyond. The Idealist believes in experience, or some transcendent realm underlying it, as primary, and points rather to the frame and the creative self. One focusses on the role of the world in determining experience of it, the other on the role of the self. My contention will be that there is a deeper level in which these viewpoints can be reconciled, as shifting forces in a dialectic.
By temperament one finds oneself in natural sympathy with either Realism or Idealism. The split between mind and matter thus divides thought about itself as well. For the Idealist, only the map exists or has importance in shaping experience. But, of course, if the map is not a map of a real territory, in what sense is it a map at all? For the Realist, all that exists or merits attention is the territory, inhabited and studied directly without the aid of maps. But how then to account for the actuality of map-making and the existence of the map as something non-material, as idea? Either premise leads to its own demise. In this regard the Mind-Body Problem resembles the classic paradoxes of logic. As with such paradoxes, self-reference is at the heart of the Mind-Body Problem. What makes paradox is the inability to get above its logical level-- to transcend its contradictory premises. This is the situation confronting the mind conscious of its own subjectivity.
In either an Idealist world or a Realist world there would be no Mind-Body Problem. But subjective consciousness has cast us irreversibly into mixed terrain. There is no way to decide whether experience (or its extension, thought) is an accurate representation of the world-in-itself, unsullied, so to speak, by mind. Experience and the world cannot be hung up side by side for comparison. For, everything we know of the world comes to us in experience, while every content of experience is in some way an image or reflection of the world. Dwelling in the map, nothing is known of the world-in-itself except that it exists. And dwelling in the territory, no amount of climbing about in the machinery of the brain (to paraphrase Leibniz) gives any hint of what the color blue should be like as an experience, or why there should be any such thing as experience or consciousness at all.
The subject cannot know itself as object, because-- we shall see-- it is transcendent by definition. The Mind-Body Problem is the utter disjunction between subject and object. This points to logical inconsistency as the culprit rather than some empirical fact. If so, conscious experience cannot be explained in terms of some causal power of the brain (nor as an effect of quantum dynamics, etc.), anymore than in terms of a non-physical vital force. It is doubtful that the M.B.P. can be resolved through theories of physical emergence, because these presuppose the objective point of view. How the behavioral complexity of the brain emerges from the activities of many nerve cells is a problem well within the purview of science. What remains elusive is how the complex behavior of neurons gives rise to the experience of color, for example, or to the sense of selfhood and consciousness. The subjective self and its experience are unquestionably correlates of physical brain-body states, but above all they are not objects in the world to be described from an observer's point of view.
Subjective experience cannot be explained scientifically because science deals only with objective description. The existence of the conscious self, the perspective from which "looking" takes place, must remain a mystery to an outlook which only looks outward toward objects. The places in science where this outlook is inevitably confronted by the role of the observer are notoriously problematic: relativity, quantum physics and cosmology. How, then, could there ever be a scientific explanation of consciousness, which is totally bound up with notions of personhood, selfhood, mind, spirit-- the ineffable ethos of the subject?
Experience was at one time explained as a spectacle appearing to an inward soul. But to treat it as a kind of inner cinematic duplicate of the external world implies an audience for this show. Then that observer's experience must in turn be explained, in an infinite regression of the metaphor. The mystery of experience cannot be explained by multiplying the subject. A subject cannot-- any more than a perceiving soul-- explain perception, for the subject or soul merely stands in for the very process to be explained. Does "I" have its own eyes to see or its own brain? The subject, like the object, proves to be a convenient and misleading fiction.
Is it possible to transcend the Mind-Body Problem, to find a common ground between mind and matter, between Idealism and Realism, between metaphysics and physics? "Neutral" concepts of information processing and complex adaptive systems seem promising within the scientific framework, wherein mind is studied as a self-regulating representational system. But there is still something missing in this picture. Following such extrinsic metaphors, one never quite closes the gap with subjective experience-- the intrinsic blueness of the color blue. This book will argue that what is needed for this closure is a grasp of the gratuitous nature of intentionality, and of specific conditions to be met in the context of embodied participation in the business of survival. In other words, a cognitive system is like an interpreted formal system, a real language which refers to the world. From such a perspective, pain can be understood to have its specific quality as an experience because of its meaning to the organism as information about the state of its tissues. Ultimately, we should like to understand why the sky looks blue to us-- that is, why we have the subjective experience we do in response to light of wavelength approximately 4800 angstroms. This sort of explanation goes beyond the functioning of causal systems, to embrace the evolutionary advantages of particular intentional connections within systems of meaning. The very nature of intentionality takes us beyond the science of matter, though not beyond logic.
Whatever the case, such explanation can only be based on the reasonable assumption that cognition is neither entirely determined by a world of external causes, nor entirely by the organism's convention, but as a specifiable interaction in which both organism and environment contribute to the creation of experience and meaning. Cognition is rooted in the particular programs of the organism, as well as in the environment, and is always a biased and incomplete account of the world, whose "true" face cannot be known or even assigned meaning. One cannot strictly speak of the accuracy of the map, but only of its adequacy as a tool of survival, since map and territory cannot be compared in the way common sense would like. We are hopelessly immersed in the map, and only able to perceive the territory at all through its mediation. Raw territory means the unseeable face of the world-in-itself, while experience is always a formal configuration on the map-- which, like all maps, is a symbolic abstraction. Our very concept of territory is therefore but a feature of the map! Undaunted, the mind creates an experience of a real external world from the formalism of its inner map.
Now, a formalism need not be interpreted in any particular way, nor even at all. Like a game, it is also gratuitous, a self-enclosed universe in its own right. In that light, its premises, like the rules of a game, are beyond reason, arbitrary. Existence is profoundly irrational in just this way. On the positive side, our little life is whimsical and undetermined, the exuberant play of free beings. On the darker side, it can seem a tale of sorrowful entrapments in arbitrary circumstances or values, inertial ruts and insidious logics that dominate all scales of human experience. The face of the arbitrary has its comic and tragic masks.
The Real sets a compass of apparent order, meaning, direction and certainty on the face of the arbitrary, the waters of the Unknown. The sense of reality is used (and abused) to endorse unconscious choice, to lend validity to thought. The Real has, like a good parent, given us structure and stable bearings in the time of our formation. But as we come of age, individually and collectively, it is up to us to define ourselves and the world we inhabit. For the real reality is a sea of vibrant possibilities, where nothing is fixed as it is in thought. Moment to moment we choose, consciously or not, what will be, and to which inner voice we shall hearken. Every impulse, feeling or thought is an incipient reality tuned into, to be followed or not where it may lead. Each beckoning possibility is a tunnel to pursue as far as one dares into its branching labyrinth. One's experience there depends on who one thinks one is and what one holds to be real.
Concepts of self and world are mutually bound. If there is a true reality, and a true self, they must converge as one and the same in that truth. For the self, as both adventurer and calm observer, on the turbulent journey of paths taken and not taken, all roads lead home.