A Biogenetic Structural Prologue To the Study of Freedom
1 Structuralism and the Brain 1
2 Traps and Tenets 22
3 Mature Contemplation 46
4 The Biogenetic Structural Project 66
5 Culture and the Brain 96
6 Ritual Control of Experience 127
7 Toward a Transpersonal Anthropology 149
8 Meditation and Contemplation 171
9 The Study of Freedom 196
An Ibis In the Tree is based upon a series of lectures I gave during two graduate seminars on structuralism during 1986 at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. The intent of the series was a reflection upon the decade and a half of development of biogenetic structural theory as a prolegomenon to the study of both human freedom and futurology. It is my view that one cannot understand such issues as determinism vs. free will in anything like a modern scientific way until one comes to lodge the seat of consciousness squarely in the body/brain. Furthermore, until one sees clearly the ways in which consciousness is entrained in enculturation such that symbols may penetrate into and evoke percepts, attention, cognitive associations, ego loops and other aspects of experience, one has little hope of transcending the tyranny of semantically-loaded phenomena over consciousness. Awareness of the structures of experience is the only key to freedom.
The earliest statements of biogenetic structuralism are to be found in the volume of that title (Laughlin and D’Aquili 1974) and in several papers dating to the early 1970’s (D’Aquili 1972, D’Aquili and Laughlin 1974, Laughlin 1972, 1973). It is significant that our theoretical concern has, from the beginning, been with structures underlying phenomena, institutions and practices crucial to an understanding of religion (D’Aquili 1982, 1983, D’Aquili and Laughlin 1975, D’Aquili, Laughlin and McManus 1979, Laughlin et al. 1983). Indeed, with the exception of related tangents into such concerns as the philosophy of science (Rubinstein and Laughlin 1977, Rubinstein, Laughlin and McManus 1984) and adaptation (Laughlin and Brady 1978), biogenetic structuralism has concerned itself primarily with topics relevant to the study of freedom. We have focused our attention on symbolism (Laughlin and Stephens 1980, Laughlin, McManus and Stephens 1981, Webber 1980, Webber and Laughlin 1979, Webber, Stephens and Laughlin 1983, Rubinstein 1983, ritual (D’Aquili 1983, D’Aquili, Laughlin and McManus 1979, Laughlin and McManus 1982, Laughlin et al. 1983), and topics relative to transpersonal experience in shamanic and religious traditions (D’Aquili 1982, Laughlin 1984, 1985, 1986, Laughlin and Richardson 1986, Laughlin, McManus and Shearer 1984, Laughlin, Chetalat and Sekar 1985, Laughlin, McManus and Webber 1984, MacDonald, Cove, Laughlin and McManus 1986).
All of these issues are addressed in the course of these lectures, but my principal thrust is to emphasize the possibilities and limitations inherent in the biopsychological nature of our species. In particular, the possibilities and limitations to freedom and alternative futures is seen to be inherent in the orthogenetic unfolding of knowledge on the planet, and the capacities for knowing mediated by an increasingly complex nervous system. These reflections have the advantage of being derived post hoc from the vantage point of mature contemplation (i.e., a reconstitution of the theoretical view after completing the Husserlian epoche). At the same time, there is nothing final, or even definitive, about the ideas presented in these discourses. Anything but final, in fact, for it is part and parcel to our understanding of cognition that its products are fallible, partial, and thus (frankly speaking) lies. Useful lies for all of that, but only if we never come to believe them in any static way, and allow our egos to become bound up in identifying with them. Biogenetic structuralism is thus an unfolding understanding of the relations of brain, culture and consciousness, and will essentially never be complete – should never become complete.
An Ibis In The Tree was transcribed from tape and extensively edited by Judi Young-Laughlin. She also designed and executed the frontispiece. I owe her a great debt of gratitude. I wish to thank the members of the seminars for their keen interest in biogenetic structuralism, and for the many provocative questions asked (duly marked ‘Q’ in the text) during the course of the lectures. Many thanks to: David Bartlett, Peter Coon, Kie Delgati, Kaj Kangas, Laurie Leclair, Michael Ling, Shawn Malone, John Monette, Grier Owen, Mark Rannells, Karen Richter and Steven Strang. I hope I fed them as well as they fed me.
Chapter One: Structuralism and the Brain
I say ‘science of God’, and yet God is infinitely unknowable. His nature entirely escapes our investigations. He is the absolute principle of being and of beings and must not be confused with the effects he produces; and it can be said, affirming his existence all the while, that he is neither being nor a being. Such a definition confounds reason without however causing us to go astray, and keeps us forever from all idolatry.
Eliphas Levi, The Book of Splendours
Biogenetic Structuralism originated in a dialogue between Eugene G. d’Aquili and myself at a conference in 1972. John Cove, Iain Prattis (professors at Carleton University in Ottawa) and I organized that conference at SUNY-Oswego in upstate New York and called it “Theory on the Fringe”. That fortuitous event led d’Aquili – than a practicing psychiatrist and anthropology graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania -- and myself to get to know each other and to discover that we were interested in the same issues. Among other things we recognized the fact that the human sciences, and in particular anthropology, were progressing in almost total ignorance of a hundred-plus years of developments in the neurosciences. They were either ignoring the human nervous system altogether (with the exception of some applications in physical anthropology and physiological psychology), or they were treating the human brain as though it were a black box (that is to say, a set of processes about which we know nothing) when in fact we know a great deal about its structures and functions. D’Aquili and I discovered that our relative strengths and weaknesses complemented one another and produced a perspective that could be described in a book. We began writing that book almost immediately and were finished with it by 1973. That book was Biogenetic Structuralism and was the first in a long series of papers and books that became the corpus of theory and application upon which I am here endeavoring to reflect.
It has been about fifteen years now since the original collaboration started, and we’re still collaborating. We met John McManus in the fall of 1973, only after Biogenetic Structuralism had gone to press, so his input into that first volume was far less than it might otherwise have been. However, collaboration amongst the three of us began immediately on The Spectrum of Ritual (1979), a very complex work that was not finished until 1976. We are presently finishing a lengthy volume together entitled Brain, Symbol and Experience.
We came to understand that biogenetic structuralism was a special case of a kind of structuralism that is rooted in biology, but that is quite unlike most theory that anthropologists code as structuralist (e.g., the work of Claude Levi-Strauss and Roland Barthes). We came to call theory of the latter type “semiotic” structuralism. The type of structuralism to which our work is most akin we have labeled “evolutionary” structuralism. What is structuralism, and why distinguish between the semiotic and evolutionary veins?
It is our view that the emergence of structuralism in a science is a mark of its maturity. What do we mean by structuralism in that sense? We mean that observables are explained by reference to non-observed principles, schemes, operators or structures, the activities of which produce, perhaps even cause, the observables (see Ackoff and Emery 1972 for the distinction between “cause” and “produce”). Prior to the emergence of a structuralist theory base, a science tends to be pretty much a natural history of observables (see Brown 1963). You collect all the butterflies you find, pin them to a wall, and then you try to order them in some way. They all have blue wings, all red wings, or are all big butterflies, medium-sized or little butterflies, butterflies with a black thorax, brown thorax, and so on. This was the state of biology before Darwin, the state of chemistry before the periodic table, and the state of physics before Newton’s Principia. This was also the state of anthropology before structuralism. Anthropological theory today has an unsettling, unsatisfying effect upon many of us unless it has some kind of structural underpinning to it, and this is a sure sign of the maturation of the discipline.
This means that in some sense the explanation of observables is by reference to unobserved operations. For semiotic structuralists these unobservables are usually formulated by deduction from abstracted patterns of similarity in observables. Similar patterns in observables lead to the deduction of the structures underlying them and that produce or cause them. So Levi-Strauss likens the relationship between “mechanical models” (or principles of reason) and observables (like patterns of elements and relations in myths or symphonies) to the relationship between the camshaft in a machine that produces jigsaw puzzles and the puzzles themselves. The analyst is no longer interested in the jigsaw puzzles once he has deduced the shape or configuration of the camshaft. It is the task of science to get at the camshaft. In the last volume of Mythologique (1971), he admits that the camshaft must have something to do with the human brain. But a mere admission of relevance is insufficient from our point of view to preclude him being classed as a semiotic structuralist because he only gives lip service to the neurosciences. His theory remains uninformed by the neurosciences and the methodology he uses, which is almost totally deductive from patterns in cultural texts, treats the matter of mind as though the brain itself was not also an observable. In other words, he makes the mistake that Jean Piaget, Earl Count and others do not make, being trained as they were in biology.
Evolutionary structuralism is any structuralism – like Count’s (1973) theory of the biogram in anthropology, and Webster and Goodwin’s (1982) structuralism and Maturana and Varela’s (Varela 1979) autopoiesis in biology – which places the locus of structure in the biology of the organism, however construed. An excellent example is the work of Jean Piaget (1971, 1977, 1980). Piaget never really talked that much about the brain, and when he started his project there was no real way he could get at what he was after by way of the neurosciences as they existed in that day. Nonetheless he was aware that his ‘schemes’ were biological structures.
Q: By the brain do you mean the entire nervous system.
A: I’m sloppy there. When I say brain I almost always mean the entire nervous system.
Q: How can you separate the brain from its own functioning?
A: I wouldn’t, nor for that matter would any neuroscientist.
Q: So when you’re speaking of the mind you are also speaking of the nervous system?
A: Yes. Thank you for this because only in the social sciences, removed as they so often are from biology will structure be considered apart from function – as Levi-Strauss specifically does. It makes no sense in physiology to talk about structure as distinct from function. They are two aspects of the same process. Of course, you can study anatomy without considering function too much, but no anatomist would say “Well, we’ll keep structure and function conceptually distinct”. Rather, as anatomists we’ll just study it standing still. We’ve got some corpses, they’re not going anywhere, so we’re going to cut them up and track this connection, that center, and so on. But in the back of our minds we all know that the anatomical connections have functional corollaries.
Q: Then structure can only make sense because of the function it has to carry out. Otherwise why would it have the structure?
A: Exactly! In modern neo-Darwinian theory you can come to no other conclusion. There is such a thing as latent structures, of course. You can experience that in your own being. I mean, you’re not just conditioned by culture to be the age you are now. Wait until you get to your mid-lives. It’s all programmed in there waiting for the triggering stimulus events to release them and then they begin to function. So we do recognize latent structures, only they’re not really structures without functions.
Q: Could you tell me then if the structure is causally prior to function?
A: No I will not be trapped so easily into that sort of dualism, because there is clear evidence that structures can result from function. One of the failures of semiotic structuralism is that it’s almost never developmental in perspective. Its theoretical base doesn’t cry out for any developmental processes. The minute you introduce a diachronic dimension to structuralism in biology you immediately have to look at the embryo, watch how the structures are developed from conception through adulthood to death. So evolutionary structuralism tends also be diachronic, unlike semiotic structural accounts: diachronic either in a developmental frame, or in an evolutionary frame, or both. By the way, Piaget’s basic question was not really developmental, it was phylogenetic (Piaget 1970). He wanted to know about the evolution of knowledge, and his primary research strategy was based upon the then current presumption that ontogeny somehow recapitulates phylogeny – a perspective that has lately enjoyed a resurgence of interest (see Gould 1977).
Q: Jacques Lacan, who is also part of the structuralist discipline, is also interested in phylogeny. He talks about transference and, I would say, fundamental reversal of the normal intellectual activity in which the consciousness is engaged. It represents a different desire and, at the moment in the chain of signification is biogenetic, if I’m using the word correctly.
A: Sure. One of the things we try to avoid is the traps constituted by our own conceptual distinctions. It’s not easy unless you fundamentally don’t believe in any dualism. In these talks I’ll use the distinctions, but I don’t believe in them. So they don’t produce fragmentation of view. The world is always far more complex than we perceive or conceive it to be. As Husserl put it, the world is transcendental whereas we always approach the world from a “horizon”. There are an infinity of points of view or “horizons” to any “transcendental” object in the world. No view is complete. So evolutionary structuralism is far more inclusive that just biogenetic structuralism. Biogenetic structuralism is basically on about how much we can integrate information about biological structures with that from behavioural observation and that from direct experience. I’ll return to this later, but let me now characterize some other evolutionary structuralist perspectives in case you wish to further explore them.
I’ve mentioned Earl Count. He was trained in the neurosciences and taught anthropology at Hamilton College for this entire career. He’s now retired and lives out in the Bay Area. In a sense Count’s the father of biogenetic structuralism. I once wrote him a letter to that effect and wrote back and said “Oh good, I’m glad it’s a boy!” Anyhow, he developed a theory of what he called the biogram. Essentially what he was looking for was the evolutionary anlagen (this is a good German word that doesn’t translate well into English, but means something like “ground plan”), the precursor patterns of adaptation to those of the hominid level of human development. To put it another way, if you look at phylogenesis as the emergence of adaptive patterns, what he tries to reconstruct are the precursor patterns at each level of evolutionary remove from the modern human form. So he looked at , say, parenting in chimpanzees, monkeys, generalized primates, insectivores, and so on back, trying to show what was added at each level as it becomes increasingly complexified. The entire process he calls “homination” (Count 1974). In a sense he succeeds in escaping a lot of concepts like “hominid” and so on, which tend to lump segments of the homination process into some kind of localized, temporal dimension, as in say the last five million years, the last one million years or whatever.
Count’s works are generally rambling, long essays with no clear systemization. That’s what he’s struggling with now, trying to formalize the theory of the biogram, but we don’t have anything really up to date that he’s written. The best source is his Being and Becoming Human (1973), a collection of his essays, and there are some other essays that have been published more recently (1974, 1976).
Elliott Chapple (1970) is also an anthropologist and was the co-author of Principles of Anthropology with Carleton Coon in 1942. They attempted to do an overview of anthropology giving it a biological base. It was mostly unsuccessful, or course, but those of us who are biologically grounded find that work remarkable to this day. Chapple’s views are very congenial to the biogenetic structuralist perspective. We drew heavily from him – he likes biogenetic structuralism and we had a lot of dialogue with him at one point, just as he had over the years with Count. What he tries to show is a biological basis for human sociality, social forms, especially ritual. It is no coincidence that we also turned our minds to the phenomenon of ritual as the first real application of biogenetic structural theory in The Spectrum of Ritual.
Q: Is sociobiology an evolutionary structuralist approach?
A: E.D. Wilson (1975) is one of the main proponents of sociobiology. This is truly a reductionist biological formulation, claiming as it does a genetical base for much of what modern anthropologists would want to claim are cultural facts. C.H. Waddington critiqued Wilson’s Sociobiology in the same 1975 review as he critiqued Biogenetic Structuralism. Gene and I were scared we would be forever after associated with sociobiology, but fortunately that has not been the case.
Q: Could you say then that biogenetic structuralism’s criticism of sociobiology is that the latter is really a kind of reductionism?
A: That’s one of our criticisms. In the first place sociobiology is reductionist to the genotype. It propounds a naïve conception of the genes even from the viewpoint of modern genetic biology. There is really no such thing as a gene. There just isn’t a specific gene for specific behaviour. Sociobiologists come off thinking that there are. They make mathematical errors as well. Trivers and others claim that human beings don’t share any genetic material if they’re not related to each other. They say unrelated humans share zero genes as opposed to siblings who would share much more genetic material. That’s not true. Their mathematics are all wrong. One of my friends, Tim Perber, a genetic biologist and psychologist, has criticized sociobiology admirably on the inadequacy of their mathematics.
Sociobiology’s understanding of the neurosciences is virtually non-existent, or at best inadequate. They seem to have no conception of development at all. There is no developmental frame to sociobiology. The result is a picture of human society that looks suspiciously like a complex colony of ants. And there’s really even a developmental aspect to ants. Wilson is one of the world’s leading experts on social insects. His rendition of human sociality bets tacked on at the end of Sociobiology and makes it appear that he’s applying entomology to anthropology. His scheme just doesn’t map onto human affairs very well. No matter how cynical you may be about the current state of human affairs, we humans still don’t end up looking like ants all that much, mainly because we have big brains and those big brains develop.
Sociobiology’s notion of genetics is simply untenable to modern biology. In 1957 C.H. Waddington published a book called The Strategy of the Genes which set the pace for interpreting the interaction between genotype and environment in which the phenotype is produced. Few since that time have conceived of naïve genetical determinism in any reasonable way. The phenotype must always be considered to be the product of an interaction between the genotype and the environment. There’s always a developmental dimension to genetics, even for the simplest critters, and that understanding is not reflected in sociobiology. They wish to simplistically point to the genetic determinant of specific social facts, both in non-human and human social animals.
In opposition to sociobiology, biogenetic structuralism takes the view common to the neurosciences that the brain is "the organ of behaviour" – that’s a quote directly out of many neurology textbooks. The brain produces behaviour. No account of behaviour that excludes an account of brain operations is complete. More than that you’ll never understand the development of behaviour, and where it originates, until you understand the neural structures producing the behaviour.
Q: You take the view that brain produces behaviour. Isn’t your point of view directly opposite to phenomenology?
A: On the contrary, we embrace phenomenology, if by phenomenology you are referring to Husserlian (1931) transcendental phenomenology, and to some extent Ricoeurian (1962) hermeneutical phenomenology. Also, Merleau-Ponty’s (1962) phenomenology of the body interests us to some extent. But I will specifically get into phenomenology in a later lecture. There’s a phenomenology to knowing the brain, just as there is a phenomenology to knowing behaviour, or a phenomenology to knowing other, more subtle aspects of consciousness directly. Another way to put it is there is a phenomenological element to any knowing, regardless of the intentionality of the mindstates in which the knowing is occurring. There is a phenomenology possible, regardless of the object as “transcendental guide” to exploration and knowledge. There is a possibility of phenomenological reduction regardless of whether the object of consciousness is the brain, thoughts about the brain, thoughts about thoughts about the brain, and so on. The brain is not some objective reality, some Kantian neumenon, to which social behaviour or experience is positivistically reduced. We refuse to be baited by reductionist constructs (see Rubinstein et al. 1984). There is a phenomenological ground for understanding all knowing, including knowing about the brain, and that phenomenology is precisely available via the Husserlian epoche.
In a Peircian frame (see Almeder 1980), all knowledge is fallible and hence a lie, incomplete, partial, regardless of whether the knowledge is about the brain or about consciousness or about red tomahawks and green tomahawks in highland New Guinea, or shamanic dances among the Kwakiutl. We agree with Husserl that certain intractable problems in science will remain insoluble until individual scientists perform the phenomenological reduction. Part of the problem I face in the course of these lectures is moving from the notions about the brain that we have developed, to an acceptance of phenomenology, and an argument for the necessity of the phenomenological reduction. It’s not easy for people to see why the whole move to phenomenology is necessary, even for those who have been acquainted with biogenetic structuralism quite a while. And that’s part of the intention of this reflection upon the biogenetic structural project – to clarify that movement. But I’m getting side-tracked here!
Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela have proposed a theory of “autopoiesis” in biology to account for the apparent autonomy of organisms vis-à-vis their environment (Maturana and Varela 1980, Varela 1979). They persuasively resist the all-too-common computer analogy for neurocognitive activity, that being the view that brains lift “information” from the environment and produce “representations” of the world. Rather, they see the organism, and the nervous system within the organism, as autonomous, self-creating, self-regulating, self-organizing systems. Their internally constituted, closed systems of knowledge are at best isomorphic with the environment, and are in no sense a copy of the environment – never a representative “map" passively received from the environment. Their conception of the role of cognition in biology is quite compatible with our notion of neurognosis. It emphasizes the structural invariance of principles by which the brain constitutes its cognized world.
Among the evolutionary structuralists, the work of Jean Piaget (1971, 1977) stands out. You should understand that Piaget died in his eighties, and he published his first paper when he was twelve years old. So we’re talking about many decades of work during which the man steadfastly refused to waste his time – that was his attitude – systematizing or bringing closure to his point of view. Like the later C.G. Jung, Piaget’s was an open system of theory, continually evolving and changing. The closest he ever came to formulating a systematic view of his project was Biology and Knowledge (1971). The book is hard going, and there are two subsequent related volumes (1977, 1980).
Piaget began to turn on to his project when he had a job marking intelligence tests and, unlike anyone previously, he began to notice patterns in the errors of students. He noticed that errors in the intelligence tests were not random, but patterned, and he asked why. He began to formulate the idea that maybe they weren’t so much errors as they were distortions projected by the structures of knowledge in place at any particular developmental level. He originally tested his notions on his own children. That was the first phase of Piaget’s research. It’s the one most American scholars know about, and he is often criticized for having developed a whole system out of research on his own three kids. This isn’t true. He went on to found an institute in Geneva and studied thousands of children of all ages and diverse cultural backgrounds and has had considerable assistance from all sorts of researchers that came to the institute. What is really awesome about Piaget is that throughout his whole career he followed one question, and that question was “How did we evolve to know what we know?” How did knowledge emerge in human evolution? He’s perfectly clear that the process of knowing is a biological process. He wasn’t trained in the neurosciences, and he specifically said he would leave the neurological account to others.
Because he was not grounded in the neurosciences, Piaget made certain mistakes. For example, he claims that structures don’t develop until action develops. His “schemes” develop out of what he called the sensorimotor stage of knowledge. He held fast to the notion that a child cannot know until it can act upon something. Now, there’s plenty of evidence that the situation is more complex than this, particularly when considering the development of models within the visual system. Because of his theoretical assumptions, he developed no methods that would get at, say, a behaviorally undeveloped, but visually precocious human infant. There’s a whole field in contemporary psychology that you might call the psychology of the competent infant (see Stone et al. 1973). This psychology is pushing our understanding of infant competence earlier and earlier, back into the womb and towards conception, and can only be accounted for by reference to the degree of neurological development in pre- and perinatal life. It’s becoming clear that although it looks behaviourally rather passive, the infant is neurologically and cognitively very active, particularly for the first six months post-partum, and before that in the womb.
The holographic paradigm of Karl Pribram (1971) is another example of an evolutionary structuralist perspective of interest to us. He is a neuropsychologist who worked with George Miller (see Miller et al. 1960). They developed an understanding of how much of human knowledge is based upon the capacity of the neural system to chunk information, and lay it out in temporal sequences or “plans”. You may notice, if you look at Biogenetic Structuralism, that we’ve talked about holographic models. We, like Pribram, were entranced by the then new developments in laser photography, and the metaphorical similarities between the type of information processing that is possible in a hologram and what appears to be the case for the human brain. So we borrowed that metaphor from the same place that Pribram did. The difference is that Pribram really does seem to believe that the brain is a hologram, operating on holographic principles, and we don’t and never did. So, after Biogenetic Structuralism, we dropped that metaphor, and it never arises again in our work. We do however retain the notion of model. Model and modelling are central to our work. We continue to speak about neurognosis, or neurognostic models, but we left holography behind.
Q: You are then concerned with the interaction between the womb environment and the neonate?
A: You mean like Bateson’s notion of ecology of mind? Yes. The brain, as the organ of behaviour, has as its primary function the adaptation of the organism to its environment. This primary function, as we shall see later, involves a fundamental intentional polarity between subject and object, both of which are constituted in the brain.
Q: That would be a little more useful than a holographic metaphor.
A: Absolutely! If you read Biogenetic Structuralism you’ll see that we’re attracted by the idea of information being stored in a form that doesn’t actually look like the information. Holography, as you know, intercalates two forms of light; the interference pattern that is produced by the intercalation is what is recorded on the emulsion. As a consequence, you could chop up the hologram into fifteen pieces and you would still have fifteen whole images. But you also get a loss of detail and information in each fragment, even though you get a total pattern.. Why that is so attractive as a metaphor is because the brain operates in such a way that it has a lot of redundant circuitry, so that you can’t find a place where you can cut out a particular memory, say your mother’s face. You’ve got this model of Mom, but you can’t find a place where you can pull Mom out and not disturb all the rest. That was a localizationist notion that entertained the neurosciences once upon a time: one locus, one memory. But we now know the brain doesn’t work like that. It works something like a hologram in recording information over wide areas of cortical and subcortical structures. On the other hand, the brain can be damaged, and it will produce deficits, but they’re not particular deficits like you lose only Mom’s name and not Dad’s, or what have you. The general ability to sequence activities in a coherent plan may be lost because of frontal lobe damage.
These are but a few of the main themes in evolutionary structuralism; themes and perspectives largely ignored by anthropologists. Structuralism for most anthropologists is equated with the works of Levi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan and Roland Barthes. If you look at semiological structural theories carefully you will discover that they all lead to exegetical methods. In exegesis you take text, usually some form or observable like myths, and you track the similarities, the relations between elements, and you deduce the structure that produced them. You don’t need anything but the text and certain formulae or techniques. You don’t’ have to look at the individual who spoke the test, nor often even the cultural context. If you want a critique of that point of view, look at Clifford Geertz (1983), or Paul Ricoeur (1967, 1968). Though by no stretch of the imagination evolutionary structuralists, they put that one to bed really well, showing that any ritual is embedded in the semiological context – an entire symbol system which has to be taken as a frame of reference or you miss a lot of information, or distort the view depicted in the ritual. One of the many weaknesses of any exegetical method is just why accept one interpretation and not another that somebody else may deduce to account for the observables. Why is Levi-Strauss’ analysis of myth any more compelling that that of John Cove? Or mine? Or yours?
Q: Is the point really which account is the most useful?
A: Not really. The question one raises is how do you determine the truth value of the one deduction over the other. Is there any independent data base that you can look at, any body of evidence independent of the exegesis itself that can confirm or disconfirm the truth value of the interpretation you’ve deduced? In evolutionary structuralism, particularly in biogenetic structuralism, you are forced by the assumptions of the paradigm to go to another data base and make sure it’s in accord with your model. If it’s not in accord, then your model is faulty. If you presume that the only organ that produces myth is the brain, and that myth telling, or creation of myth is somehow a product of neural functions, then there has to be consonance between the two views. If there isn’t then your model is incomplete. You’ve missed the mark.
We take a rather controversial view that cultural humanity is in fact a passing phase in the homination process; a process that leads us from a more or less precultural primate adaptation, heavily determined by genetical information processing and behaviour, through a phase of increasing reliance upon adaptation through flexibility in the construction of points of view. The phase of cultural adaptation will in turn give way to a post-cultural phase of adaptation which will be carried out by a sentient being – our evolutionary successor if you will – capable of routine cognition that transcends cultural points of view. We have called our evolutionary successor Homo gestalt (see Laughlin and Richardson 1986). We borrowed that term from Theodore Sturgeon’s superb novel More than Human (1975).
Our extrapolations are based upon modern biological principles discussed very nicely by Steven J. Gould in his work, Ontogency and Phylogency (1977). Particularly important is the process of neoteny. What we understand to be an adult cultural consciousness in Homo sapiens becomes truncated, squished, and pushed back in development to become a sort of adolescence in the development of adult Homo gestalt consciousness. So in the future maturation of hominid consciousness, what we call “man the culture-bearer” will be a developmentally brief phase of adaptation. It will be passed through much more quickly, and form a premature stage prior to the emergency of a higher developmental phase. What adult Homo gestalt consciousness will be like is only suggested in a handful of human beings today who reach a form of transcendental consciousness in which the brain is capable of adapting to its environment, at will, without reference to a fixed "cultural" point of view. Such a consciousness can entertain all points of view, or nor point of view at all – it can just track what is.
Q: A cognitive level that is consummately aware of what perceptual pictures are operating and can shift them or transcend them. If culture is like perceptual filter, then we don’t ‘see’ because it’s always there.
Q2: Would this Homo gestalt, or his emergence coincide with a redundancy of the body?
A: You are presuming in your question that we understand what the body is, that the body is a given rather than a problematic? Is their a body? And what is the difference between the cognized and the operational body?
Q2: Well I use it interchangeably with culture.
A: Well, maybe the body of your perception is a point of view, and if you follow me there, then I think quite rightly, yes. The conception and the experience of the body will be quite different. There wont’ be anything like the little orb or radiant consciousness floating in a sort of Star Trekian plastic sphere, speaking through tubes in the wall. This kind of fictional, disembodied spirit is just another projection of western mind/body dualism, which we altogether reject. Useless for science, and science didn’t develop it in the first place. Mind/body dualism is pre-scientific knowledge, a heritage of this culture, a part of the “natural attitude”.
Q: I’m not quite clear what you’re getting at. Can you elaborate?
A: It might make better sense if you look at it as did Merleau-Ponty. A basic dichotomy is presented by our experience of body – if I reach out and touch my own hand, and if I put my awareness there, I can see that I may experience the body from the outside-in, or from the inside-out, just by shifting awareness. One can be in this hand feeling, or in the other one being felt. Merleau-Ponty (1962) did not seem to realize that there is a neurobiology to the dichotomy. The sensory system is designed so that it distinguishes detection of internal events from the detection of external events. The neural system is pe-adapted to distinguish what’s happening within itself (“interoception”) and what is happening outside itself (“exteroception”) – it’s very adaptive to be able to do that.
Let us proceed with Wittgenstein’s wisdom: if it can be said it can be said clearly, if it cannot be said it must be passed over in silence. And ultimately that dictum can apply to anything that can be experienced. There is ineffability to any experience. Language did not evolve to replace direct experience, but to augment it. That’s a hint of the kind of post-cultural consciousness that our evolutionary successor will have, always supposing we don’t’ blow it before we get there.
Q: The cultural adaptation that you referred to as being flexible in points of view, does it occur in Homo gestalt as a culmination?
A: It’s not a culmination, it’s the next phase in the homination process, the sentientization process, the unfolding of consciousness which is going on all over the universe, and I’m quite sure. I think we are on fairly solid ground making certain extrapolations by looking back at the trajectory of the development of consciousness on this planet and projecting a bit into the future. I’ll be more radical than that – I don’t think we’re in the middle of the cultural phase at all, I think we’re approaching the end, and the evolutionary transformation is accelerating very fast. I can ground that claim in a lot of data.
We’re speaking here of the orthogenetic dimension. The emergence of sentience in the universe is not random, but is lawful. As we argue in biogenetic structuralism, there is an orthogenesis to the evolution of brain and hence consciousness. Also, as we argue in Brain, Symbol and Experience (Laughlin, McManus and d’Aquili 1990), from a certain technical point of view, it’s not function that evolves, it’s structure. Evolution really depends upon changing the structural aspect of things, so, in a certain sense, it is brain that evolves and not behaviour. They’re inseparable, of course. If you don’t keep the structure in mind, you run into certain methodological problems, such as being clear about the locus for the evolutionary change, because as Piaget pointed out, different structures can produce the same behaviour. You can have a very stupid system and a very smart system producing the same action. How do you distinguish one from the other if you only pay attention to function or action? You want to say that one is more advanced than the other, that it is evolutionarily more developed.
Q: Wouldn’t a more advanced structure be able to display a wider spectrum of behaviours? So, although you can’t measure structure simply by behaviour, spectrums of behaviour can indicate a range of structural flexibility?
A: Yup. And the complexity of the organization of serial behaviours into plans. For example, a chimpanzee is quite capable at a very early age of deciding it’s hungry, going off into the woods, looking for just the right branch, preparing it just the right way, coming back to the termite hill, licking it, sticking it in, waiting until the bugs get all over it, pulling it out and eating the bugs. Baboons who are living in the same operational space and who also like to eat termites, will wait for them to crawl out of the hole to lick them up. They apparently can’t learn that they can put together a serial progression of actions with some intended purpose thirty minutes down the line. Baboons are very boxed into a spatiotemporally limited cognized environment relative to the cognitive powers of your average chimpanzee.
I am giving this loose rendition of the model to show that biogenetic structuralism is an evolutionary perspective that treats the stuff of modern cultural anthropology as but one locus for the study of the homination process. In no sense should we treat Homo sapiens as the end product, which we unconsciously tend to do. Very little anthropology talks about the future of society and consciousness. By the way, the transformation that becomes Homo gestalt will have social implications, but what we mean by society will naturally change. But I don’t want to get too far into this, other than to emphasize that the central question that will underlie all of these lectures will be the question of the evolution of freedom. But I will here only suggest questions, point directions. What is freedom? Freedom from what? Freedom to do what? What is the relationship between freedom and the development of the biology of the organism?
Q: The question arises, in talking of this, how do we learn to transcend? Can we change the structure of learning?
A: Yes. As we note in the future of human consciousness paper (see Laughlin and Richardson 1986), there is really no such thing as Homo gestalt, and there is no such thing as Homo sapiens. There is a homination process, and in so far as we transcend – that is, in so far as we operate in our lives to transcend cultural point of view – we are Homo gestalt becoming! This is in perfect keeping with modern biology in which it is clear that phylogenesis is realized in ontogenesis: there is no phylogenesis, this is just beings developing and passing on their genes.
Q: Your scheme that embodies the distinction between past, present and future – wouldn’t it be simpler to say that there is just one moment, NOW, and to explain this ontogenesis in terms of now-ness, instead of putting it into a scheme which tends to escape the real impact of totality – also that Homo gestalt is here now insofar as we accept it?
A: This is why we’re led to consider something on the order of a Sheldrakian (1981) “morphogenetic field, or better from my point of view, a Bohmian (1980) “implicate order”, in which all moments are present. Bohm’s view is that the phenomenal present is an unfolding and enfolding process out of the implicate order – the latter being a totality, an energy field, if you will, that is implicate in the universe, and not explicate. The unfolding and enfolding of phenomenal reality is the explicate order which appears to pass like a wave of nows, but to exhibit an order that we can know. All the possible orders are present in the implicate order, all simultaneously present. It makes no sense to talk about time in the implicate order – time only has a referent in the explicate order.
Next I will talk about the traps to clear thinking that we have hoped to avoid by pursuing the biogenetic structural project. We have been quite concerned with the entrapment of thought made easy in the culture of science, thus preventing clear observation and creative thinking. Because we have consciously tried to avoid these traps, we have been led to some of the more peculiar, controversial, and more difficult to grasp formulations in biogenetic structural theory.
CHAPTER TWO: Traps and Tenets
We have to be very alert and careful here, for we tend to try to fix the essential content of our discussion in a particular concept or image, and talk about this as if it were a separate ‘thing’ that would be independent of our thought about it. We fail to notice that in fact this ‘thing’ has by now become only an image; a form in the overall process of thought, i.e., response of memory, which is a residue of past perception through the mind (either someone else’s or one’s own). Thus, in a very subtle way, we may once again be trapped in a movement in which we treat something originating in our own thought as if it were a reality originating independently of this thought.
David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order
Much of what biogenetic structuralism has come to mean for us is a discipline of mind that avoids certain traps to clear thinking. With the recognition of the traps have come certain tenets that were self-imposed clarifiers, and what I would like to do is trace some of these traps and tenets characteristic of our group’s work. Of course, we were not conscious of all the traps from jump-street. Some emerged as a consequence of the development of biogenetic structural thought. But I must say there has been at times an uncanny correspondence between the emergence of consciousness of these traps in each of us simultaneously, but independently, in our own personal development.
Probably the first and foremost trap that we recognized, and about which biogenetic structuralism essentially revolves, is the recognition of an inherent mind/body, or mind/brain dualism in the “natural attitude" of Western culture, and as a consequence in science. This dualism operates virtually unconsciously in the thinking of theorists in all scientific disciplines and has led, much as Husserl (1970) predicted in the 1930s, to a crisis in science. Let me characterize briefly to you what I mean. Scientific thinking is rife with a whole set of dualistic concepts and styles of thought that produce such oppositions as mind/body, mind/brain, psychology/culture, nature/nurture, pure science/applied science, experimental/naturalistic, perception/cognition. The positivistic scientist proceeds as though perception were a perfectly veridical and objective record of the physical world, but that cognition is somehow a mental thing that can go wonky. And the duality continues: linguistic/non-linguistic thought, individual/personhood, and structure/function. To understand how deep the roots of mind/body dualism reach, one should remember that it is a problem that’s recognized in philosophy and science going way back. There’s a little book by < xml="true" ns="urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" prefix="st1" namespace="">Campbell (1984) in its second edition called Mind/Body which is the best single survey that I’ve ever read of the problem in philosophy.
You can easily trace the problem back to the Greeks, and not just the Greeks at the time of Aristotle and Plato, but the pre-Socratic Greeks – largely mystics in those days – who were snuggled very comfortably in a culture which held a cosmology in which “logos”, the same root as our words logic and logical, had a male attribution and was seen as part of, or a function of “physis", the same root as our words physical and physics, and given female attribution (Vycinas 1961). Logos was seen as that part of physis that reflects upon itself. By the time you get to the Socratic and post-Socratic Greeks, logos has been abstracted in thought and in concept from, and opposed to physis, so that now logos is a sort of epiphenomenal realm of thought connected with physis through observation. It is no longer conceived as part and parcel to physis. We’ve recently published an article (Laughlin 1985) that argues that there are cultures – ours included – in which male and female gender become defined oppositionally rather than complementarily, in cultures in which the experiential lifeworld of a pre- and perinatal person becomes conceived in development as distinct from knowledge about that world.
Knowledge among the pre-Socratics was mainly accrued by way of contemplation, or mystical reflection upon self and the world. By the time you get to Socrates, however, truth is elicited through ratiocination and debate in the academy. Gone is ninety percent of the contemplation. I interpret this to be much the same movement as occurred closer to our time in science as a consequence of removing ourselves from the more stultifying effects of religion and theology. The neo-positivists at the time of Mach were trying very hard to remove any metaphysics at all from scientific formulations. From a certain point of view they went overboard.
For various reasons we’ve found that abstracting mind from brain, or brain from mind, though reflecting this essential dualism, is intuitively absurd. To this day I can’t really tell you why it was intuitively absurd to this particular thinker. It simply seems upon self-reflection that the removal of human affairs from nature is absurd: the divorcing of human affairs from the world just doesn’t think well. So, much of our thinking has been centered on how this could have happened and how we can get out of it. The equation of the function of nervous system and the mind seems self-evident to me. Not in any one-to-one simplistic map onto relation, but rather mind or consciousness being a partial function of brain. To speak of consciousness is actually to speak of what we’re all interested in from the inside out. To speak about brain or nervous system is to look at the same thing we’re all interested in from the outside in. Neither can be reduced to the other. Our group has been charged with being reductionists, and it’s just not the case, though some of our cumbersome writings may have given people that impression. There is nothing in our conception that is dualistic about inside/outside, or brain/mind. Our challenge has been to take a language thoroughly imbued with dualistic conceptions – modern English – and talk about essentially a non-dualistic subject. In any ultimate sense it can’t be done.
Q: Is there a language that isn’t imbued with dualism?
A: Yes, there’s mathematical formulations and I for one have used set theory and other such formulations to check myself. There are unpublished lengthy footnotes, all in set theory, double-checking to make sure that I’m as close to a non-dualistic formulation as it is possible for this mind to produce.
Q: Isn’t there a difference between language that reflects non-dualistic thinking and language that is almost exclusively one side of that?
A: Yes, matters could be a lot worse. There could be a language in which there was no way to talk either about the inside-out or the outside-in.
Q: Jacques Chevalier says whenever you articulate a polarity you always do it in favor of one, so there’s day and night, and that’s called ‘day’. What I’m suggesting though is that mathematics you say is not dualistic – perhaps it’s not but maybe that can cause its own exclusive location all on one side of polarity.
A: I would dispute that, at least in the case of set theory, because you can define sets as wholes that include other sets. We’ve developed the idea of a set as a totality which from one point of view looks like a brain, and from another point of view looks like a mind. And there’s no contradiction in talking about that. It’s not that we don’t want to distinguish one thing from another, that’s the process of analysis in anybody’s language, in anybody’s culture. It’s putting it back together and avoiding fragmentation that’s the problem in the West. And if we’re very unconscious in our theorizing, we make analytical distinctions that sort of get reified onto the world so that we come to actually believe the world is fragmented.
Q: But theories don’t just happen that way – there’s a reason for them to be dualistic.
A: Yes, and our claim is that it’s inherent in our English speaking culture to cognize that way.
Q: I don’t think it’s enough to say that it’s inherent. Like you said, there’s a big difference between distinction and dualism. You don’t distinguish between one half and the other half unless you have some reason for doing so.
A: Could it be that we are conditioned to think that way and because of the conditioning to think that way we have also generated reasons? You seem to be putting the “reasons” first, as though we’re thoroughly conscious of the dualism and came about it in a very logical fashion.
Q: Well, it’s obviously both, but I don’t discount reason, just because it comes as an unconscious conditioning.
Q2: There’s a Jungian school of thought about the development of consciousness that holds that there’s an original sense of unity where there’s no differentiation of opposites, and part of the development of a conscious ego is a process of developing opposites.
Q: I’d say it’s the other way around. I’d say the unity is a concept which comes as a result of dualism. The purpose of dualism, as Jacques Chevalier says, is mediation and mediation is a powerful thing. And the end result, which is too ideological and is never accomplished, is unity.
Q2: But that’s presupposing that when a baby is born it’s born already with a set of dualities, which I don’t believe is the case. I think a baby develops a set of dualities through experience, at a pre-cognitive level, which becomes part of the cognitive set, and later on we have to cognitively return, not to the same point but to a unity where, you know, we all want to go.
Q: What if it’s the language that’s dualistic, by its own nature, and so the baby becomes dualistic insofar as he learns language? The thing is, when we talk we’re doing more than saying words, the words are like containers which are articulating an experience and we will communicate insofar as the words that I use allow you to key in to the experience that I’m feeling, and that experience is not necessarily dualistic. There’s the meaning which is non-dualistic behind the words, and our problem is we get trapped into thinking that all there is are the words. We forget that there’s a meaning for which language is only a vehicle. Language isn’t it.
Q2: Gregory Bateson says that part of the development of awareness is the need for contrast, difference. News of difference is fundamental to awareness. When a baby’s born there’s a production of an increasingly refined awareness/consciousness. Necessary to development are contrasts, so that without light and darkness you can’t see, without a sense of roughness and smoothness you can’t feel, without silence, no sound. You need difference in order to become aware.
Q: You need distinction, but you don’t need dualism.
Q2: Well, you need difference, and so it seems to me that the easiest way to create difference is in a set of opposites.
Q: Easier for whom?
Q2: The nervous system? I don’t know. But, I would say the nature of that relation is either one of opposition or similarity. The mind associates things that are similar or opposed.
A: What I’m pointing to is a fundamental distinction, fundamental in the sense that it is culturally prior to signs. This may or may not prove to be the case, but that’s my position. I think that if you’re honest with yourselves, people, you do not conceive of yourselves as a nervous system – you almost certainly don’t experience yourselves as a nervous system – but there are beings who do. And if you do not experience yourself as a nervous system, that’s all the proof I need that you are conditioned by our dualistic culture. This is a fundamental dualism. If you experience yourself fully as a body, then that will include a nervous system in modern culture, and will also include a mind: there will be no difference between my experience of myself as a nervous system and my experience of myself as a mind. If there is this discrepancy then you are trapped in dualistic culture, and it’s going to be prior to your enterprise as a scientist. In any event, that’s my claim. You don’t have to buy it, but I suggest that the only way to determine that for yourself is by looking inward, by self reflection, introspection. I want to pass on to another tenet, if I may.
Q: Could I just get back to this model of pre-Socratic Greek thought? Are you suggesting that the pre-Socratic model of thinking isn’t dualistic, as you’ve laid it out?
A: It involves distinction, conceptual distinction, but of a world that is experienced as essentially non-dualistic. It’s monadistic. It is literally thought about cosmos, or a cosmology.
Q: But the thing is, it may not be truly dualistic, but it’s got the germ of dualism in it.
A: Yes, I would agree with that. That is a set-up – the minute logos becomes distinguished from physis, knowledge becomes distinguished from the world. It’s a set-up for dualism. But the dualism may be latent and not yet be present. My claim would be that it never will really manifest as long as there’s a mystical or introspective component to the signs. It will become immediately dualistic if that component is lost. An inevitable ingredient of higher phases of consciousness is the experience of the world as non-dual and total. One has no choice but to experience it that way, and that experience arises when thought stops. This gives direct experience of the relationship between thought and fragmentation of the world.
Q: But you see I think the essence of dualism is not the manifestation of it, as in post-Socratic thought, but in the germ, and you haven’t really accounted for that.
A: Yes we have. In biogenetic structuralism we have. I haven’t in these lectures.
Q: I think you did, sort of by the way. You said that at least one of the essences of dualism is the opposition of logos, being an attribute of male, and physis of female: that’s the germ right there.
A: We have produced a theory which purports to explain why that attribution is male, but I don’t want to get into that here. You can read that easily enough if you wish (see Laughlin 1985).
Part of what we’ve tried to avoid is the deleterious effects of scientism, or the cult of methodology. Anthropology makes that easy: anthropology is the best possible discipline for avoiding scientism, because nobody’s approach to methodology seems to ever take paradigmatic hold of anthropology. There’s fads that come and go, of course, some people like Joseph Jorgensen press for statistical methods in anthropological fieldwork, with good reason at times. And the genealogical method has prevailed in anthropology since the early days. But there has never been a single methodological paradigm in anthropology, and it’s due, not to the fact that anthropologists are particularly sage or wise, but rather because it is inherently, by the nature of its own project, naturalistic. We have to take human societies as we find them. As a consequence, anthropological methods over the years have been a potpourri of borrowed methodologies utilized when appropriate, and dropped when inappropriate: economic methodologies if people happen to be interested in economic behaviour, genealogical method if they’re interested in kinship from a certain point of view, and what have you.
The problem with methods when they become codified in a discipline is that they tend to determine or limit the questions asked. Methods are pragmatically useful up to a point. The point at which they are no longer useful is precisely the point that Thomas Kuhn (1974) points out, where they begin to totally determine the approach taken to the subject of interest, the scope of inquiry. They begin to distinguish what is good science from bad science in that discipline, and worst of all, determine the questions asked and unaskable, so that inquiries of a certain kind cannot take place within the discipline because it’s outside the observational or measurement capabilities of the methodology. It’s often said of psychology that it first lost its spirit and then it lost its mind. This is a sort of cutesy way of saying that getting at mind was viewed by many theorists like Wundt, Hall, Spence, and most recently by Skinner as extremely problematic. They often handled the problem by simply excluding mind from observation. There’s no methodological problem at all because there is no mind. There’s just behaviour and all the methods are geared to examining behaviour. Of course, paradox after paradox piles up and finally you have a Skinner who comes to admit that, well, subjective reports of internal processes are in fact behaviour, so they’re admissible. But they still must be examined, researched in line with the methods currently considered legitimate in that discipline. The problem is that in disciplines where the methodology can ultimately determine the scope of the reality being examined, the naturalistic circumstances that gave rise to the original questions that led to the discipline in the first place get instrumentalized out of mind.
A good person to read on this is Emil Menzel (1967), a comparative psychologist who, for many years, did laboratory research on the olive baboon. Emil reports that there came a time, just by fluke, when he ended up in Kenya on some other project. While he was there he thought he’d take a look at some olive baboons in the wild, and he stood in the middle of this baboon troop, watched it for hours, looked around and had this “ah-ha”, as he described it to me. “Nothing I’ve ever done relates to these animals’ natural circumstances. By my research they’re absolute idiots, totally stupid animals, and here I am standing in the middle of this thoroughly integrated social group, adapted to their environment. It’s obvious their skills are related to naturally occurring events in their environment, which are not replicated in the laboratory...” That led Emil to try to discover ways of integrating naturalistic and laboratory observations, which then led to all sorts of interesting research into curiosity among rhesus monkeys and chimpanzees in relatively free-ranging but captive groups.
To make a long story short, this kind of reflection ultimately led to reflections on the nature of science as cognitive process, out of which our book of that title emerged. This book records the dialogues between myself, McManus and Robert Rubinstein of Chicago (see Rubinstein, Laughlin and McManus 1984). These discussions led us to a tenet that might be best described as a sort of structural monism (there’s no really good word for it that we’ve been able to find). On our account, the scope of discourse might be conceived as a sort of sphere of reality in which there are numerous windows, so that one has a choice of point of view of that scope, and each point of view, no matter which one you take, is partial. To a certain extent, what point of view you choose to take will determine the limits to what you can see. Part of what defines a ‘window’ is called methodology. So the rule that we came up with for ourselves, which we call the rule of minimal inclusion held that one’s theoretical perspective on any particular scope must account for all the available windows in the sphere. The arbitrary exclusion of any window is a fallacy leading to discrepant and often incommensurate theories about the scope.
You can imagine, for example, that there’s a window that’s called neurological, another that’s called ethnographic-behavioural, and still another that’s called introspective. People looking through the ethnographic window are describing one sort of reality, like Emil’s baboons in the wild, while others looking through the neurological window are describing another sort of reality, like the physiologist cutting up olive baboon brains or putting them through lab tests with wires in their heads. They’re both saying something about the intelligence of olive baboons, and yet they may well come up with mutually contradictory theories; it’s easy to demonstrate that. Our rule has been, therefore, that an adequate account of the scope must include all of the available theory and data relative to the scope. No window may be arbitrarily excluded. And the rule also requires the inclusion of at least one level of system above and one level of system below the level(s) of system that one is engaged in observing. For example, if I am interested in So culture (a people living in northeastern Uganda), I am perforce required to examine the ecology of the So (one level of systemic organization above my concept “So”), and I must look at the individual psychology (one level of system below).
Q: How does that guarantee that you’re leaving yourself open to the inclusion of all possible windows?
A: It may not in fact … somebody could come back at you and say here’s another window, how about that? Well our rule is if we can see that it’s obviously another window into our scope, we have to credence it. We’re not limiting this to just another scientific window. Any culture’s window onto our scope must be credenced. To arbitrarily limit our view to the Western scientific is just a subtle form of scientism – kind of an ethnocentric scientism, if you will.
Q: Therefore when you’re speaking from having looked through a window and then somebody comes to you with a completely different window which also relates, and which informs and broadens what you’ve been saying, then you must listen to them.
A: We dialogue but don’t exclude it. Let me give you an example. There’s this offbeat philosopher named John Schumacher who came at us saying “You’re missing a whole window. There’s a quantum physics to perception, man, how ‘bout that? Put that in your pipe and smoke it!” And we’ve had to. By our own design, we’ve been forced to look at quantum physics in relation to consciousness, and deal with all sorts of problems we hadn’t dealt with before.
Q: Hypothetically, could you end up spending most of your time trying to take into account different windows?
A: Yes, well put. And I think that’s our saving grace. The object ultimately is to never close the theory, never close the models, because they’re always partial and you just ritualize it to the point where you can’t close it because there’s always somebody out there coming at you with some new point of view, some new anomalous data or contradictory theory.
Q: Are you not a window yourself?
A: Yes, or a set of windows – an endless series of “horizons”. Hence for whatever reasons (I don’t know why), it has always made intuitive sense to me to collaborate with others. There are two effects of collaborating with other people – such collaboration rarely happens in anthropology, mind you, and there are reasons for that as well. One reason is what Buckminster Fuller called the synergistic effect. It seems to produce results that are more complex and work better than any one person could produce on his own. Another reason is that it provides a cross-check on each others’ biases.
In our research into the nature of human cognition and processes of knowing, we became gradually aware that there is a bias in Western science in favour of left lobe processing – this to the exclusion, often unconsciously, of right lobe imagination, or imagery processing. In other words, Western scientific theory tends to be hyper-rational. Look, for example, at the neo-positivist paradigm of good theory construction. For a period of time it would only allow theories comprised of propositions in natural language: i.e., good theory in science had to be couched in natural language. With the advent of Einstein’s relativity theory, which in its richest form can be described in mathematics, a transformation of positivism occurred which allowed mathematical propositions to be treated as legitimate scientific theory as well. But nowhere in the received view of theory construction was the role of imagery in theoretical formulations legitimized. However, if one looks at knowledge or modes of thought, cross-culturally, or do what philosophers or historians of science since at least Hanson in the 1950s have done - look at how scientific discoveries are actually carried out – you discover that the role of imagery is very important. For example, I would direct you to the description by Watson of the discovery of the double helix which was based upon intuitive grasp of the similarity of imagery. There are books full of such accounts, and you’ll discover that the role of imagery is paramount and that very often the theorist is in the position of having to, in a sense, demythologize his imaginal insights. That’s really what we’re talking about here, demythologization; that is to say, restructuring of insight in terms of left lobe conceptual processing in order for it to be scientifically acceptable.
There is an interesting little book by Edward DeBono, which he claims to be the first ever written for both the left and right lobes - not true of course - in which he’s got an idea written out in natural language on one page, and on the facing page he’s got a drawing that depicts the same idea. It’s an interesting exercise I commend to you. If your awareness is up and you are watching your own mind as you work through that book, see what happens inside your mind when you consider the idea from the left and right hemispheres … a good meditation.
In Science As Cognitive Process we address the role of imagery in cognition and in science. This consideration weighed heavily in favour of our resistance to such simple distinctions as made by Levi- Strauss (1966) between primitive and modern thought – really a distinction that was previously made by Levy-Bruhl (1923) – that somehow primitives think in a different way than modern, civilized, scientific human beings. We’d rather argue that Levy-Bruhl was right, only he just didn’t understand that we all think the same way that he thought primitive peoples do. It’s the same brain operating upon the same principles. But because of our scientistic model of how science ought to operate, we can fool ourselves into thinking that science is a solely rational, conceptual process. Obviously scientific theory construction involves conceptual process, but as Horton and Finnegan show in Modes of Thought (1973), those processes are also present in the thought of so-called primitives as well.
Q: Is the trap an over-emphasis on left or right, or what is it you’re saying is a trap?
A: Good. To us a trap is any point of view that directs one away from how things actually are, so that when it becomes codified in a scientistic way, it effectively imposes unnecessary, arbitrary limits upon the process of creative reflection or exploration. Some kinds of thought are forbidden or ignored, not considered applicable to science. One dualism that arises for example is the distinction between science and art. This has been controversial for a long time – there’s a whole literature in philosophy on whether art and science are in fact distinct, or are two aspects of the same thing. It’s a trap furthermore in that it does not recognize the inherent limitations of the intellectual function of the brain, one that is better at asking questions than answering them.
If you look at the really significant breakthroughs in science, they’re mostly intuitive (see Medawar’s 1969 essay on the role of intuition in science). We’ve written a bit on what we think intuition might entail in terms of neurological structures. Basically it’s neurocognitive processing that is unconscious to the individual. There’s a school of thought that holds that intuition is right lobe, intellect is left lobe. But that doesn’t wash, because much of intellection is unconscious as well. Much conceptual processing is unconscious to the actor. We have to keep it in mind that there is operational cognition and there’s cognized cognition, the latter being what we know about how we come to know. The former is cognition as it really happens, and the latter is our models, rules, formulae, logics, that purport to define and end up reifying limitations to knowing. As I have been heard to murmur on occasion, “methodology is a picket fence we build between our self and God”.
Like any other knowledge, knowledge about how we know is partial. It is especially partial, and usually painfully naïve, when it is received cognized cognition, when we get it secondhand from people who teach us what our cognition is like, or ought to be like. Then it’s not only partial due to the inherent abstractive processes of our own mind, it’s doubly partial because it has been transposed through language or some other symbolic system. The most accurate way to know our mind is to study it directly, and that requires doing some phenomenology.
The actual experience of intuition goes something like this: I’m thinking like mad about a problem and I’m reading this and that and going out and doing research, and then there is one instant where I lift my foot and the solution isn’t there, and I put my foot down on the first step of the bus and the solution is there. The hallmark of intuition is not so much the quality of the knowing, it’s the suddenness of the awareness of the knowing, and the full-blown presence of that knowledge in consciousness. There’s a totality to it, it’s all there – all one piece.
Our explanation of intuition in part is that much information processing is relegated to alternative neural systems, much like a subroutine, like shared-time processing. It does not interfere with one of the principle functions of awareness which is tracking moment-to-moment dialogue with the world for the purpose of adaptation. It’s increasingly apparent that the brain depends upon parallel processing as much, if not more than, lineal processing. When the processing is completed, under certain circumstances, the results are relevated into consciousness and the sudden awareness of knowledge is there. There are disciplines in Eastern meditation where you can come to experience this very readily. The experience of intuitive insight becomes so commonplace you come to know it very well. One such discipline is the discipline of the koan, one form of Zen practice, in which you single-mindedly work on a problem that systematically thwarts intellection. The most famous koan I suppose is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” You can’t deduce the correct answer, you can deduce answers but they’re not the right answer. Any answer you can logically deduce, the Roshi will ding his little bell and say “Go away and meditate some more”. What happens phenomenologically, and it can be experienced in science, art, in fact in any realm of life where there is an intense state of question, is that a sort of wave front of inquiry builds in the mind. Then there comes a time – it can be when you’re not meditating, it can be when you’re eating your porridge or walking to the bathroom – when the solution is there – whole, total - and the Roshi smiles and gives you the next koan.
Q: Is that because all of a sudden you accept what the solution is?
A: I would say more than that. I would say until the cognitive processes have modeled it, there is not knowing it. And as awareness is a combination of knowledge, attention and object -- all moments of consciousness are intentional as Husserl would say -- there is no awareness of insight although the object of insight may be before the mind. Nirvana, the texts tell us, is present every moment, but the awareness isn’t. “Enlightenment” is shedding light upon what’s already happening.
Q: I really feel however that the essential thing is that suddenly I accept instead of trying to answer the question, maybe something has happened unconsciously, all of a sudden I recognize.
Q2: This explains the process of what happens before you accept, what’s going on before you come to the point of accepting that there’s something else happening on the other side of the brain that’s actively working on it, that’s out of awareness. So it’s not just that you accept, because there’s all sorts of things going on before you accept.
A: In fact awareness itself can be a trap, if awareness is attached to a presumption that answers come solely by ratiocination. This is awareness via a certain point of view. Because in the process of awakening through the koan form, ratiocination has to be dropped. It won’t work unless it’s dropped. Insight just won’t arise as long as one is trying to reason one’s way through the question.
Q: And then what happens is you accept it. Why even talk at all about unconscious machinery?
A: Well, unconscious to the aware you, unconscious to the ego awareness. We’re not talking micro-chips here or sub-routines. We’re talking living tissue that is processing information, and what is conscious depends upon the system of reference. What is unconscious and unconscious to what? Well, unconscious to what we have termed conscious network.
Q: The eye can’t see itself see. There’s certain processes that are going on that are always out of consciousness, because you can’t see yourself see, but you can see what the eye sees. The eye can’t see itself. My eye can’t see what’s going on for me to see. My nervous system can’t feel what’s going on for me to feel.
A: The system can be turned on itself. Its own internal processes can become its object.
Q: But then it can’t be aware of itself turning in on itself, it can’t be aware of the process in which it is immediately engaged.
A: Why can’t it?
Q: Well I can’t see myself see.
A: Why can’t you? I’m seeing myself see at this very moment.
Q: No, you’re seeing what you’re seeing. Is your eye actually seeing what’s going on there to see
A: Well, I know what you’re trying to say. I mean I’m not here staring back at my eyes, but that can lead one to an unfortunate point of view: that is that brain cannot track its own processes, cannot be aware of it own awareness.
Q: I’ll have to go back and look at Gregory Bateson … it’s just that I can’t see the nerves firing, my light receptors, you see, I can’t see them working … while I’m using my eyes.
Q2: You can feel every little firing so you can know it.
A: That’s germane, so let’s leap into that. There’s two things we became aware of. In the first place there are decalages, as Piaget put it, of awareness. Awareness in most human beings is like a patchwork quilt – there are domains of greater and lesser awareness having to do with knowledge available in each moment of consciousness. As with so many theorists before us, we have been trying to figure out the extent to which cognition actually influences perception. Our present view is that the distinction between cognition and perception is a false one, that perception is already knowledge, that there’s a hierarchical system of knowing, and that all of knowledge is self-limiting. In one’s discipline of thought, one has to build doors out of the trap inherent in the influence of one’s knowledge upon one’s perception. One simply does not see what one cannot at the moment know. It (whatever ‘it’ is) may be right in front of our noses. There’s plenty of evidence - we note some of it in Science As Cognitive Process – that our paradigms not only cause practitioners to exclude information from consideration but also cause their minds to input information and hold a contradictory theory simultaneously and not see the paradox.
This realization led Pribram (1971) to teach that the proper role of
the creative scientist is paying more attention to paradoxes, not so much to theory. A role of theory is to produce paradox – that is, the discrepancies between your model of the world and the information “coming in” about the world – then you will always, as a consequence, keep the models open. This is something we’ve tried to do all along in biogenetic structuralism, though we’ve trapped ourselves more than a few times. Carl Jung said ‘isms’ are the cancer of the age, or words to that effect. He denied there was any such thing as a “Jungian” point of view. What he meant by that was that his engagement was with his phenomenology and his ideas changed, grew, transformed as a dynamic dialogue with the world, but his disciples were always trying to find some easily codified and transmitable system.
We’re trying to figure out how to explicitly ritualize the enterprise of science so that post-paradigmatic science is possible. Our view is that the only route to a post-paradigmatic science, a post-normal science in Kuhn’s terms, is awareness of the cognition that produces paradigmatic science. What factors produce attachment to point of view, attachment to theory, as the sine qua non of good science? There is no such thing as perfect theory; all knowledge is fallible, and its function is not to stand as an edifice, a monument to the process of inquiry, but rather as a stepping stone to further question.
We suspect that by the time consciousness has evolved to Homo gestalt, what we would recognize as theory will simply be adolescent fixation on a point of view. Adult Homo gestalt won’t require theory in the sense of any relatively fixed, propositional knowledge of the sort that you can put in a textbook, memorize and quote verbatim on examinations.
Finally, we have come gradually to agree that a major flaw in science – including anthropology – is the failure of scientists to perform what Husserl called the phenomenological reduction, which, in jargon, is a way of saying that science is essentially anti-introspective (largely for pre-scientific and cultural reasons), and fails as a consequence to produce mature contemplatives. What mature contemplative means I’ll describe later.
Husserlian transcendental phenomenology is the process by which our naïve theories of the world are experienced as distinct from the order of the world as given in perception. The phenomenological reduction is a complex and a developmental process; it isn’t that one decides one day to bracket one’s theory of the world. By implication one is incapable, prior to the reduction of clearly distinguishing the world as given from one’s theory of the world – they’re inextricably bound up with each other in an unconscious, unaware fashion. The object, by exercise of awareness, is to begin to extricate the one from the other. But it is a dialectical process. By the knowing of the distinction between the world as given and theory, one actually creates the distinction between the world and theory. So what is bracketed changes as the reduction proceeds until the time when one intuitively grasps the essential order of phenomena as given by the mind to the mind, totally removed from, or prior to, any theory of the world whatsoever. For Husserl, phenomenology is prior to any science, if by science one means theory construction. The advantage of the reduction process, Husserl argued, is that one avoids all sorts of traps, because once one has performed the reduction, one can then reconstruct a theory of the world rooted in the knowledge of what is given in the world and what is laid on by cognition.
Q: We often talk about what we believe in and it’s often an intellectual exercise, but what we fail to realize is how inextricably intertwined our beliefs are with what we are right now sensing. So I sort of got confused a little bit when you were talking about separating what is believed from what is perceived.
A: Husserl's “theory of the world” is not just beliefs, it’s not really something that one would consciously write down, it's not theory either in the sense of Einstein’s theory of relativity, though it includes that. Theory of the world involves the presumptions we make about the world. There’s a "you” there. I attribute “you-ness” to my experience of this form apparently in front of my eyes: I do so naturally, unconsciously. I’m not aware of the dots of which your image is comprised in my mind, right? The dots are there, and there is a mindstate in which one can be so aware of the dots that the “you” disappears. And one becomes aware that all that’s given in the world is certain essential information by the world, upon which I map “you-ness”. This is just an example – it gets much more subtle. The mapping of form at all onto the world is a cognitive process.
Q: So you’re talking about a knowing that is prior to the act of mapping, which I assume is a reaction of the intellect.
A: Well, not really. I mean it involves imagery too. You are for me an image too. I have thoughts about you and knowledge about you. I recognize you and you are different than Peter over there. I just glance over there and the whole thing changes and there’s all sort of theory about "Peter-ness", right? And we all know cases where people are so locked into their model of “us” that they can’t see us at all. Sometimes you have to reach out and smack them before they see who you are: “Hey, I’m not like that!” or “I’ve changed!”.
But that’s bracketing at a gross level. I bracket “you-ness” from what I’m perceiving – say ‘blue-ness’: there’s blue and there’s grey and the blue and the grey are in a certain relation to each other and there’s a boundary between patches where I can see edges. There’s something about my mind that likes edges, reaches out and grabs hold of edges, and separates spatial things according to edges, and pretty soon the fact of “you” has been bracketed: “you-ness” is bracketed and accessible to my mind, but I can see that really if that were lost I wouldn’t recognize you, yet I’d still see the blue and grey, and the same relationships would be there. Then I can become aware that there is still a “sweater” there, and then I can bracket “sweater”: what is “sweater-ness”? There’s still the blue, the relation between blue and grey, the texture … soon I’ve lost “you-ness”, lost “sweater-ness”, lost “cloth-ness” …
Q: So you take away all of that stuff, and what are you left with?
A: That I can’t tell you, but I can tell you that you can experience it directly and know it, if the requisite question is present, and I can tell you that to not know it is to fall into traps. That was Husserl’s point of view and that is my point of view from personal experience.
Q: So when you’re naming different things that you can focus on, it can be a sweater or it can be ideas about me, and it can have very little to do with the presence, or it can have much more to do with the presence.
A: It can be very adaptive, of course. That’s why Husserl said that it’s unfortunate that science works so well -- it produces incandescent light and atomic bombs and stuff like that. The natural thesis is very effective because the neurological system that produces it is preadapted to develop fairly veridical models of the world, adaptively veridical models of the world, but we don’t understand why it does that, nor do we understand the limits inherent in that process.
Q: I get the impression that you’re saying that it’s possible to arrive at an ultimate knowing.
A: Well, Husserl would talk about intuitively coming to know the transcendental ego, which is to say the inherent structure of the knower. So far as I can tell by reading Husserl, there’s no notion of an ultimate essence like a Buddhist nirvana, which is actually a special kind of essence.
Q: Although I agree with you that’s certainly the direction it’s going, I take a more Merleau-Pontian stance towards that idea that has a slightly different emphasis, not essence, but existence.
A: There’s a natural progression from essence to existence, as you obviously are aware. In Western philosophy, because of a frustration over grasping the phenomenological method, the existentialist movement was premature and a cop-out and was a consequence, in part, of Husserl’s inability to clearly transmit his procedures. After all, he was basically rediscovering the wheel. There are other cultures that have been developing methods of phenomenological reduction for millennia, though it appears that Husserl was fairly unaware of the fact. He was headed in the right direction, but he never attained any ultimate, so far as I can tell. Our definition of mature contemplative does not require reaching any ultimate either, it simply requires that a certain maturation occur in the awareness.
Next chapter I will define what we mean by mature contemplation and what the contemplative will predictably come to know. I’ll describe what a science based upon mature contemplation might look like. I will advocate a return, in other words, to a less naïve introspectionism, and argue why that kind of reduction is necessary at this time in science – including anthropology.
< xml="true" ns="urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" prefix="o" namespace=""> CHAPTER THREE: Mature Contemplation
J.A. Livingston, The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation
In the last chapter I was talking about traps, and tenets designed to avoid those traps (as you may have already divined, tenets and rules are only necessary in the absence of clear seeing!) The last of those traps related to tenets I want to discuss in a separate chapter because they are a bit more involved than the other ones; a bit more difficult to talk about, and in a sense a bit more controversial in these days and times.
There is an marked inability of most western scientists to recognize the role of consciousness in their own projects. In extreme form this inability produced the logical positivist paradigm in science in which science could proceed as though it itself was non-problematic. Scientists have proceeded as though the act of observation were removed from the unfolding processes observed. With the fall of the received view of science via the attacks of philosophers of science like Thomas Kuhn (1974) and Paul Feverabend (1962, 1965), to mention but two of many, and with the paradoxes and anomalies that take on greater significance all the time coming principally out of physics – specifically quantum physics – science is having to reconsider the role of consciousness in observation. The trap, we would claim, is the failure of scientists to perform what Husserl called the phenomenological reduction. What is required is the retraining of the scientist to perceive the essential orders presented to mind in raw perception, independent of, or prior to the attribution of theoretical order or meaning to perception.
John Cove and I once carried out a little piece of research in a number of classes which we called the Levitating Monk Experiment. We gave each student the same task to complete. We told them they were to imagine they were given the unique opportunity to witness a monk levitate off the top of a Himalayan peak. The monk would do it only once, and this would be the only time the student would ever have to witness this event. We asked, “If you could do but one experiment, or ask but one question pertaining to this event, and you had every required resource at your disposal, what would it be?” We got all sorts of fascinating responses: Tie a hook to the monk’s bum and measure the foot-pounds of lift he could generate. Will a monk once in motion tend to remain in motion unless acted upon by an opposing force? If the monk were pushed laterally, would he follow the contour of the mountain, or would he drift in a plane perpendicular to the force of gravity? All sorts of interesting questions emerged. But of course our hidden agenda was to see how many questions would be asked regarding the inner experience, about the mind-state of the monk. Usually no one would ask a question about the monk’s state of mind, and occasionally as many as 10% of the class would ask such a question. This demonstrated to us the popular positivistic bias of folks, long before they have themselves ever become practicing scientists.
We would claim that modern science cries out for at least a cadre of what we have called mature contemplatives. In a variety of writings, we have begun to define what we mean by this term. Generally speaking, a mature contemplative is any individual who has trained their mind to sufficient tranquility, concentration and attention, such that they have completed stage four, but not necessarily stage twelve of the process of insight known in Buddhist psychology as the Satthipattana – which simply means the unfolding of awareness directed at the various factors of consciousness. What stage four means is that the individual has come to realize – not merely to understand, but to realize -- that nothing arising in mind is permanent, or of any concrete substance. In other words, any and all objects arising before consciousness are impermanent, including anything conceptually or imaginally coded as “me”. Relative to this realization is the reduction of what Husserl called the “empirical ego”. This is recognized as a distinct stage in the unfolding of insight and requires for its unfolding a requisite degree of calm and concentration, as well as a state of question about the nature of mind sufficient to carry one through the series of conceptual and emotional barriers, and of insights necessary to reach that realization. Very few scientists are capable of this intensity of self-awareness, and yet it entails an observational skill that is a necessary condition for resolution of the many paradoxes that seem to arise around the role of consciousness in scientific research.
It’s unrealistic to expect that most scientists can, or should, become mature contemplatives. How lovely it would be if this were possible, not only in science, but in the military, the government, the police forces -- in fact in all realms of society. But that’s an unrealistic pipe-dream at this stage of human evolution. The Buddha himself said he would teach the awakening for the benefit of those few beings “with but a little bit of dust in their eyes”. No, it is only realistic to expect: (1) that some scientists become mature contemplatives, and (2) that science itself become sensitized to the importance of the results of mature contemplation. This involves what Charles Tart (1975) called the problem of state-specific science, and anticipates a whole line of discussion we’ve carried out on the role of transpersonal exploration in anthropology, and about which I will talk in a subsequent chapter. Suffice to say that we need more scientists that will ask questions about the mind-state of the levitating monk, and a science sensitized to the importance of such questions.
In this vein I would like to suggest some of the advantages of enlisting mature contemplation in the scientific project, particularly in the anthropological enterprise. I will list some of the things a mature contemplative can or does know about themselves, about the mind and about the world of phenomenal experience. First, a mature contemplative has, by the very nature of unfolding self-awareness, come to know the real now. What most naïve introspectionists consider to be the real now is really a concatenation of three aspects: memories (Husserl’s “retention”), future expectations ("protention") and the phenomena arising and passing away at the moment (the "now moment"; see Husserl 1964). By the time one has become a mature contemplative, one has realized the "real now"; namely,what is left over in perception after memories and expectations have dropped away.
Second it’s plain to a contemplative that the world of experience is a construct of mind: in Husserl’s terms, "constituted" by mind. This in no way denies that there is an operational environment, that there is a “real world out there” of which we are an inseparable part, perhaps something on the order of David Bohm’s "implicate order".
Third, the mature contemplative knows intimately mindstates in which discursive thought and imagery have ceased. He or she knows that knowledge can arise relative to perception intuitively and without the intervention of conceptually based reason. In a word, the mature contemplative knows what consciousness is like, minus all the usual conceptual chatter, fantasy movies and emotional turmoil.
Fourth, the mature contemplative’s perception of mind has become so acute that the process by which sensations arise before the mind, contacted by attention and recognized, becomes somewhat elongated, more distinct and apprehended as a process. There is the awareness of the arising of sensation leading to contact and recognition (the rupa or forming aspect of Buddhist namarupa, or naming-forming), rather than the more naïve awareness of objects already fully constituted. It points to the realization (i.e., the direct perception and knowledge) of the way that the mind generates sensations, which may or may not have anything to do with the noumena in the operational environment within or outside the being. The mind then attends to those sensations, and then through the orientation of attention, recognizes those sensations and lays on a form, which leads to naming, which in due time leads to meaning. We don’t mean naming necessarily in a linguistic way; it doesn’t mean that a sensation arises, I orient towards it, and I say in my mind, a “Peter”, or a “room” or a “door”. Rather, the sensation arises, there’s an orientation towards the sensation in the mind, and there is a recognition laid on it. Of course, the intentional processes also go looking for sensations that “fill up” an anticipated meaning (as Husserl would say). At a more subtle level of awareness one sees that the constituting of the world is brought about by a continuous dialogue between the structures of intention and meaning (Husserl’s “noesis” and “noema” respectively) on the one hand, and sensation (Husserl’s “hyle”) on the other hand. This follows for any sensory modality whatsoever.
Q: So this sensation could come and we could call it “pain” or “pleasure” that would also be a form of the sensation.
A: And pain is an excellent example because when one practices meditation on pain, one comes to realize that what most people conceive to be pain is precisely the conception, “pain”. When the raw sensation of pain is looked at, it’s no longer painful – it just is. Or there’s pain, but no one hurting, if you will.
We’re not talking about a theoretical map that’s laid upon perception; we’re talking about a mind that’s trained itself to be sufficiently quiet and concentrated in its attention to see how it is working. It is now a trained, reflexive process rather than a naïve introspection, which is what most philosophers (and maybe this sounds like a terrible downrap on philosophers) refer to when they talk about their meditations - for example, Descartes sitting down before the fire and looking at a lump of wax. This is not a trained contemplative. This is somebody who has sort of concluded that maybe he ought to sit down and look at how his perception works. It’s quite a different thing to train yourself over years to calm out, to tranquilize the mind, so that it’s not grabbing every instant for some new object, particularly objects outside the being, and to study its own processes; if need be to slow them down and get absorbed in the real now and “spread it out” as it were to make scrutiny possible. That’s the effect of mature contemplation. And we’re not talking about obtaining a degree in mature contemplation; like there’s a moment before you walk up on stage and get your diploma and a moment afterwards when you are now a mature contemplative. It doesn’t work that way.
On the other hand, there are what are called in the East “seal” experiences, taken from the ancient Chinese imperial tradition by which law did not become law until the Emperor placed his seal on the document, and the instant the seal touched the paper, it became law. There are meditative experiences leading to mature contemplation which are like that. For example, what has been called the coincidentia oppositorum in the Christian meditative tradition in which the mind realizes that the different senses are held apart, or distinguished conceptually by the mind – I distinguish visual from auditory stimuli only conceptually (see Happold 1964: 46). There is a state of mind in which the contemplative clearly experiences and intuitively grasps that all the senses are operating on the same principle. There is just sensation, the sensations of all modalities are produced on the same fundamental principles, and there is but one totality of sensation unfolding and enfolding as a field of dots. This again is not a mapping of theory onto experience, but is direct perception and intuition of essence.
Fifth, contemplation may lead to direct perception of the fact that all sensory modalities operate on the production of a basic unit or particle, which we have call the dot. All sense modalities present the world by producing forms as spatiotemporal extensions within the field of dots. It is quite easy for the contemplative to ‘see’ the dots. One ends up watching all sense modalities – tactile, auditory, taste, etc. - but the perception has slowed way down, the chatter has long since stopped, the attention is undivided, concentrated and effortless, and equally important, an intense state of question is present: what is the nature of sensation in this mind at this moment? Very often the experiences arise while watching the visual system, because we’re heavily visual animals. And it’s often the case that the particles of experience are first seen in the visual system, but there comes a time when the mind, in a single intuitive leap, sees that all phenomenal reality of any sensory modality whatsoever, is made up of dots – concatenations of dots, heaps of dots, hunks in a total field of dots, however you want to describe them. The Hindus speak about bindu which translates “dot” or “drop” from the Sanskrit. We have traced the history of the notion of “dot” or “atom” or “monad” all the way back to the early pre-Socratic Greeks, where it is fairly apparent that they meant the same thing as we mean by dot, or the Hindus meant by bindu: that is, a particle or unit apprehended in direct perception, and not a theoretical entity as you have by the time you get to Bacon in the sixteenth century. Sometimes it is not clear to what extent atomists or monadists are talking from direct contemplative knowledge of dots, or to what extent they have vaguely intuited or logically deduced an atomic particle, based upon some more gross observations. There’s a real difference here, you see, and a crucial one. For one thing, there’s no space between dots like there is between conceptualized atoms. Dots are contiguous, yet insubstantial. This is what is meant by “plenum” void.
Sixth, to the mature contemplative it is apparent that all states of consciousness, no matter how brief are intentional. In other words, there is always an object to every moment of consciousness, even if that object is a principle, function, or aspect of the functioning of the mind itself. For example, you’re presumably paying attention to the words on this page right now. This is the object of your consciousness at the moment. But it is also possible, according to Buddhist psychology, to pay attention, not to phenomena as objects themselves, but rather to their passing away. It doesn’t take much awareness to tell that there’s changes going on every moment of consciousness, right? The words are there before the mind and then they’re gone. Every sound is here and then gone, every visual object is there and then it’s gone. With a bit more training in contemplation, one can see that though the object or form, say one of the words on this page, appears to remain fixed here over time, the dots that make it up – tiny, scintillating, almost infinitesimal particles – are appearing and disappearing all the time. They’re brief, momentary almost evanescent. There’s no substance that remains unchanged in any perception. It becomes crucial to the Buddhist path of contemplation to pay attention to the passing away of those dots, and if you do that long enough and with sustained concentration and question, all the forming stops. There are no more words on the page, there’s just passing away of dots. It’s the perception of the passing away of dots that sets the stage, under certain psychological conditions, for the arising of the experience of Nirvana, which is the aforementioned stage twelve of the process of insight. But this level of awareness is not requisite to the intermediate mature contemplation about which we speak here. There is no indication that Husserl ever attained the “clear light” experience. In fact, his procedure specifically directs attention away from the path leading to that experience.
By the time a person has gone through the training resulting in mature contemplation, they know intimately that magical process by which intuitive knowledge appears suddenly before the mind. Insights arise made from whole cloth. One also knows that the intuitive grasp of knowledge is not a rational process. By that I mean that if there is a logic to intuition, the logic is unconscious to the knower. It is as though a problem was set by the mind, entertained over a period of time, and the answer suddenly available to mind in an instant, like somebody shoving an open book at you out of the depths of a calm sea. One moment there’s the mirror surface of the ocean, and the next minute there’s a book suddenly in front of you that you know in its entirety in an instant. The mature contemplative cannot be fooled into thinking that creative knowledge derives solely from reason. One has come into direct contact with what Jung called the “intuitive function”. And very likely the contemplative has twigged to the fact that the ability to calm the mind enhances one’s access to the intuitive function. The calmer the mind, the more in touch with the depths one can become.
Seventh, the contemplative knows that attention can be moved freely and willfully within the sensorium. He or she also knows that the movement of attention within the sensorium is usually not free; it is conditionally reactive to stimuli. In other words, the state of awareness for the naïve mind is a continual leaping of attention from one object to another in a constant scanning of the sensorium for any objects of interest. And by “interest” read interest to adaptation. That’s the primordial function of attention: scanning the cognized world for any likely food or predators. That’s its basis in biology.
If one is introspective enough, one can often detect below the scanning an anxiety state motivating the continual shifting in awareness. It’s usually a low-level anxiety. But sometimes it can be a high-level anxiety, as when we know that we are very hyper, that the world is experienced as somewhat threatening, a dangerous place, needing a vigilant disposition against the anticipation of its harmful nature. But by the time a person has reached mature contemplation, they know states of mind in which there is no longer even a modicum of anxiety present in the being. There’s dead calm, and the constant scanning of the sensorium can be stopped at will, and attention can be focused effortlessly on one and only one object for any length of time desired. I’m not saying that he or she can do this all the time – maybe only for one hour, maybe only for twenty minutes – but if they can do it for twenty minutes, it’s roughly nineteen minutes and fifty-eight seconds longer than most people can do it. That makes the crucial difference, because in that twenty minutes, that individual can sit down and with sufficient question, examine the mind as it’s operating in every moment, and come to understand, by direct realization, the essential functioning of their own mind. I assure you that the mature contemplative can stop the chatter within seconds, at the most minutes, depending on what mindstates that have come before. Someone who has been at this game for a long time, under the proper circumstances, can be in samadhi in a few breaths. I’m not exaggerating or being glib here, or lying to you. This is a direct phenomenological report.
Eighth, the mature contemplative becomes increasingly aware of the unconscious processes of the mind underlying the apparent cognized environment. We’re talking about the structure or principles of mind that produce the phenomenal world – Wundt’s unbewussien Selle - the unconscious determiners of the world. Husserl was very much on about this. So was the Buddha. How can one become free without becoming aware of the conditions that produce one’s slavery?
Ninth, the mature contemplative knows how to drop point of view (Wertheimer’s “fixation”, Husserl’s “horizon” and “theory of the world”). In other words, he or she knows how to bracket. That does not mean that he or she has been raised in the Western phenomenological tradition and knows that what he or she is doing is called “bracketing”. In Buddhist psychology there’s different terms for this. But essentially what the mature contemplative learns to do is to recognize the arising of sensation, the contact of attention with sensation, naming, and attribution of meaning as separate segments of a total process which can be willfully tracked and controlled. One can attend to the arising and passing of sensation while ignoring the contact, naming and attribution of meaning, and pretty soon, because one does that, those factors fall away and there is just sustained attention to the arising and passing away of the sensations themselves.
The mature contemplative knows that bracketing changes perception. It’s an active process. As Husserl clearly knew, the process of bracketing is a developmental one and is much like stripping away the layers of an onion of view. It isn’t as though one sits down and in a moment brackets all view and comes to the essence of consciousness. The essences are relative to the bracketing. What is essential to perception now – after today’s bracketing – becomes part of what is bracketed tomorrow, and what is seen then as essence. So it’s a stripping away of layers of cognitive presumption, and it is questionable whether there is ever an end to that process. It’s questionable to me, reading Husserl, whether he ever thought there was an end to the process. And there’s nothing in Husserl’s writing that leads me to suspect that he ever realized the Void. But that doesn’t surprise me because Void Consciousness can only arise as a consequence of appropriate question. Realization of the void, Nirvana if you wish, is the lawful consequence of the examination of passing away, or death. If that question is not alive in the mind, or if some other question is alive in the mind, that experience, that intuition will not arise, because the experience of Nirvana is an intuitive grasp of what’s happening every moment anyway.
Q: If Nirvana is dependent on the right question, then each question has implicitly its outcome in the answer. So does Nirvana actually end up being a final stage or is it an absolute answer to a specific question?
A: Yes and no. Neither. And tenth, the mature contemplative knows how anticipation, expectation, structure sensorial events, structure the arising of phenomena now. When one brackets future anticipation, past memories, and allows them to drop away, one is totally absorbed in the real now. A result of that knowledge is that when the anticipatory function returns to consciousness, one sees the effect of that time-binding function on experience. You’re sitting, poised, waiting for my next words, which may never come. Your consciousness is not just tracing what’s arising and passing away now, but what’s about to occur and in a certain sense you’ve got it already predicted. If I were suddenly to get outrageously novel, it would blow your minds. The world will occasionally do that to you. Gurdjieff used to tell his students “…you know, you people step off a curb and somebody nearly runs you down, and for an instant you’re totally awake, in the now, and you curse that person instead of bowing down and thanking them for the gift of a moment of clarity …” (or words to that effect). Perhaps they didn’t give it out of compassion, only from bad driving techniques, but nonetheless it’s a gift from the world.
Eleventh, the mature contemplative knows, not only the relationship of figure to ground, or object of consciousness to totality of consciousness, they also know what it is like when the ground itself becomes the object of consciousness. They know, in other words, what consciousness of totality means. Small as a mustard seed, large as a mountain, was the dictum Jesus used which, metaphorically, may well refer to the experience which any mature contemplative has had in one way or another. There is the realization that the mind can attend a tiny particle, then examine the dot, or it can examine the entire sensorium as object. In fact, there are exercises in some traditions in which one narrows awareness down to the tiniest object one can perceive, and then suddenly expands awareness out to the most spacious possible, and back and forth from the infinitesimal to the infinite. There’s experiences that occur if one performs this exercise with sufficient intensity of awareness. There are intuitions that arise that relate the two extremes of perception. Maybe they’re not different at all.
Twelfth, the mature contemplative knows the integrating role of symbolic images in cognition. As noted earlier, it has long been thought, as evidenced by logical positivism, that the highest form of scientific knowledge takes the form of logical propositions in natural language or mathematics. With the fall of the received view and the simultaneous rise of cognitive science, there has become an increasing interest in and study of the role of imagery in knowledge. To put it in present day neurological jargon, right lobe as opposed to left lobe functioning in knowledge. The mature contemplative knows in the process of unfolding of insight that images have an integrative function in consciousness: that much of knowledge is organized around images. In the dream state, in fantasy states, as well as in creative activity in the arts, imagery plays a central role in knowing. We mean images in any sensory modality whatever, not just visual.
Thirteenth, any mature contemplative knows that there’s a lawful relationship between calmness and concentration: the more hyper the being, the less concentrated the mind; the more tranquil the being, the greater concentration of mind - and that, insofar as one increases one’s concentration, one can become calmer. This knowledge becomes crucial in evaluating Husserl’s project, because nowhere, so far as I’m able to find in his writings, did he ever realize that lawful connection; if he did it’s in some unpublished notebook somewhere, and apparently there are plenty of those.
Fourteenth, the mature contemplative may know, but not necessarily, that affect is generalized in the being, and is attributed by cognition to objects. Emotion is a generalized state in the being and becomes attributed to objects through cognition. The mature contemplative knows this because mindstates arise in which any and all of the emotions may be felt without object. One comes to see that there is a well of affect which is sitting, waiting to be assigned to an object. “You make me feel angry!” That’s ignorance. You are producing vibrations in my operational environment that when they enter this system become paired up with affect. The mature contemplative knows this because there are mindstates that automatically arise in the process of contemplation in which that information is available, if there’s any question about it. This is not to say that he or she does not get trapped by cultural conditioning into arguing with his wife or her husband! “You’re refusing to do the dishes tonight and you’re making me very angry!” But the contemplative has the stuff, if there is the will and the question available, to step back from that process and look at it and say “I’m responsible for my karma, I own my own karma, I own my own affect, and this other person has no control over my affect”.
Finally the mature contemplative will tend to appreciate a reintegration of intellect and affect. This will occur at every level from that of a melding of what he or she once distinguished as “science” and “mysticism” to a merger of reason (logos) and relatedness (physis or eros) in personal life. Environmentalist J.A. Livingston (1981) has written a scathing criticism of modern views of wildlife conservation from an understanding of the possibility of such an integration of intellect and affect:
There was a time when sensible people knew that reason and experience could not be torn asunder; together, they were “knowledge”. It is this knowledge of which I speak – the state of being that is wildlife preservation. Today, however, its two parts are conceptually polarized. We have rationality (science) and we have mysticism (non-rational experience). We have intellect as distinct from emotion. We have reason/feeling, and we have man/nature … I have complained long and widely about the intellect/emotion duality in the conservation context. Anyone with a shot glass of intelligence can follow most logical arguments, but inevitably there appears some “block” that prevents the emotional acceptance of man as a biologic being, with all that implies. We have forgotten that what makes the world go around is compliance, not logic.
< xml="true" ns="urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" prefix="st1" namespace="">Livingston (1981: 103)
It is very hard for most of us to “be with it” in the world, for we are conditioned to separate ourselves from the world via our views. Our views lock intentional awareness into worry about happenings in the past and into fantasies and plans about happenings yet to be. But the minute we begin to wake up to the way things are in the real now, we begin to have experiences that teach us we are “beings in the world”, to use existentialist jargon. We get back in touch with the eros factor, a factor that is quite naturally already there. But the route to awareness of this factor is inevitably via awareness of the body. And that’s the rub you see, for to awaken to the body is to awaken to the dissonance created in ego-consciousness by the fact of the being’s creatureliness – its impermanence and its death and all the attendant negative feelings associated with all that. As Becker (1973) tried to show, the urge to deny the fact of our creatureliness, and thus the inevitability of our death, underlies the more naïve institutional religions on the planet.
Virtually by definition, the mature contemplative has transcended this basic ignorance and split in consciousness, for he or she has seen clearly that no distinction is given in essential perception. Rather, what is realized is the totality of being. The totality is alive and is in flux. When people realize the nature of this totality they:
…recognize it as something in nature that awakens in humans a sense of wonder or produces a momentary thrill. It lies at the root of all transcendent experience, which is not the prerogative of Oriental cults, but is such a basic part of human life everywhere that it must be considered a biological phenomenon.
This phenomenon is what makes it possible for us to see things as holy. We set them aside as “wholly” other, while recognizing, if only for a fleeting instant, that we are an essential part of this big thing, that it somehow depends on us for its wholeness, or holiness.
Watson (1972: 88)
Along with the realization of totality may (not necessarily) come the realization of its impermanence and the inevitability of death. Unless the contemplative has realized Void Consciousness, he or she will have only intuitions about the real nature of the experience of death, not yet the realization of death and thus rebirth consciousness. This too relates to the question of freedom, but is beyond the scope of these discourses. What is germane to our discussion is that the mature contemplative experiences (not merely reasons about) the singular, monadic nature of the world, the totality of being, and the inextricable connectedness of being and world. Duality of view along this line is thus anathema to the mature contemplative, not merely because such a view contradicts his or her own, but rather because it contravenes his or her own direct experience of existence, and is thus empirically false. And this experience of totality is the seed of true compassion of a sort Livingston sees lacking in conservation policies today. To fully experience the totality of being produces the knowledge that to damage the world is to damage self. The number of human beings capable of this kind of compassion are but a tiny fraction of those dwelling on the planet today. This fact alone can produce the kind of sadness that will bring you to your knees.
AN EPISTEMOLOGICAL CATCH-22
We have been speaking here of the potential of the human mind to become free of the constraints of socially imposed views of self and world, a process of enculturation that every human being in every culture on the planet undergoes. A seeming irony, don’t you think? Yet it is quite a natural process, as Husserl implies when he calls this conditioned view the “natural attitude”. My claim is that it is just as natural to grow out of our dependence upon that conditioning, just as natural to turn the processes of mind that produce the conditioning in the first place to the task of freeing-up the mind from that conditioning. Culture, after all, is but the cognitive imperative socially satisfied. The freeing-up, the performance of the reduction, is a step or steps beyond cultural view.
There would appear however, to be an epistemological catch-22 inherent in the freeing-up that results in a mature contemplative. That is, in a very real sense one cannot know without experiencing, so why seek the experience to begin with? Once the conservative cycle of redundancy of knowledge and experience sets in – that is, the cycle by which knowledge anticipates and canalizes experience, and experience is interpreted so as to confirm knowledge – it is a devilishly hard thing for most folks to get the system off-kilter enough to experience self and world in a new way. Their comfy certitude has to be blocked, contravened, disconfirmed in some way. In many societies, such as among some West African groups, young people are whisked away into the bush where they undergo the privations and ordeals and indoctrinations of “bush schools” in order to bring about radical transformations in personality requisite for adulthood. This has been the pattern in many mystery schools as well. The cognitive imperative has to be dis-satisfied in order for a radical realignment of experience and knowledge to occur.
But this catch-22 is only apparent. It isn’t real. For the fact is that although our experience in some domain may be limited, we can intuit the need to explore that domain in order to grow or to get something we want. We don’t have to experience what it is like to be a competent skier before we are motivated to learn to ski. There is something inside us that knows we would like to be able to do that: to ski, play the piano, drive a motorcycle to Mexico, or what have you. And so we explore. It is the same with the reduction. Something triggers the intuition that there is more to learn about me and the world than I am able to know from my present stance.
Perhaps I meet someone whose knowledge I find awesome - so far beyond mine that they appear to me to be very wise. And there’s an intuition that I too can attain such wisdom. Perhaps I go to them and ask “How can I too become wise?” And maybe they answer “You can’t become wise, but wisdom can arise and mature in your being”. And we’re off-and-running on a new exploration. Or maybe I am in a state of abject suffering and recognize at some level that this other being is hale and hardy and I throw myself at their feet and say “HELP!” However it happens, the student projects teacher onto the other and, presuming the projection is appropriate, this can lead to some kind of guided exploration. This is the classic guru-chela transference.
The intuition leading to exploration and growth may be fairly limited and proximal to where you currently are cognitively. The intuition that leads you ultimately to mature contemplation and perhaps even to the transcendental experience may at first be about healing, or coming up with better theories – proximal intuitions that are rationalizable within the bounds of ego-consciousness. Gurus often build proximal “carrots” into a course of exploration, the ultimate goal of which is beyond the chela’s present ego-bound comprehension. So you’re stressed out? Unhappy? Have the feeling you’re living life in the fast lane and at a shallow depth? So sit down and do this and do that and you will feel calmer, less stressed, more alive, clearer. From the view of the transcendental, calming a stressed-out body is a carrot, albeit a requisite one to ultimate realization of the reduction and the transcendental experience.
In the same sense, anthropology, and particularly ethnography, can be a course of carrots leading under the right conditions to a “broader perspective” on human conditioning. Doing ethnography can set the state for experiences that to whatever extent free the ethnographer from concrete cultural constraints. We anthropologists have known for generations that the fieldwork experience is a rite of passage. There’s the implicit awareness that before fieldwork there is something that the aspiring anthropologist cannot know, and that comes to be known during and after the ethnographic encounter. This is why ethnology is forever on the periphery of the social sciences and other disciplines, when, from the ethnologist’s point of view, it ought to be placed right at center stage. You’re a psychologist and you want to organize a conference on child-abuse, so you invite one token anthropologist (it used to always be Margaret Mead) to give the “broader perspective” that seems to be at the same time both provocative and out in left field somewhere. If you want a current example, take a look at Howard Gardner’s (1985) recent book The Mind’s New Science. Gardner traces the history of the “new” cognitive science, and in the process touches on anthropology and neuroscience, both of which he considers peripheral in importance. You see, even as astute a scientist as Gardner cannot know the ethnographic experience, for the simple reason that he’s a psychologist and has never done ethnography.
But you might say it’s all well and good to advocate mature contemplation and phenomenological reductions, but just how does one go about becoming a mature contemplative – assuming one wants to make the effort? The answer Husserl gives seems quite simple and straightforward. Just perform the reduction! Yet, if the reduction were all that simple to realize, more of his own students would have done so, and all the disciplines would be chockablock with mature contemplatives. This is clearly not the case - am I right? Well, after developing some other material, we will return to the question of how to become a mature contemplative and make sense of meditation in terms of biogenetic structural theory.
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Chapter Four: The Biogenetic Structural Project
It is true that a discipline whose main, of not sole, aim is to analyze and interpret differences evades all problems when it takes into account only similarities. But at the same time it thus loses the means of distinguishing between the general truths to which it aspires and the trivialities with which it must be satisfied.
Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology
In this chapter, I will try to reflect upon the central concepts that have proved useful to us in working out the structures of experience. Some of these are to be found in Biogenetic Structuralism; others have been subsequently added.
As I’ve said to you in a number of ways, biogenetic structuralism presumes that mind is a function of brain. We presume that for every mental event there is a corresponding neurophysiological event. This does not mean that that for every neurophysiological event there also occurs a mental event. So the occurrence of a mental event is a necessary and sufficient condition for presuming a neurophysiological event, but a neurophysiological event is only a necessary, but not sufficient condition for presuming a mental event. This monadistic logic is fundamental to biogenetic structuralism, and I for one, have experienced nothing over the course of these years that would contravene that logic. I’ve certainly experienced a lot that would argue against entertaining a mind/brain dualism, in any way shape or form. In fact I believe entertaining such a dualism is simply an intellectual cop-out to the real project, which is developing a theory of human nature that is global enough to incorporate mind, body, and the interaction of those with the external operational environment.
COMMUNITY OF CELLS AND CREODES
We conceive of a body as a community of cells. By implication the nervous system is a community of cells within a community of cells. Technically the nervous system is located throughout the body and the brain is only in the head. When people talk about the brain in the literature these days, what they’re usually talking about is the nervous system. But it’s O.K. if we use that term “brain” loosely, as long as we keep the distinction in mind, thank you very much.
Q: So you’re not equating the brain with the body.
A: No. But the distinction between brain and total nervous system is a crucial one. This is because it’s hard, if you’re not trained in the neurosciences, to understand how you can keep a total perspective on mind and brain when you can put your mind in your toe, but your brain remains in your head. But if you understand that the nervous system is so prevalent in the body, that if all the tissue in your body were to disappear, except for nerve tissue, for that brief instant before you collapse in a puddle of moist, grey yuck, you could see your entire body. Your entire bodily form would still be there, except of course for your tooth enamel, your fingernails, and your hair. I defy you to put your consciousness in your hair follicles or your fingernail. You might imagine yourself in your fingernail, but that’s not quite the same thing. Your fingernail can’t feel any pain for the simple reason that there’s no pain receptors in there. You can squeeze your hair in a vice and it won’t hurt a bit. The only receptors at all in the pith of your tooth are pain receptors. That’s why it’s particularly interesting to pain researchers – because you can isolate all the other types of sensation from pain sensation, being that that’s all the tooth can feel. So it’s hard to put your bliss consciousness into your tooth, if you understand what I mean.
As I’ve emphasized, the body is a community of cells. The nervous system literally pervades the entire body, as a social network within the community. The nervous system is, then, itself a community of cells – which is, by the way, an important consideration that is significantly absent from Merleau-Ponty’s (1962) phenomenology of the body. The structure of mind involves a set of fluid, but usually recurring organizations of neural cells that link up in complex arrays and mediate discrete functions. The technical term for this linking up is “entrainment”, which means pretty much what it appears to mean: the putting together of networks of neural cells like putting cars together to make up a train. You can take the same stock of cars and make up all kinds of different trains to serve different purposes. You can have a train made up of coal cars, cattle cars, container cars, and so on, depending on the function you wish to perform.
The entrainment involved in mediating a moment of consciousness can involve networks of cells over a wide expanse of the nervous system. Because discrete networks of neural cells are formed to cognize events in the operational environment, we have termed such networks “models”. In any given moment of consciousness, many thousands of models will be active producing perceptual events, and cognitions and actions relative to those events. Models are not just replicas of the operational environment, but rather are of an organization isomorphic to some extent with the world (see Laughlin, McManus and d’Aquili in d’Aquili et al. 1979, Chapter 1). Furthermore, any model in the nervous system has an initial organization which is largely determined genetically. Mark this well, for it is a crucial ingredient of biogenetic structural theory: there is probably no model developed in the nervous system that does not begin as, and grow out of an initial, mainly genetically predisposed organization. This initial form, or seed organization, we have called “neurognostic” organization, or simply “neurognosis”. Thus, we often refer to “neurognostic models”.
But be careful now! I have just been describing the spatial aspect of neurognosis. This can lead one into the mistaken notion that models are static microchips or “structures” or some such. Models are cells, and are alive. They change and grow. Yet they change and grow within the constraints imposed by genetic and environmental factors. The genetic factors inherently limiting the growth of neural models through time are also neurognosis. Hence, we conceive of neurognosis itself as an often lengthy, complex, spatiotemporal process of development, most of which manifests during pre- and perinatal life. The growth of models in their initial phases, as with other developmental process in the body, involves more genetically determined activity than an active adaptation to an environment.
There’s probably no such thing as development that does not involve some environmental feedback. Some structuralist views tend towards solipcism, as though there were not a real world out there to adapt to, and that adapts to the organism. Solipcism is not necessary to a neurological structuralism. Development in the womb may have something to do with available nutriments via the placenta, with the stress level in the parents, with ambient noise in the environment outside the mother, or with the attitudes of the mother – a lot of this is coming to light in the field of pre-and perinatal psychology today. Yet, what makes placental mammal development in the womb an adaptive advantage is that it is a fairly protected environment which allows an extended period of largely genetically predisposed development to occur before neurological models have to be tested in post-uterine environments. Uterine development allows for a much more complex organization to be in place before independent adaptation takes over. So neurognosis implies an initial genetical organization plus development, leading to models which further develop through what we call the “empirical modification cycle” or EMC. The EMC is essentially a feed-forward, or anticipation theory of adaptation, much like Miller, Galanter, and Pribram’s (1960) tote system.
I might mention here another of those tacky little dualities that obscure western thinking: historicity vs. ahistoricity. Are current human affairs (be they psychological, culturological, political or otherwise) to be accounted for by reference to a temporal series of historical events, or is history but an interpretation we culturally lay on essentially ahistorical processes that reflect something on the order of Platonic Ideas or archetypes? A pure culturologist would argue that human beings have transcended the constraints of genetics and are conditioned primarily by historical changes in socially shared views and behaviours. A semiotic structuralist, on the other hand, might argue that cultural material is illusory variance that is really transformations on universal structures that are the same for all humans everywhere; there is no such thin as history. Obviously biogenetic structuralism is in neither camp. Yes, there are universal structures mediating view and behaviour, but they are biological and they develop in dialogue with environment. We embrace neither historicism nor ahistoricism to the exclusion of the other. Or to give it a Zen twist, the truth is neither history nor non-history.
THE COGNIZED ENVIRONMENT
Q2: Does the world contain a whole series of models that we evolve into?
A: By models we specifically refer to the organization of neural cells mediating the functions of mind: perception, recognition, meaning associated with percepts, cognitions of various sorts, feelings, literally any recognition factor of stimuli in the world, any point of view, anything that one knows. Limits to what one can know are also neurognostic. In Husserlian terms, neurognostic models mediate all objects, neomatic “meanings” and noetic cognitive acts. Everything that arises in consciousness has a neurognostic base. We’ve developed a whole discussion of neurognosis around models as creodes (see Waddington 1957). Models canalize cognition and there are degrees of freedom of, as well as limits to canalization. Ultimately Homo sapiens’ brain is stupid compared to that of the future Homo gestalt, and we’re really smart compared to our ancestral form, Homo erectus.
Q: The world doesn’t change but we do.
A: In our conception both the world changes and we change. We’re beings in the world; we are part of the operational environment, a microcosm of the macrocosm.
Q: As we change the ecology changes, as we grow more complex, perhaps so too does the ecology?
A: Or another view is that the operational environment is far more complex than we can ever completely comprehend, including our own operational beings. This is why Husserl termed the operational environment “transcendental”, and why he always emphasized that we always perceive any object from a “horizon” (read “point of view”).
Q: And the world can’t help but change if we change?
A: Well, which world is changing? The cognized world or the operational one?
A: To save ourselves from a simple dualism (it’s not always easy), the cognized environment – that is to say, the sum total of models in a particular human brain – which produces the world of experience, is itself part of the operational environment, and is constrained by its laws. There’s the radical view that the environment has to become “fit” before a particular animal form will emerge. Our view is even more radical: my being and my environment are one and the same. Both are in flux and dynamically interactive including that part of my being involved in modeling my being and the world. All are part of the same unfolding process.
So this is our way of getting back to the ancient Greek notion of the logos and extending that to any cognization at all, any knowledge whatsoever, not just to reason or rationality. The cognized environment is the reflecting self, the world turned back upon itself. It is the world modelling itself and itself as environment to itself. And both are changing. Obviously it’s the operational being that is evolving and developing in ontogenesis, and development is going to influence the constraints upon the complexity and nature of cognitive processes, the processes of self-reflection, leading to the possibility of more complex or different cognized environments. It’s the snake eating its own tail again. It’s not uroboric necessarily, but it’s eating its own tail with awareness. Perhaps with a dash of tobasco …
The sine qua non of consciousness in both western and eastern phenomenological traditions is intentionality: the fundamental realization that consciousness is always “of something”. Intentionality, the subject-object polarity that is so apparent to direct awareness, was originally noted in western philosophical tradition by Franz Brentano (1838-1917) in his Psychologie von empirischen Standpunkt. Of course, the understanding that consciousness is essentially intentional dates much further back in eastern phenomenological traditions. Combining eastern and western notions of intentionality, we may conceive of each moment of consciousness as being the activation, arising and meeting of two fundamental processes, one involving the production of the object and the other the production of the subject, and knowledge associated with each. A significant feature of intentionality is that it normally produces a total (“gestalt”) field of experience. The everyday world of experience (Husserl’s “natural world”) tends to remain “stuck together” within the sphere of consciousness, and is observed from the point of view of an ego, a “me” for whom the world arises. But, as we have seen the “pure” ego is not the illusory psychological ego that falls away for the mature contemplative. I’m speaking here of a “watcher”, not a cluster of response-loops misunderstood in ignorance as “me”. There is no little homunculus sitting inside the brain somewhere watching the movie, and all attempts in neuropsychology to find such a wee ego have naturally failed.
We have proposed a neurognostic model of intentionality that is consonant with accounts of intentionality by mature contemplatives, and one that avoids the traps set by ego-centered psychologies. My claim here is that the intentional quality of experience is mediated by a neurognostic structure that is universal cross-culturally and operating within every normal human brain. I suggest that there exists a fundamental dialectical relation (called the prefrontosensorial polarity principle: see Laughlin 1987) between prefrontal and sensorial cortices, a relation that among other things mediates both intentional processes in consciousness and the sense of subject-object distinction in experience. Let me briefly characterize both sensorium and prefrontal cortex and their interrelations:
Development is evolution; there are only beings developing. To a certain extent the neurognostic constraints on cognition are part and parcel to the limits and range of adaptations of which the species is capable. And this involves experience, for by implication, the only experience that arises for the mind of a critter, occurs within the sensorium of the critter’s nervous system. The sensorium may involve other cells than nerve cells, but let’s keep it as simple as possible and assume that we’re talking about a wholly neurological sensorium, ignoring the muscles that move the eye and that tamp down the ear drum, and so on. As I have said there is no experience apart from the sensorium. If there is a phenomenal experience, there is a sensorial event that mediates it.
Q: You’re saving there is no purely mental event?
A: Yes. And experience resides nowhere else than in the sensorium. Again, I would argue this is not reductionism because no physiological explanation of the sensorium is sufficient to account for all experience. Rather, any account of experience must account for both the sensorium and other aspects, like stimuli coming in from the world, the relationship of quantum events in the operational environment, and phenomenological events occurring within consciousness, or why sensorial events can go on without consciousness happening. Mind is the brain experiencing itself from the inside out. Brain is the mind examining its own structure from the outside in. These are two points of view which must be combined in a total perspective. Our position is antithetical to reductionism, but repeatedly we’ve been criticized for being reductionists. What this charge seems to mean is that anyone who talks about brain is a reductionist, or anyone who tries to include any physiological explanation for social or psychological facts is a reductionist – a sort of knee-jerk Durkheimian reaction to any physiological perspective. That’s just ignorance of what we’ve attempted to do, ignorance of the biogenetic structural project.
Now I’ve claimed that a mature contemplative knows that all phenomenal events are made up of dots. Part of what we’ve tried to figure out is what is the neurological unit that mediates the dot. And that ain’t easy, because we know that it isn’t the single cell. We know furthermore, it’s not a retinal cell. When we’re aware of dots it isn’t that we’re reaching out and are aware of individual cells in the retina firing. Visual dots are not that simple. Visual experiences are not that simple; in fact it’s highly likely that most of consciousness of vision is awareness of the primary and secondary association areas in cortex in the occipital lobe of the brain. A better guess is the unit known as the column in cortical organization. It may be that one dot is mediated by one column, say in the visual system. But one column may involve ten thousand or more cells. This may have something to do with adding colour to form, because even a dot has form, and may have colour over and above just white or black. Mind you one of the things you become aware of is that even black is made up of dots. If you’re in a very dark room and you open your eyes wide and there’s not a stick of light anywhere, the black you see is being actively produced in the nervous system out of dots; black dots. Our notion of dot is very close to Whitehead’s (1978) actual entities, and as you may know, he talked of perceptual objects being concrescences of actual entities. He appeared to be getting at what we’re trying to get at with the notion of dots, and to my reading of Whitehead he was a profound contemplative. Much of my work stems from an early reading of Whitehead’s Process and Reality, and other works. In a sense, Whitehead was my first guru.
I have to go into more detail on the prefrontal structures, for they are the ones we know least about. The cortical areas most implicated in intentional functions are the dorsolateral and orbital frontal cortex (see Laughlin 1986 for all proper references). Lateral prefrontal cortex is phylogenetically the most recent cortical area and has exhibited allometrically greater development than most other areas in hominid evolution. It is also the last area of cortex to myelinate. It is richly and topologically interconnected with the mediodorsal nucleus of the thalamus, the parvocellular portions of which are phylogenetically the most recent thalamic area to develop, and the one that earlier in evolution was the highest association area in the brain. Prefrontal cortex also directly projects to and receives afference from cingulate and other limbic structures (see Fuster 1980 and Stuss and Benson 1986 for the best reviews on prefrontal functions).
The prefrontal cortex is profusely interconnected with modal and multimodal sensory association cortex and seems to function in part as a supramodal control center. These interconnections are primarily via corticocortical fibers running along the main tracts that connect the various areas of cortex. It is significant that prefrontal cortex receives less input from primary sensory and motor areas, and more from “secondary” and “tertiary” association areas. Prefrontal areas in each hemisphere are directly interconnected by reciprocal fibers that run across the corpus callosum. In short, prefrontal cortex is involved in a three-way dialogue with other parts of the nervous system via projective fibers to subcortical structures involved in arousal, orientation, and affect, via associative fibers to other cortical areas involved in sensory, as well as motor, language, imaginal, and cognitive functions, and via callosal fibres with prefrontal cortex in the other hemisphere.
Our principle concern here is with the corticocortical connections between prefrontal and sensorial areas. Our best view at the moment has sensory information entering cortex at the primary association areas, then to adjacent “secondary” and “tertiary” association areas in the parietal (somatic) occipital (visual) and temporal (auditory) regions, all rather posterior relative to prefrontal cortex. Each sensory area sends information not only to the next association areas(s), but also simultaneously to (and receives integrative commands from) prefrontal cortex. Three major pathways from somatic, auditory and visual systems converge on contiguous, but discrete areas of prefrontal cortex. Thus part of the function of the prefrontal lobe is as a multimodal association area, most likely concerned with “egocentric spatial orientation” towards, and integration of information about discrete events in sensorial space – sensorial space itself being constituted in part by, and motor activity within sensorial space being integrated in part by, association networks in posterior parietal cortex.
The functional picture of the prefrontal lobes is still far from clear, but there are suggestive results from various quarters in the literature. The most direct evidence is from the effects of frontal lobe damage on human beings. The hallmark of prefrontal syndrome in humans is the occurrence of abnormal attention-related deficits. Many symptoms are commensurate with the loss of sufficient interest in problem solving or objects. Recent memory deficit and loss of ability to concentrate are characteristic features of this syndrome, as are abilities to plan, to carry out complex perceptual and conceptual tasks, to carry out a lengthy sequence of behaviour, along with its origin or goal, to supramodally integrate auditory, visual,
somaesthetic and spatial information, and to anticipate novelty. Prefrontal patients also exhibit flatness of affect and apathy, with but occasional euphoria. There seems to be a “profound indifference” to events in the environment (Fuster 1980: 121). The patient shows a “deficiency of an active, intentive element of cognitive function that is essential for pursuing prospective goals” (ibid: 114); there is a loss of will and a notable perseverance despite evidence of error (ibid: 120). Patients cannot alter patterns of response once established, and are usually incapable of accomplishing more complex, especially asymmetrical activities. Cognitive disorders of this type are more common as a consequence of lesions of the dorsolateral cortex than with lesions of other areas of the prefrontal lobe (Fuster 1980: 117).
Some electroencephalographic research on the human prefrontal lobe is relevant to our exploration. EEG theta waves produced by prefrontal cortex have been shown to be associated with sustained attention in a number of studies. A correlation has been shown between amount of theta and degree of concentration required relative to memorization, retention and recall of materials, intensity of theta increasing in the presence of distractions. Frontal midline theta activity is notable during arithmetical problem solving and frontal theta is often intense among Zen practitioners during meditation. Only advanced masters showed theta blocking response to a distracting “click” sound, theta waves being intermittent during distraction in less accomplished meditators.
Related and interesting measures of blood flow in various areas of the human cortex have been made while the attention of subjects was directed to a specific sensory mode and away from alternative modes. Subjects were asked to attend to either auditory, visual or somaesthetic stimuli while stimuli in all three modes were simultaneously presented. Patterns of metabolic activity demonstrated significant enhancement of the appropriate attended mode, and inhibition of the unattended modes. A mechanism of “differential tuning” has been suggested involving control of attention by the superomesial area of the prefrontal cortex, an area discovered to be active in all three modes of attention.
The Prefrontosensorial Polarity Principle
We contend that the role of the prefrontal cortex is not merely one of implementing “executive” programs when events in the environment are too complex for lower order networks (see Stuss and Benson 1986: 230ff for a review of frontal lobe function theories), but is one involved in the mediation of the Husserlian “pure” ego in its relations with the phenomenal world as constituted by sensorial structures. This mediation may well involve entrainment and implementation of problem-solving functions in frontal and other cortical areas, but they are neither primary nor necessary for intentionality. The evidence for this primacy of intentionality is again phenomenological, for, as any mature contemplative knows, intense concentration can be directed at an object in the total absence of problem-solving orientation, conceptualization or imagination. There may well be awareness of self, but no self-concept or self-image within the awareness. What is present to awareness is the “pure” ego attending the object. I cannot emphasize too often that by “ego” here I’m not referring to self-concepts or self-images – cognitions mediated elsewhere in cortex – but rather to the subjective “standpoint” in the awareness of subject-object duality. In a Husserlian sense, awareness of “my” body image, thoughts about “myself”, identification of “myself” with objects and events, are all cognitions that are themselves potential objects for the “pure” ego as subject.
The fundamental intentional functions mediated by pre-frontal cortex include: (1) the anticipation of, selection of, orientation towards, concentration upon, and cognitive operations upon the phenomenal object abstracted from its sensorial context; (2) inhibition of irrelevant sensorial objects and events, as well as affective and other neural activities competitive with the object of the intentional process; and (3) the establishment of a point of view relative to sensorial
events, and under certain conditions of a cognized distinction between self and other, or subject and object.
We may further suggest that the sense of distinction between self and other, or subject and object may be lost under two sets of conditions. It may be lost when prefrontal involvement in neural entrainment drops below a threshold of intensity so that its intentional functions are laying relatively dormant (we will call this hypointentionality: experienced as lack of interest, scattered attention, relatively unaware, “dulled out”, termed thina-middha in Buddhist psychology) and at the other extreme when intensity of concentration of intentional processes increases above a threshold (hyperintentionality: experienced as absorption in the object of interest, termed jhana or samadhi in Buddhist psychology). Intentionality, taken in the usual sense of an awareness of subject-object duality, will characterize experience occurring between the extremes of hypo- and hyperintentionality.
RELEGATION AND REVELATION
As the term neurognosis implies, the structure of the nervous system, which at first is largely determined genetically, is knowledge. In other words the prenatal organization of the nervous system and networks comprising the nervous system are already partially isomorphic with regularities present in events in the world, and in big-brained creatures, much of the development involves the growth and reorganization (via the EMC) of those initial networks. And this claim includes the sensorium and its constituent networks. Many of these networks are involved in imposing invariant features upon sensorial events: colour, form, and apparent motion, affective evaluation, object ground relations, attention, selective arousal, temporal duration of objects, etc. As we’ve said, our contention is that the world of experience, what is sometimes in phenomenology called the lifeworld arises within the sensorium and nowhere else. This means that the Husserlian essences of perception and Jungian archetypes and any other perceptual universals are due to the neurognostic processes common to all human brains.
The organization of the nervous system, including the sensorium seems to be a functional hierarchy. What we commonly call consciousness, or that part of cognition that occurs at the highest level in which attention and intention are major ingredients, seems to function developmentally as supervisor over the development of subordinate networks. There is a principle operating that we have called “relegation” by which that superordinate consciousness, mediated by what we call the “conscious network”, relegates to a lower functional level any and all tasks that no longer require supervision, leaving itself free for dealing with problem-solving that only it can carry out. We experience this any time we take up a new task in which there is a great deal of conscious work on rudiments, like hand movements in playing a piano, or learning how to tie a shoelace or necktie. There inevitably comes a time when we lose awareness of that process, it just becomes sort of programmed in. In the cases I’ve mentioned we’re talking primarily about programming the cerebellar cortex which is in charge of fine motor movements.
It is through the process of relegation in development that, after Colin Wilson’s (1972) term, the “robot” is built. We construct our own automation that is very good at doing rudimentary things, particularly bodily functions. We can eat whole meals and never consciously taste them; we can skate on the canal from one end to the other, working out a computer program, and never pay that much attention to the ice.
We have also talked about the reverse process to relegation. Any network in the nervous system is theoretically entrainable to conscious network, though most in actual practice are not. Most networks in the nervous system operate, to a certain degree, autonomously. But we’re hypothesizing that there’s no network in the nervous system that is not potentially re-entrainable to conscious network, and hence may become conscious. That process, to use David Bohm’s (1980) term, “relevates” networks to consciousness. Relevation means lifting something previously not in awareness to awareness.
Q: I’ve learned that the conscious mind can only handle seven, plus or minus two chunks at a time.
A: That comes out of work by George Miller, and there’s a great deal of evidence for that. But that doesn’t mean that one cannot learn to handle more, and that’s also a non-developmental statement he made. He’s talking about most people; he’s not talking about somebody who is operating at the level of systems thought or metaprocessing.
Q: Could the seven-plus-or-minus chunks still be there, only the types of chunks you’re dealing with change, so that you’re dealing with seven-plus-or-minus metachunks?
A: Sure. That’s entailed in formal operations in Piaget’s sense. You’re operating no longer on just the proposition, but propositions about propositions, and so on. Miller’s notion is that if you add more than that number, you’re losing some information somewhere else. It may still be going on, but it’s being relegated. We quote Michael Scriven in Biogenetic Structuralism, a philosopher who developed what he called the “comprehension theorem”. He says the human brain, being a finite information storage, processing and retrieval system located in an infinitely rich information environment, must choose to operate on this point of view in order to adapt. The human brain must theorize, or model, in order for it to adapt.
Q: Just because consciousness is restricted to, say, seven-plus-or-minus-two chunks, doesn’t mean you have to use all seven. I mean there can be an absence of chunks as well.
A: Yes, but what we’re talking about here is a rational process. When the rational processing is dropped, experience continues to unfold in the sensorium, but in a streaming sort of way. There is no conceptual chunking, and there is a state Csikskentmihalyi (1975) calls “flow”. What he notes is that there are tasks or situations that the human being will get into – say, motocross racing, grand prix racing, contact dancing, t’ai chi, Sufi dancing, what have you – in which, if one is not able to drop the rational faculty, the experience of broadening of consciousness and non-clinging bare awareness does not arise. And the minute you try to reason about it, it blows that flowing state of consciousness - you fall flat on your ass in Sufi dancing, or you no longer contact another in dance.
Q: My understanding is that flow is achieved when the desire to chunk is reversed; then there’s no neural blocks to flow and instead, it’s almost like you allow what is to be, yourself to be.
A: Yes. But what the is is that you are aware of, even in the absence of chunking, is still in the sensorium, still neurological.
EDGES AND NON-CLINGING AWARENESS
Q: But we’re repressing it, or ignoring it?
A: Or maybe extremely aware of it. It’s the common experience of mature contemplatives, once non-clinging awareness is mastered, for more and more previously unconscious material to become conscious and flow through the sensorium at ever increasing rates and intensities, until the mind is processing, in this passive bare attention, hundreds, maybe thousands of times as much material as it ever was able to do exercising rational thought. And all of this follows from the presumption that consciousness is intentional. This is extreme intentionality. Not only is there an object to consciousness, we’ve got to make decisions about it, put together a particular set of meanings about it, we’ve got to maybe take an action in relation to it. That is the functional value of that particular, natural entrainment of the mind. What some of us have to relearn is dropping that kind of entrainment. You can see non-clinging awareness in animals. They’ll be totally concentrated in getting their dinner, have their dinner and then they just go off and lay down in the bush. They’re not belaboured by guilt about relaxation, for one thing. I suppose you could teach a cat to be neurotic, but who’d bother. They don’t have to spend eight hours a day processing forms in bureaucracy.
Q: Are chunking and non-clinging awareness both neurological functions?
A: Well, they call upon different functions available within the potential repertoire of neurocognition, part of which is very rudimentary. Chunking involves finding the spatiotemporal edges of things and imposing edges on things. We’ve known for a long time in the neurosciences that there’s something very special about edges: there are sensory association cells that just fire on edges. In one sense they seek out and find edges. That’s one of the neurognostic features of perception. Now, we can choose at a higher level of organization not to pay attention to edges, and all sorts of interesting things happen. But when you watch your ordinary, natural mind work, it’s finding edges all the time, at the very most rudimentary level of phenomenological essence; it’s distinguishing “table” from “rug”, “you” from “non-you”, “blackboard” from “wall”, etc. There’s thousands of edges in this room that the mind is tracking every moment. And it’s from edges and other essences, particularly dots, that things are created. That is part of the neurological model, and is isomorphic with events in the operational environment, though the operational environment is not the same or as simplistic as the mind-model, in the cognized environment.
QUANTA AND DOTS
That said, let’s look a bit more at the essential features of perception, because this is some of the work we’re doing right now involving the physics of perception. The best models we have in science for what is “out there”, apart from our own observation, is derived from modern physics. We work on the notion of a world out there that is full of energy, that is some kind of totality, that is in continuous flow, never staying the same that is only describable as yet in mathematical wave functions. At its tiniest, distinguishable level of process the operational environment is comprised of quanta. A quantum event is predictable only in probability terms, given certain conditions, but those conditions have to include the act of measurement. The minute you remove the measurement or the observer you have Schrodinger’s cat, right? Basically, we have a world “out there” (including our operational beings), that does not match our cognized environment very closely at all.
We kind of avoid talking about Kant’s numenal world; it’s unproductive. In fact the question itself leads to these dichotomies, like there’s a world out there that is known and unknowable. The fact that we ask questions obviously involves an observer.
Q: It separates the world from the observer, when in fact the world is the observer, and the observer is the world.
A: Exactly. So let us assume we know what the world out there is really like – we don’t, of course, but let’s assume we do. Let’s assume there are quantum events. What is the relationship between quantum events and the smallest unit of perceivable phenomenology, the dot? That becomes interesting because as we’ve seen, there’s a literature on particles going all the way back to Greek thought: atoms, monads, etc. There’s prana and bindus and so on in the Hindu tradition going back three or four thousand years, if not longer. Also in psychology there’s a sizable literature in what’s called threshold research: researchers interested in the smallest stimulus that will produce a reportable phenomenological effect on subjects. It’s that kind of research that is particularly interesting because the technology is so refined. There are machines that will allow you to project a given number of quanta of energy into the eye, through the cornea and onto the retina. We can measure the number of quantum events required before the subject, who’s been calmed out and kept in total darkness for three hours before the research starts, reports any phenomenon. One has to project something like seventy-five to one hundred and fifty quanta onto the peripheral (scotopic) retina before one can get the tiniest spark of light that is reportable. The subject says, “Oh yes, I saw a dot”.
Q: But this doesn’t involve processing below the conscious threshold.
A: Yes. The research on that is sparse. Realize that we’re talking mainly about the visual system here. Work has also been done on the auditory system as well. That system is a complex one in which information is processed at multiple levels. We’re generally only aware of what’s happening in the cortex. In our normal vision, we’re talking hundreds, even thousands of quanta necessary to produce a single dot, assuming a dot is the most finite phenomenological unit. The sensory world is already an abstraction at the level of the retina. I’ve been glossing over some processes that are fundamental to vision. The retina is a very complex neurological system. It is a part of the central nervous system, not peripheral to it like the senses of touch or hearing. It’s part of the brain thrust out in front in the face. There are ganglion neurons that are making decisions at a very low level in the retina, deciding what information is going to go on and what information isn’t. Just because you have made a rod fire does not mean you’re going to be consciously aware of it; in fact one isn’t, unless decisions all the way up the chain of processing have been made in favour of you’re your conscious network, perceiving this tiny, finite event called the dot. This is an extremely important understanding. The whole system is designed to abstract relevant features from the patterns of stimulation by the operational environment and this abstracting begins out on the periphery before the information ever gets to central processing. It is not designed to accurately and objectively describe or represent everything in that environment. It is designed to produce a sensorial play or movie that is partially isomorphic with the operational world.
Q: It’s designed to establish patterns.
A: Some of the best work in cognitive psychology has been done by E.J. Gibson (1969), and that’s exactly the point of view that she takes: that the whole nervous system is specialized to detect patterns of similarity in an otherwise changing environment.
Q: Let’s say we’re born with a neurophysiology that is pre-programmed information of certain types of patterns and similarities, that’s pre-given and that’s operating, and only with, say, the evolution of consciousness, can we reflect back and perhaps change those patterns, or become aware that they are already operating.
A: Very nicely put, and because the awareness does not occur without neurological processing, they’re the same thing: awareness changes the organization of the system operating. My friend, John Schumacher has raised an interesting point along this line, and it’s one that none of us has been able to completely counter in any effective way. That is, even the description that I’ve given you in these lectures has been an outside-in causality. He contends that one of the consequences of modern quantum physics is that ours is still a Newtonian view. The reality is that events occurring inside what we call the brain are causing quantum events that are resolved outside of itself, so that the causality is in two directions, or rather there’s a non-causality involved, more a simultaneity, or a synchronicity, to use Jung’s term. Fortunately for the moment, that gets beyond the biogenetic structuralist project, though by our own monistic discipline we have to look at it. And we’re presently tracking it (see Laughlin 1986). The notions of morphogenic fields (Sheldrake 1981) and the implicate order (Bohm 1980) are of interest to us, as well as the two types of quantum physics: those that consider quantum physics to be an adequate and total account of the phenomena, and those who find it necessary to posit hidden variables to explain quantum events (see Wheeler 1983).
Detecting patterns in flow, at even the level of the retina, takes us back to Waddington’s notion of a creode. A major function of the nervous system is to canalize information, to construct pathways of information processing from the interneurons that intervene between afference and efference (immediate input and output neurons). The bottom line selection factor is adaptation, getting food without becoming food. But most of the cognition that we humans undertake has little do so with getting food or avoiding being food, although we neurotics tend to react to the world that way. Much of our North American ego development centers around early deprivation, traumas, etc. But we could do just as well as adults by dropping all of that neurotic crap if we only had the ability to push a button and do so. The question becomes: what is the selection for the veridicality of the models? What selection is operating to ensure that our models of the world are at least adaptively isomorphic with the environment? The answer comes back, not very much, because we can build all sorts of models of the world, veridical or not, and still survive. And we reify everything we construct, unless we’re aware to an unusual degree and know that all points of view are in a sense lies. I create the snow that I walk on, and it’s adaptive to do so because everyone else is doing it. It’s handy that I’m not walking through a cognized, sensorial tropical forest while I’m operationally on < xml="true" ns="urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" prefix="st1" namespace="">Bank Street in the middle of December because I might be in shorts and freeze to death, right? But the mind is perfectly capable of that kind of psychotic distortion of sensorial reality. In fact, all the evidence suggests that the sensorium is quite capable of producing any reality it can know, that the system can model.
Q: Hypnosis is one of those conditions under which we can endure pain, get rid of allergies, and even restructure conscious or unconscious content. The operational environment, though, has to be distinguished. We confuse what we see out there as the operational environment, and we don’t understand it’s all projection. And so if you’re walking in snow it’s true that you’re creating all that snow, but if someone says “why don’t you make it Bermuda …?”
A: Yes! I’m saying that you are potentially capable of making it Bermuda. You’re touching on a crucial point. There’s thousands and thousands of generations of evolution for a brain that models the operational environment in an adaptively isomorphic way. We’re trading now on all those millions of years of evolutionary selection for an accurate model. But it’s accurate only isomorphically, and only to a point. In other words, cognition has met its isomorphic criterion if the organism survives and reproduces its kind. This is not the same thing as saying that there’s a master-prof up there looking at the models you have and saying “Well, it’s not quite accurate enough. Why don’t you try and beef it up.” Humans generally suffer from hardening of the categories; we adapt so readily that we can then go on to generate all sorts of distorted views and delusory environments, and still survive. We still get our food, we still avoid being food. But it’s anything but an accurate reflection of the operational environment.
Q: So basically, it doesn’t take much to be able to survive. But we spend a hell of a lot of time not doing anything else, wasting our time. If we stopped all that, then we could become free to do a lot more than surviving. We spend most of our time doing the bare minimum, because we’re lazy.
A: Well, we’ve been conditioned to believe how we allocate our precious life energies is legitimate and necessary.
Q: That’s part and parcel to the idea of evolution; first the brain evolves into a complex neurology, then it takes whole millennia of cultural evolution to build up a body of cultural knowledge that will allow you to transcend culture. And that takes a long time, and it is a different type of evolution that’s on a qualitatively different level.
A: Quite right. There are cultures that inherently recognize the transcendence of fixed view. They code that there’s a transcendental possibility for human cognition, and they provide the institutionalized means for transcending their own institutions. Our is not one of those cultures, and there’s good sociological reasons for that (see eg. Sorokin 1941). There’s good explanations for why we don’t foster any kind of transcendent view. However, in these times we have a very pluralistic society and there are whole subcultures on about transcending cultural conditioning.
I might mention a marvelous study done by a psychologist named Schatzman (n.d.). He wrote a book called The Story of Ruth. Ruth is an exceptional woman who had trouble with hallucinations. She’d be at a cocktail party and her father would suddenly be there talking to her and by all phenomenological cues, he was perfectly real, but nobody else could see him. She knew her father was thousands of miles away. This was bothersome, to put it mildly. So she went to a shrink – the very shrink who, by the way, wrote the book. The hallucinations didn’t go away, but she learned in therapy to control them. No only that, but she learned to make other people appear and disappear at will, and make them do things. But what is of interest to us is the fact the clinician didn’t stop with the cure. He has an interesting idea. He said “How can I verify that you’ve ever had these hallucinations? You’re the only one who has ever seen them. We’ve been working all these years on this problem and I’ve never seen your father or any of your other hallucinations. I’d like to try for some kind of independent verification”. She agreed, being a very exceptional being, very bright and interested in the mind.
So they went to neurological colleagues and to put it very crudely, they wired her up in various ways, and got her to produce hallucinations. They discovered that the hallucinations were not a retinal event at all. No changes occurred in the retina – retina evoked potentials – they she caused a hallucination to intervene between say, herself and a light source. Or when she had her father’s voice speak and tell her things, no detectable change occurred in the evoked potentials of the middle ear. Where the changes did occur was in the cortex. The evoked potentials would be there, perfectly predictable, given the controlled light source. Then she would be asked to produce her father, and suddenly the evoked potentials would shift in the direction expected if there was a shadowy object between herself and the light source. They’d ask her to have her father walk towards her and get bigger and bigger, and the evoked potentials would then dwindle. This constitutes the first verification independent of phenomenology of the ability of what we call a hallucination, what primitive peoples might experiences as alternative reality. It’s no longer a problem for her, and furthermore she continues to actively explore it.
Let me juxtapose Ruth’s story with another interesting report – this time by an anthropologist named Bruce Grindal (1983). This chap was doing field work among the Sisala in the 1960s. To make a long story short, he went through about four days of extreme privation and then had to attend this funeral which involved a lot of drumming, chanting in the presence of the corpse that was propped up against the wall. There were some spirit drums on top of the hut. Anyhow, all of a sudden, Grindal goes into this phase of consciousness in which he is seeing a whole electric light show going on, like energies flying out of the corpse into the sky, around the hut, and soon the corpse itself leaps up and starts dancing, playing the spirit drums. This experience lasted a long time, and then he came back to the ‘normal’ phase of consciousness. What is interesting here is that some of the elders looked at him strangely, and then they said “He’s seen the corpse dance and beat the drums! He sees! This ignorant anthropologist sees as we see”. Now he didn’t publish this until twenty years later, having absolutely no perspective to hang it on. Undoubtedly he was afraid of his colleagues thinking he was crazy, but he was trying to make sense of this experience, nonetheless.
It’s very difficult to “get into the heads” of natives, especially re transpersonal experiences, but there’s all sorts of anecdotal material in anthropology that would lead to the interpretation that cultural conditioning actually produces different modes of seeing. Perhaps if we were culturally prepared we could actually see sixteen-foot radiant beings. But when you search the ethnographic literature maybe you’ll discover a Chagnon (1977) who once took the green yuck up his nose, and subsequently had a few wow-experiences that don’t even begin to get at the whole lifelong Yanomamo sensorial development in which spirits are real, in which one really does fly from here to an enemy’s village and gobble their souls. If you start looking for that kind of anthropology what you find are these odd tidbits and anecdotes. Anthropologists really haven’t gotten with it transpersonally because they are so locked into their conditioned monophasic consciousness.
This barrier to experiencing alternative realities argues for a transpersonal anthropology and is one of the biases that form the undercurrent in these lectures. It would argue for a Castenada-type ethnography – except that if you read DeMille (1980), there’s a whole literature now that just bombs Castenada out of the water. Don’t get me wrong, Castenada is a great read. I was enthralled by his books for years, because I badly wanted to read an anthropology that dealt with multiple phases of consciousness and there was a PhD in anthropology describing all this wonderful phenomenology. But as the transpersonal literature begins to build, it’s ever more obvious that is far more difficult for Western conditioned individuals to incubate the cognized environment of a totally alien people than Castenada appears on his own poorly supported account to be able to do. I’ve sat at gurus’ feet for years and no one has ever been able to reach out and do a little hocus-pocus and make my car disappear. And I’ve put myself in situations where this kind of thing can arise. On the other hand, very magical things have arisen, but they’re much more sophisticated than you read in Castenada. Reading Castenada for me now is like reading a spiritual comic book.
What we’re interested in doing is tracking the limits of experience, the range of possible cognized realities. Mind you, we are not interested at the butterfly collecting level. We’re talking about neuro-structural limits to the range of realities that can be experienced given the nature of the human brain. And our discipline has been to insist upon the hypothesis that no matter what the appearance, no matter how alien to our own consciousness that experience may appear, it is arising and passing away within the sensorium. That’s not an easy discipline to follow because there is a tendency towards what Campbell (1984) called the “new epiphenomenalism”. There reaches a point where we are conditioned to say that we’ve left the brain behind and have entered the domain of spirit. We resist that temptation in ourselves, and we resist that interpretation on the part of others. Of course, a lot of things cannot yet be tested. For instance, no one tested the sight of the arising and passing away of hallucinations until Schatzman raised the question and saw the possibilities in modern neurosciences to do that. Mind you, it’s still crude. I for one would like to sit in that lab with wires all over me, and generate whatever visions have appeared to this being. There would no doubt be these correlations between neurochemical balances in the cerebrospinal fluid and transmitter substances, much like the correlation between serotonin activity and LSD highs. We also know a lot about endorphins and pain and laughter. So we’re even beginning to see the mechanism for humour, of all things.
We have to return again and again to the fact that we don’t know all there is to know about the brain. It’s only one of the windows in the sphere of the scope of our inquiry. There’s nothing in what we’re saying that excludes events in an implicate order, synchronicity, or a morphogenic field. What we code and experience as “brain” is perhaps part of an undifferentiated energy field that for all we know may be infinite and total and endlessly changing.
Our contention at present is that anything approaching Bohm’s explicate order only arises in the sensorium. What Bohm may think he is seeing and calling an explicate order may in fact be nothing more than the cognized environment. There may be nothing in the real world out there, apart from knowing, than an implicate order.
There’s three of us in our group at least, who have spent years exploring one mystical path or another. McManus has done an enormous amount of Jungian-related work on himself, D’Aquili is a lifelong Catholic with a mystical bent, and I have spent years studying Tibetan mysticism and related traditions, east and west. And it is significant to us that none of us has experienced anything than cannot, in principle, arise in the sensorium. No experience any of us has had contradicts the view that no matter how bizarre, now matter how profound, no matter how dark or radiant the phenomenon, it probably arises and passes away between the ears. There’s just no reason to have recourse to a new epiphenomenalism.
CHAPTER FIVE: Culture and the Brain
It was noted (earlier) that even though two sorts of development have to be recognized – one organic (belonging to a single organism) and the other genealogical (including filiation trees, either social or genetic) – yet the history of human knowledge unites these two developments in one whole; ideas, theories, schools of thought are engendered in genealogical order, and trees can be constructed which represent their structural filiations. But these structures are integrated into a single intellectual organism to such a point that the succession of seekers is comparable, as Pascal said, to one man continuously learning throughout time.
Jean Piaget, Biology and Knowledge
What I want to do in this chapter is to place anthropology – which after all is a science that primarily studies culture and society – into a biogenetic structural framework. Why? In part because if you will read the original book, you will discover we bomb the idea of culture altogether. We would like to have gotten rid of culture, principally because of its association with the incessant nature/culture dualism that we felt was just a reflection of the inherent, deep-rooted mind/body dualism in our own society’s worldview. We thought naively that if we just say anthropology should chuck the idea of culture and become a neuroscience it would be done. If course paradigms don’t fall that way, because people are seeing and doing things and labeling them as culture and experiencing them as culture. So, perhaps a decade-plus older and wiser, we have stopped trying to chuck the idea of culture, and now try to redefine it in some way that makes sense to a neuroscientifically sensitive anthropology.
Developments in anthropology have made it easier for us, because anthropological theory has moved away from structural/functionalism and semiotic structuralism into what is now being called the new cognitive science (see Bruner 1983, Hunt 1982). This is a multidisciplinary approach to mind, and most importantly of all, to the understanding of cultures as symbolic systems.
Theorists who were on the fringe when we began writing in the early 1970s, like Clifford Geertz and Victor Turner (see Turner 1975, 1982, 1983, Geertz 1983), and a lot of the semioticists (see Schneider et al. 1977), are now in the mainstream of anthropological thought. People are beginning to conceive of culture as a process for cooking meaning into peoples’ heads. Meaning has to be transmitted in society so that when symbols as percepts are presented to mind in whatever way, meaning is evoked. This reading of culture makes it much easier for us to accept the notion of culture, if by culture you are talking about the development of meaning evoked by symbols - a process by the way we call “semiosis”. Of course, even semiotically inclined anthropologists know precious little about the neurocognitive mechanisms mediating the symbolic process, but there has been progress.
We began to see that it was symbolism and what we came to call the symbolic process, or the symbolic function, that would allow biogenetic structuralism to dialogue better with cultural anthropology. This is because it is perfectly obvious to neurocognitively-trained individuals how some of the mechanisms of the symbolic process work. This has to do with the penetration of sensations into the core brain, evoking level after level of information-processing.
Let’s step back one. Remember always that the nervous system is not wires. You don’t pour in some energy here and it comes out there like a water tap, right? That’s a bad metaphor for neural processing. The being is a community of cells that interact, so that when you have transmission from the periphery into the center of the brain, you don’t have a tube down which you roll little balls of information. What you’ve got is one relatively autonomous cell interacting with another relatively autonomous cell, one network of cells interacting with another network of cells, etc., and at each level what is transmitted has changed. Even that is a gross simplification because what you’ve really got is little local societies of cells, or networks, making judgments about external events important to themselves. They’ve got their own consciousness going. Parts will act as parts of a bigger happening, but if they don’t act in consonance with other parts then they get feedback that their activity is a no-no.
There is a wonderful book called The Hedonistic Neuron by Klopf (1982) that fell into our laps like manna from heaven. Klopf points to the obvious error that the neurosciences have been making for years and that treat neurons like they were non-purposeful microchips. They’re cells, they act like cells, they’re quintessentially cells, and they are therefore alive, autonomous and self-serving. And they operate according to the pleasure/pain principle which neurophysiologists call “hyperpolarization” and “depolarization”. We talk about the cell as if it has no sense of what is going on inside and outside of itself. We wouldn’t make that mistake in talking about amoebas, would we? Amoebas go towards this and away from that. They respond. They can’t learn very much, but they react to their environment, and some environments are noxious and some are nurturant; they go towards nurturant ones, and away from the noxious ones. That doesn’t surprise us, does it? Why isn’t it the same for the neurons, or for that matter kidney cells? Of course it is the same, says Klopf!
Q: I know that your theory is trying to transcend traps. However, in your model there is an outer and an inner and it is thus reflective of a time when people were still very trapped and thought of the outer as being real and there being a real distinction between nature and culture. So why use language like that which reflects this inappropriate view?
Q2: But, it’s like going into a forest. You are going into it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re creating a dichotomy of outer and inner. The forest is made of living trees, and it’s a real ecology. I don’t think his language is creating that dichotomy. It’s just more like a penetration within a community rather than what is outside and what is inside.
Q: Can you be very specific then and tell me how you see all this in an untrapped way? What role do these distinctions play?
A: In the first place, there’s a difference between making distinctions within a totality and reifying distinction in a way that fragments totality. In the second place, I think we are neurognostically determined to make the distinction between the inner and outer. There are two systems of sensors in the nervous system, one that specializes in being stimulated by the outer operational environment, and another that specializes in being stimulated by events in the inner operational environment. The two systems are anatomically distinct. It appears to be important in the initial organization of information to distinguish what is going on outside the organism and what is going on inside, because inner and outer adaptations are different. I’m not going to be eaten by a predator that is on the inside of this body. I’m also not going to find food inside this body.
Q2: The sensorium for the outer world has to produce some sort of isomorphic picture for the benefit of the inner world. There’s a beast, I have to do something, hence stuff happens within like the secretion of adrenalin. They are categorically different – the adrenalin isn’t the beast, and the things producing the adrenalin are not the same thing as the representation of the beast – there is some sort of isomorphic connection and they can’t be separated from one another.
A: And they’re both being cognitively modeled. The inner operational environment is being modeled no less than the outer is being modeled. But it seems important organizationally that the nervous system maintain a distinction between its modelling inside and its modelling outside because the appropriate responses for each are different. For example, its response to internal pain (say, release of endorphins) are quite different from its responses to an impending predator attach (say, release of adrenalin). And those responses are presumably adaptive.
An additional way to look at it is via the entire evolution of the nervous system into a brain. In the earliest stages of neural nets there was no center of higher cognitive information. There was no cognitive hierarchy. Then, in the process of evolution of organisms into more complex organizations, there formed a neural tube which somehow found its way into the middle of the critter to protect it. The neural tube began to specialize in higher processing at one end of itself. That became what we call the brain, but what appears to be happening is the increasing hierarchicalization of information processing. As that occurred it transformed the function of the networks out at the periphery – that is to say the farthest away from the knob at the end of the tube – specializing in detecting patterns at the crudest level of stimulation upon themselves, and passing not the stimulation per se, but the topographical pattern of stimulation into the interior. This system begins to operate on and transform these patterns at different levels of the hierarchy.
Q: Instead of chunking, we allow what is to be and we somehow move in awareness to the extremity, to the firing at the crudest level of processing.
A: Maybe. Awareness tends to follow question. If we’re interested in what’s happening at the periphery, we can re-entrain conscious network to the periphery. That is entailed in what Husserl called the phenomenological reduction.
Q2: We can come to a point where our skin isn’t necessarily our boundary. I keep thinking in terms of our being a community of cells and that allows for our participation in a greater ecology, and in this greater ecology there are lines of communication, although we can’t specifically find the nerves, somehow the larger ecology does what we do.
A: Now here is where we would insist upon our discipline, at the same time knowing it’s a lie. Our discipline would say there will be no experience of an environment that does not come via action potentials of neural cells. You can know nothing that the neural cells have not produced in you, for you. It can be happening out there, but if it does not result in nerves firing you don’t know it, nor can you experience it. There are other ways we can get to know it inferentially. We’re all being bombarded, if we believe modern physics, by all sorts of cosmic rays and other events. There are nematodes as well crawling all over our bodies. We don’t perceive these happenings, these beings; they’re not operating in our cognized environment, yet they are friends. We don’t code these processes but they’re going on all the time. Events are happening every moment that influence this part of the operational environment but I’m not cognizing them, and cannot cognize them unless they result in nerves firing somewhere in the system.
Q: Whether that happens is an act of grace though.
A: We would like to avoid terms like ‘grace’, because they stop question. “Oh, this experience came to me by grace!” I know what you mean though. I’ve had that experience time and again. But where is the mechanism, what is the explanation for how this experience happened? It is insufficient for me as a scientist to see sixteen-foot radiant beings, and I assure you I have done. I want to know how this brain produced those apparitions and whether there are events out in the operational environment somewhere – out there or in here – that were causally interconnected with the neurological mechanisms.
Q: I’m using grace to mean that basically the experience comes of its own impersonal force.
Q2: You’re making a dichotomy between what you know consciously and what is unconscious, and so you relegate it; what you know consciously you call personal, and what you don’t know you call impersonal. You’ve just named it ‘impersonal’ where it could be part and parcel of your unconscious functioning. You remove responsibility outside your being.
Q: No, not at all. My task is to impartially and responsibly and directly process information that comes from outside my awareness.
A: What you’re saying is that by grace you mean some process that originates in the organism, but over which your ego has no willful control? No problem. Everything that I can learn about this being’s ego confirms that by comparison to the whole being, the ego is like a ping-pong ball boinging around a gymnasium.
Q2: When you say (the first Q) that it implies that what is unconscious can’t be made personal, that doesn’t imply it can’t become conscious. When you name it as impersonal and claim your outcome is to do it impersonally, impartially, you’re creating a dichotomy of language here that is going to keep things apart, rather than creating the potential of a Homo gestalt that can transcend that.
Q: What I’m trying to stress is that there is an aspect in us which is unknowable, inexplicable, and which we have to accept; it’s impersonal and it’s an act of grace. That doesn’t mean that we can’t look for it, but in so doing we have to accept our limits.
A: The being, like objects in the operational environment, is transcendental. Our cognization is always from a point of view constituted by invariances of neural functioning that limit our view. And what we’re on about is discovering those limits as best we can. That’s part of the biogenetic structural project – to discover the range within which those experiences may occur. Our presumption is that part of what we mean by limits to the range of these experiences are limits imposed by neurognosis. That is, imposed by the inherent structure of the nervous system.
Q2: And there are neurognostic limits that, once awareness reaches them, they don’t have to remain the same. They can become self-reflecting and thus changed.
A: We specifically use a non-conservative systems theory which presumes that all neurological systems include built-in negative and positive feedback loops. Otherwise development just doesn’t make sense. So we’re not talking about fixed limits in the sense of limits to an automobile that’s not redesigned. A car just can’t fly, given its design. In Waddington’s (1957) terminology, neural systems are homeorhetic, not homeostatic.
Q2: To say that there’s always a part of the being that is unknowable is to presuppose that you can’t find what you’re looking for. Maybe that’s a trap in your language, or a trap in your understanding.
Q: But the limits are the limits to the intellect. There’s no limits to being, there’s only being, which is an act of grace and is an imminence. I see the limits to my intellect all the time, right here, right now, continually.
Q2: You’ve never met an intellectual limit and then all of a sudden found that you’ve gone beyond it.
Q: The limit I’m talking about is the depth of an existence, like your father dies or you die.
A: In any of the traditions of mature contemplation that I’m aware of, it’s procedurally recognized that there are limits to the intellect, that it’s slow relative to other modes of knowing and that it has its proper function. Those traditions teach us that it is inopportune and even impossible to work via intellect beyond a certain point, or given certain situations. And one is schooled to drop intellection. Husserl repeatedly said that essences are grasped in intuitive insight, not reasoning. In any discipline in which there is progressive relaxation built in, there automatically reaches a point where the thinking process just stops, presumably because you’ve pulled the energy rug right out from under it. Our hypothesis is that all ratiocination, including intellection, is an ergotropic process (includes the sympathetic nervous system). If you start calming out by way of the trophotropic system (includes the parasympathetic nervous system), there reaches a plateau beyond which the intellect can’t operate, unless you will it to do (i.e. energize it ergotropically). It just drops away. Its chatter drops away, language drops away. But knowing doesn’t drop away; knowing is inherent in the arising of the world in the sensorium.
Q2: It isn’t that intellect dies, because it comes back and it can have changed.
A: It can have changed, and you can call upon it in any way, at any point. I’m speaking of a dialogue between the rational processes and the depths. The rational processes are always way behind, and any knowledge it produces is always terribly partial and limited, but it has its function, and its proper function is that it can produce conscious question which lawfully produces insight in the contemplative mind. No question = no insight.
Q: The “in” part of insight is lost in common insignificance, while the “sight” part is reified in significance.
A: I’ll go with that. We’ve all experienced insight. We’re not talking about something totally alien or esoteric. If you’ve ever had the experience of creativity, when you have enough awareness up to reflect upon that experience, you’ve got a good example right before you. Creativity rarely comes out of the intellect. Intellect is simply not creative, it doesn’t function to be creative, it functions to serve adaptation.
Q2: To ask the questions, to model the outcomes.
A: Yes. And to apply procedures and formulae. It can do great things. We live in an environment in which the intellect has produced amazing things – we can even send people out into space! But is also has its limits, and when one identifies knowing solely with the products of intellect, then one is trapped. We’ve got a whole culture that believes all problems can be solved through intellection. And that is dead wrong. Because there are very severe limits to intellection and these limits bear directly upon the question of non-freedom. What we wish to understand is what processes in the evolution of the organism produce freedom and what processes produce its opposite: tyranny or whatever. Anticipating somewhat, all tyranny is the tyranny of phenomena (e.g. material conditions) and point of view (e.g. ideology) over consciousness. And behind the phenomena and view lies desire; desire produces phenomena. But that’s getting esoteric, or it is for anyone who hasn’t seen the processing of their own cognition. You see, there is a community of cells within the being that desires everything that is arising in consciousness, whether ‘you’ desire it or not. The contemplative's work is not only watching the play, but also watching the scriptwriter and the audience. Who is the audience of the sensorial play? Who is the audience for Ruth’s father at the cocktail party? Well, it obviously wasn’t the ego named Ruth. The whole business was very problematic to ego-Ruth.
Q: Jung was saying that whatever was repressed eventually pops up in the so-called outer world.
Q2: Whether it’s repressed or not, whatever is unconscious first comes conscious through a projection of some sort. It doesn’t have to be repressed, it’s merely what is unconscious, and what is unconscious is often constituted by the one-sided aspect of our conscious mind – the more one-sided we get consciously, there’s a complimentary unconscious aspect that’s developed, in order to integrate that we project. So repression is a small part of it.
A: Quite right. But let’s now look more closely at consciousness in a social context.
SOCIETY AND THE LIFEWORLD
We’ve argued that the lifeworld, or the world of experience, arises in the sensorium as the organization of a field of dots. The organization of that field of dots is mediated by networks of nerve cells. What we want to do is come to better understand how the organization of neural entrainments is influenced by social interaction and how they make society possible. What we’re trying for is a sort of synthetic understanding of society that allows us to reasonably incorporate evidence of social behaviour and organization among non-human animals into our models of human society, but without doing it in the reductionistic, deterministic way that the Sociobiologists have done. Their mistakes are due, at least in part, to their failure to understand the role the brain in social behaviour and in the evolution of higher social animals. And this precludes the sociobiologist from understanding the role of neural development in ontogenesis. In fact, the over-emphasis upon genetics in neo-Darwinian biology has had the effect of de-emphasizinag the important role of ontogenesis in producing adult forms (see Ho and Saunders, 1984).
Implied in our view of lifeworld produced by and within the sensorium is the possibility of discrepant cognized environments within a social group. The possibility, given the nature of the sensorium, is for discrepant worlds of experience to arise. So Ruth’s cognized environment isn’t exactly mine. Ruth was seeing her father in untoward situations but neither her shrink, or I can see him. We might put a label on it and call them “hallucinations”. But the cross-cultural evidence is persuasive that the lifeworlds of people can be widely divergent and discrepant. The really interesting question becomes: how is society possible with potentially discrepant cognized environments?
Let’s step back and look at what society seems to be. Society doesn’t just exist to Homo sapiens; far from it. Society has arisen independently at least thirty-odd times in the course of phylogenesis, if by society we mean organisms capable of concerted social action. There is obviously something fundamentally important about social activity for adaptation. There has been a great deal of study of non-human societies (see Hinde 1970), all the way from insects to the higher social animals like the dolphins, the cats, and the elephants. Some of the best work has been done on the canines: the wolves, foxes, coyotes, and our old friend the domestic dog (Fox 1975). There have been ethological studies of feral dogs, domestic dogs that have become wild, and these are of particular interest because it is found that many of their social behaviour (and communication) patterns are similar to those of wolves, indicating a heavy genetic loading on cognitive structures that remain latent in domestic dogs, unless conditions trigger their development. I am speaking basically of a neurognostically programmed canine biogram (a la Count).
Society minimally requires some mechanism by which the activities of individuals can become canalized into concerted social action. There are many such mechanisms found in the social animal world. Let me give you some examples. Among some ants, armies of foragers roam alone until they discover food, and then they will take a sample of that food and make a bee-line so to speak, back to the colony. All along the way, they will drop a highly volatile chemical out of their rear ends which marks their trail – it’s called pheromone, a chemical signaling substance – and any forager ant who crosses that trail will immediately follow it to its original source. It too will pick up a bit of food, make a bee-line back to the colony, and will also leave a track of pheromone in its wake, thus increasing the intensity of the trail. More and more ants cross that trail, follow it down its gradient until they come to the food and in no time at all the entire food source is covered with ants. There reaches a point of saturation in which any more ants that come perceive that there are enough ants there to take care of business, and they go on foraging and do not add to the pheromone track.
Q: How does an ant know how to get back?
A: That gets into complex theories about how ants know where they are in space. One theory is that there are particular magnetically oriented neural cells – which incidentally we may also have. That’s one answer, and there are others. Anyhow, this is an example of concerted social action. What is society providing here that individuals cannot? How do you go about transforming individual action, running around foraging, into a concerted action that in the end pays off for the colony as a while? Another good example – one that offers a contrast between the limits of individual activity and the biological payoffs for a group activity, is to be found among the canids. At one extreme you have the red fox who is minimally social. Red foxes pretty much have to be able to fend for themselves within six weeks of birth, and their only social activity thereafter will be perfunctory matings between males and females, facilitated by ritual activity. So the personalities of all red foxes are pretty much the same. They’re not really distinguishable personality-wise. They’re all mean and nasty and consummate predators. In other words, each red fox has got to grow up within the first six weeks of life knowing how to make a living, with no outside help. And their strategies for hunting are all the same. Contrast that with the artic wolf, whose whole life, unless they are a lone male, is passed in the context of a pack, and in which there is a much longer period of development, supervised by what has come to be called in the literature “uncles”. There seem to be males who specialize in overseeing the development of the young. Everybody feeds the young. The adults go out and hunt and their hunting strategies may range from individual chases to extremely complex group drives. Their range of possible hunting strategies is much greater than is possible for red foxes. Also, individuals will not only eat for themselves, but they will bring food back and regurgitate it for the young and for any sick, pregnant, or other members of the group who have stayed at home. The sharing of food is common.
There are also quite complex social rituals having to do with dominance among members of the pack. Each morning, for example, they will perform a morning ritual in which they get little gifts, they go around and muzzle-bite, and the dominant male of course ends up muzzle-biting with everyone. So the complexity in the repertoire of behaviour is much greater for an arctic wolf than for a red fox. Also, as you might expect, detectable temperament, or personality differences among arctic wolves is notable.
Q: So concerted action of the group isn’t strictly necessary for the development of the cognized environment?
A: It may be adaptive for a whole range of cognized environments to operate harmoniously together. But among red foxes, even if they do diverge with different experience, which presumably they will do to some extent, there’s no way they can share divergent cognized environments (including cognized selves) to produce concerted social action that is adaptable to an entire group. So, not only is there an adaptive facility to divergent cognized environments, it is also potentially dangerous, because among critters with very complex brains, there has to be an overlap in the worlds that they are individually perceiving; otherwise social action is impossible. You can’t have some members perceiving an object as food, others ignoring it because it’s uninteresting, and still others coding it as predatory. They would all act in opposition to one another. If you keep clearly in mind that the world of experience is arising between the ears of arctic wolves, red foxes, monkeys, dolphins, ants, and human beings, then how is it possible for the group to assure that it has a diversity of cognized environments that is both adaptive and which can become synchronized (to use Chapple’s term) when social action is required? That seems to us to be a major focus for the ethological study of human society. How much of the divergence possible in cognized environments is due to genetic constraints inherent in the species? How much is due to social conditioning of cognized environments? How much is due to the similar neurological organization confronted with similar environment and experience of group members? How much is due to genetically predisposed differences in the capacities of individual brains? These sorts of questions seem to us to be extremely pertinent.
One thing seems clear – the more complex the nervous system of the social animal, and the more the animal depends upon social strategies for adaptation, the more important would become a developmental phase in the maturation of the adult form of the cognized environment. Of course, by the time we reach human beings socialization becomes virtually the temporal aspect of society. There’s very little evidence that ants have to learn very much at all to perform their social roles, to bring their individual action into concert. There is some evidence that bees learn over time and mature with experience. Forager bees, when they first become workers, stay very close to the hives, and it is only the older bees that go further and further afield. Some authorities believe that this has to do with cognitively mapping territory. You can confound a bee really easily. The bee has to know where the hive is relative to the polarization of the sun. All you have to do to confound bees is move their hive ten feet and they’re lost. They have to develop an internal map of their environment, in other words a cognized environment, in which they can at any moment place themselves relative to home base. If the hive is moved, they no longer seem to recognize it. They just buzz around the spot where it was until they drop.
Q: So it is a highly specific map?
A: Yes, very concrete. One thing that Count has pointed out in his work on which he calls the ‘vertebrate ego’ is that the higher the critter, the more the critter’s cognized environment seems to centre on the group itself, rather than the physical environment. No social critter ever gets totally away from the physical environment. We all recognize home base, right? But we’re extremely mobile, and what ‘home’ is has a lot to do with what is happening socially. An Anolis lizard identifies pretty much with its territory. It’s highly territorial, and shows every indication of getting anxious when it gets to the boundaries of its territory.
RITUAL AND SYNCHRONIZATION
What we’ve argued in The Spectrum of Ritual is that one of the principle mechanisms for synchronization of cognized environments across animal species is ritual. That’s where ritual comes from originally. In order to see this you have to look beyond the human form of ritual. You have to look back among other non-human animals for the anlagen of ritual as we know it in human form. When you work out the essential structure of human ritual, then you can find it easily among higher social animals, like elephants and chimps, and once you’ve discovered the structure there, then it is easy to see its anlagen in even simpler animals.
Q: By ritual do you mean concerted action?
A: No. Ritual is not synonymous with concerted action, but has to do with formalized communication. Ritual is a form of formalized behavioural communication that orients individuals into synchronized perception, cognition and action. One of its simplest forms can be seen in mating activity among otherwise non-social animals. Here you have individual animals, like red foxes, who are pretty much antagonistic to each other. How do you get them into a state of love, basically, long enough so that procreation can occur? Not surprisingly, we discover these animals perform certain dramatic activities prior to copulation. You can get very anthropocentric and call it foreplay, but it doesn’t really look like our foreplay; in fact what we usually mean by foreplay would seem to be a phase of “making love’ that only occurs in the highest social animals and somewhere between the initial approach rituals and actual copulation.
We get extremely elaborate in our rituals; in simple social animals it basically boils down to doing the ritual signaling – female penguins, when they are ready to mate, will stand on top of pebbles, and that’s how the males know they are receptive. Dolphins, on the other hand, have been called the sexiest animals on the planet; they are incredibly sensual and the process of making love (I use that in the same sense that I would use it for humans) is very remarkable. It takes a long time, and they will “dance” with each other for a long time before they actually copulate. They may not have the same problems we have in breaking down neurotic social barriers.
Please note, there is a cognization of social space, as well as physical space, and the synchronization must occur within that social space. A common way to assure this synchronization is simple communicative triggers, simple signals like the pheromone, standing on pebbles, or flashing a colourful feather among certain species of ducks. This seems to be the simplest form of communication that W. John Smith called “formalization” (see his article in d’Aquili et al. 1979), which is the specialization of some kind of behaviour or feature for the purpose of signaling. Each species may have a specific signal for a specific contingency. Humans seem to have some of those. Smith did work on tongue displays among humans, and non-human primates, and showed pretty much that the displaying of the tongue, in certain contexts, is the same for orangutans and for humans. Darwin wrote a book over a hundred years ago noting that our facial gestures are similar to those of non-human primates and other animals. Although we are largely unconscious of them, they nonetheless continue to function as signals. Everybody knows when someone is angry. It doesn’t matter if they belong to this culture or another; the signals are pretty much the same, unless there is a hell of a lot of dissembling or repression going on. You know when a Tsimbagan is angry, just as you know when a Kalahari bushman is angry, or when Brian Mulroney is angry at the press.
Q: Given that we all have different cognized environments, how is it that we agree, or overlap, or share concepts. Is it sustained through shared, ritualistic behaviour, through action? How can you say that ritual is not happening through concerted action?
Q2: We’re talking about learning here, and the neurognostic programs of learning have to do with modelling, and ritual is really an eloquent way to model and learn.
A: The problem is not only to entrain the neural networks in the individual organism to a particular stimulus in the operational environment, but to entrain multiple cognized environments to that stimulus in a potentially harmonious way. In higher critters this involves a great deal of development. It is easy in ants because the information is all present in all of them from hatching, part of the genetical structure of their physiology, which includes their nervous system. The genotype contains the information necessary for ant-ish concerted action, and all that is required is the trigger in that environment – a pheromone trail, or the presence of an enemy.
Q2: Unlike ants, we have developed a greater flexibility to adapt to all sorts of environments, so we’re not so conditioned to a specific environment. The environments themselves carry the messages necessary for the entrainments of the ants, and much less so for us.
Q: And that’s a displacement, a distancing from pure reaction.
Q2: The environment is a context, it has its own message, and the ant takes its meaning from a specific context, whereas we are much more context-free, or we have more choice, thus creating meaning in a multitude of contexts. This requires a greater neurological flexibility, and a longer series of rituals to pull it together.
A: Potentially more discrepant. We have a hard time agreeing on what we see, and that’s neither a good nor a bad thing, it just is. It underlies the excitement we can generate behind novelty. We can more easily create novelty, and at the same time it’s a set-up for very unpleasant states like depression, stemming from alienation. How can I connect with this other human being who seems so distant from me? They don’t see me in the same way I see me. Why?
Q2: Gregory Bateson says that consciousness is always less than the context.
A: Must be, because the nervous system is a finite information-processing system, and awareness is intentional! We always approach the operational environment from a point of view, or horizon.
Q2: And because it’s the contexts that evolve and not the entities. Humans have a much more evolved context. We’re able to find other contexts.
THE REDUCTION AGAIN
We may now more easily see the relevance of what Husserl was talking about when he argued that the native perceiver carries to every moment of perception a natural thesis of the world. It is natural precisely because the thesis is presumed to be real. It operates so unconsciously that the individual does not readily understand how much of the world is being imposed by the tacit organization of their own cognized environments. In Eastern terms, folks can’t read their own karma. The necessity for a phenomenological reduction is precisely the exercise necessary to bring scientists to the point where they understand fully how much the mind is involved in constituting the world that the mind is studying. The mind is always studying itself to a certain extent, and from a certain cutesy point of view the only science that exists is psychology: the psychology of physics, the psychology of biology, the psychology of the brain, of culture, of society, etc. Entailed here is realizing the “beginners mind” espoused by Zen practitioners. As Henry Miller wrote in an epilogue to his My Life and Times, “I am so glad I am not au courant, so glad I don’t have all the answers, so glad I am living more and more in a state of ignorance”.
Q: So that means your theory is interpretative.
A: All theory is interpretive. But don’t carry that to the extent of saying that all theories are therefore relative. Some theories will not lead you to a phenomenological reduction and others will. We’ve already said that there is a necessity of developing at least some mature contemplatives in science, and we’ve done so for the very same reasons that Husserl argued that a phenomenological reduction is necessary. It is necessary to produce at least some minds who, prior to the full development of a science, see how much the mind produces the world that the science is on about. The process of producing the mature contemplative is the phenomenological reduction.
Q: So you say, wait a second, everything that I am seeing is produced by me.
A: Oh, but it’s far, far more complex than that. Such a view taken simplistically can lead to rank solipsism. This is something Husserl struggled to avoid. And we would avoid it too. We would hold that any theory that claims to be a mature scientific premise must in the first place be structural and in the second place must point to the necessity of a radical reduction prior to its own existence as a theory. A mature scientific paradigm should presuppose and incorporate a mature phenomenology. That’s what Husserl meant when he said that phenomenology is not just another science; it is prior to science, prior to metaphysics, prior to art. Unfortunately Levi-Strauss’s methods do not lead one to the reduction. They only lead one to an exegetical exercise for recovering meaning from myths, etc. We can’t argue that exegesis is a bad thing, only that it does not lead to the phenomenological reduction. It can’t lead to the reduction because it depends for results solely upon a rational deductive approach to texts, and does not encourage plumbing the experiential ground that produces the texts, or to which dialogue with the texts may lead. Paul Ricoeur has been very eloquent and telling in making this charge against semiotic structuralism.
Q: Phenomenological reduction is also to make that reversal of desire so that you understand that what you see, and what you desire is not it.
A: Well, if you can come to see directly in your own experience that nothing arises in the sensorium, nothing arises in the lifeworld that is not desired by some part of being, then that is a reduction. What has been reduced? What is reduced is one principle operating in the arising of experience. You see it as it is happening, and once you ‘realize’ it you know it for what it is whenever you remember to know it for what it is – if you take my meaning.
I should emphasize that when we speak of the phenomenological reduction, we are specifically Husserlian in that context. This is having to do with an exercise of exploration prior to theorizing about anything. There is a tendency among many so-called phenomenologists to just theorize about experience, an exercise that is antithetical to the Husserlian project. One has to continuously return to Husserl, or at least to some consonant discipline of reduction, or the whole point is lost. Otherwise, it just becomes a quibble over whose theory of perception is correct: Gibson’s or Levi-Strauss’s or Earl Count’s or Charlie Laughlin’s. There’s no way to resolve the paradoxes because none of the participants to the argument have reduced their own perception to essences prior to theorizing; they have not let go of all theory and just looked at how the mind is producing the world. Levi-Strauss has never performed the reduction. That’s clear as a bell. Many so-called phenomenologists like Schutz have also never done it. It’s an interesting question as to whether Husserl himself ever actually did. That is not easy to evaluate. My opinion, based upon my own experience and my reading of him, is that he did perform the reduction as he advocated.
Q: There’s actually quite a bit of religiosity in science … I would say that Levi-Strauss is talking about transcending what perception is given to be.
A: We would claim that there is a flaw in much of semiotic structuralism, in that they cannot easily move from symbol to experience, because they do not seem to understand what experience is. They haven’t examined experience to the extent that a mature contemplative has done, and yet that is all that is arising before their minds all the time.
Q2: They’re looking at language rather than communication.
A: Or some other symbolic system, right? They may have nice charts with boxes and arrows, but they’ve got no mechanism; there’s no understanding that even the sensory aspect of the symbol is being constituted by mind before itself.
Q2: You come to the point where the subject is socially constituted and disappears, and thus you’ve lost the very mechanism that creates the stuff that is socially constituted.
A: Husserl made the distinction between the noema and the noesis. The noema is the transcendental guide – is the object before the mind. But there is also the noesis which is the cognition intending the object, the operations that are performed upon that object. We tend naively to orient consciously upon the object and meanwhile the noesis is unconscious. We lose sight of the subject, we pay a lot of attention to the object and then we abstract the object from the subject and we’ve got a myth to analyze, a symbol to analyze, a culture to analyze, a telephone to talk into, a cup to drink out of, and so on. Naively imposing, reifying the natural thesis of the world upon the world, non-reflexively. So, one of the first principles one has to understand in the phenomenological reduction is that all moments of consciousness are intentional. There is always an object before the mind. But one has a will, and can direct attention to other objects, not just object-objects but noetic-objects. The noesis can provide the object of consciousness upon which there are further noetic operations and so on. This is the never-ending bracketing of the functional aspects of consciousness. We bracket until we see them, know them clearly in their constituting roles in the mind. But enough said for the moment about the phenomenological reduction because we will return to that when we come to the necessity for a transpersonalism, and a further discussion of the elements of phenomenology.
Q: I would like to hear more about how your theory models the operational environment.
A: Well, you see, it is at this point that the Buddha would’ve remained silent. That was one of the ten questions that he refused to answer. Why?
Q: Because it simply is.
A: No, that’s not why he refused to answer. He refused to answer it for the reason that I should refuse to answer it, in that you have not performed the phenomenological reduction, so you can’t tell the difference. The object of the Buddha’s teaching was to perform a certain type of phenomenological reduction, get that reduction behind you, and then go on and ask questions about what the operational environment is all about. At the end of his life the Buddha was sitting with Ananda under a tree and he reached up into the tree and grabbed a handful of leaves and said “Ananda, which has more leaves, my hand or the tree?” And Ananda said “Lord, it is obvious the tree has more leaves than there are in your hand”. The Buddha replied, “Right, Ananda, that’s the difference between what I’ve taught you and what I know”. And Ananda got ticked off and he said “Why have you been holding back on us all these years, Lord?” Buddha said “Because all the rest of what I know is irrelevant to your awakening”. Or, he might well have said “It’s irrelevant to your performing the kind of phenomenological reduction that is necessary for your liberation”. But after the liberation then go on and study the trees, because then you can tell the difference between trees and your views about trees. Until then, I submit to you that there is no way that you can tell the difference. Over and over the contradictions, anomalies, paradoxes that are current in science will recur because scientists do not understand from direct intuition how their own minds operate.
Q: Then obviously the whole crux of debate in science should be to try to elucidate what you’ve just said, so that we can hear it in a clear, succinct way and come to a complete stop.
A: Can you figure out how to do that?
Q: You’ve been much more direct in what you’ve said just now that previously.
Q2: But you’ve also asked the right questions.
A: You’ve triggered it, old chap! That's why this dialogue. I must admit I tend to soft-pedal this issue because one can so easily be charged with elitism. “You can’t know until you experience it” gets interpreted in the halls of science as a kind of pompous elitism and flies in the face of the received view that the knowledge of science is available to everyone. But, of course, science is precisely elitist in the same sense. The knowledge of science is not available to everyone. The knowledge of, say, particle physics is really available only to those with all the years of training in mathematics and experimental physics necessary for really appreciating that knowledge. And the reduction is available to anyone who is intelligent enough to see its necessity and understand the essences and who makes the effort to perform it.
Q: So, if this is all the cognized environment, where then is the operational environment?
A: Well, you see, I’m not as wise as the Buddha and won’t remain silent. I’ll say go read Sheldrake, go read Bohm. There are some good theories around about what the operational environment might look like apart from our knowing it. But no matter how satisfying they are for you, they are only ever theories. Views. Reflections. Lies.
Q: But you’re referring me to books, and that’s a handful of leaves. That’s not what I want.
A: No, the handful of leaves is any teaching on how you go about reducing to the essence of your own mind, that’s all the Buddha ever taught. Anytime anybody asked him about anything other than that, like metaphysical questions about the nature of the cosmos apart from us knowing the cosmos, he just remained silent. All that is irrelevant to our awakening to our own nature. “Within this fathom high body”, the Buddha said, “I will show you the arising and passing away of the universe”. Worse than being irrelevant, it’s a hindrance because it misguides the mind into thinking that it knows. You can’t tell the difference between what is really there and what you think is there, because you don’t see clearly the effect of your own thought on the world you experience.
CULTURE AND THE CONDITIONED BRAIN
What is culture relative to all of this? How does society make sure that the lifeworld, which is forming in a field of dots, is adaptively isomorphic for members of the group? Ahhh ... is it possible that the function of the natural thesis is the imposition of form upon the field of dots, so that potentially, socially adaptive action may occur? If so, then somehow society has to reach in, as it were, and affect the actual organization of the nerve cells in the brain. A little like those connect-the-dots pictures. Part of the work is done – it’s not all cultural in that sense – because there are fundamental principles upon which the nervous system operates in everybody, everywhere. For example, such things as the impermanence of forms in the sensorium; the fact that the sensorium is particularly interested in edges and faces. These sorts of essences are provided by the structure of the nervous system from prenatal experience on to death. To a certain extent, a child is already capable before birth of distinguishing from by imposing edges on an otherwise total expanse of perceptual space.
So how does society reach in and manipulate the organization of the nervous system, already exquisitely organized via genetically predisposed growth patterns? How does culture get inculcated – if by culture we mean manipulation of that intricate complex of neural connections, which by the time the individual is born is already the most complex system in the known universe? Well, there are neurological perspectives that come to our aid. I’ll give you two suggestions here. One is the work of D.O. Hebb (1949), a famous Canadian neuroscientist, who argued that neural tracts become selected over other neural tracts simply by being active. The minute a neural pathway becomes active, he argued, it will probably become the one that becomes active in the future. The tracts become larger, they have more energy available than alternative pathways, so that the nervous system was coded as a field of neural connections through which information finds a pathway, some pathways selected against and others selected for, and the very act of their activation increases the probability that they will be activated again.
There are other theories of learning and the brain floating around with a great deal of evidence supporting them. One I especially commend to your attention is that of Jean-Pierre Changeux (Changeux et al. 1973), who works at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. He has produced a great deal of evidence suggesting that at least some of the structure in the nervous system has to do with high selectivity among potential pathways by eliminating pathways that are unused, or potentially competitors. We know, for example, that a large proportion of the nerve cells in the nervous system are inhibitory cells. That is, much of what any neural model does is inhibit alternative models; many of the cells in models inhibit other cells so that the activation of one model actively inhibits some models and entrains others. There are systems of entrainment, and systems of enforced disentrainment. Changeux’s theory is interesting because there is actual physical selectivity of the pathways and interconnections. He argues that the genetic code is insufficiently complex to account for all the myriad connections of the nervous system; rather the initial form of the nervous system is a sort of generalized connectivity and some of the connections are selected for and are enforced, built up, strengthened, and others are selected against and dissolve, as it were, back into the organism as protein. Those processes are lost. There’s a great deal of evidence he’s adduced anatomically to show that this is the case.
I moved to Canada in 1976 and went out on the Rideau Canal ice for the first time since I was six years old. I was up and going and I was on the ice four times before I fell down. I knew how to skate because I had learned thirty years prior to the Rideau Canal. If you look at the probable wiring involved in learning how to skate, it involves in part the organization of the nervous system sufficient to orchestrate that kind of muscular and skeletal activity. And it is all right there waiting to be used, even if left unused for many, many years, once the tracts are established. It may require some refinement before it functions again at peak; there is some re-adaptation necessary, but it’s all there in the physical structure and layout of the nervous system.
Doesn’t it make sense that some of the mechanisms of culture are the various principles by which nerve pathways are formed, selected-for or selected-against? Not only does society impose its propositional knowledge in the form of attitudes and norms, it literally can reach inside the head and structure the sensorium so that there’s a consensus lifeworld. The society determines what world is experienced. It can exclude as well as include aspects of the world, like dancing corpses and shamans flying through the air, and other presumably experiencable multiple realities that have puzzled anthropologists since before Boaz. Do these people in trance really believe they are eating souls in the enemy village? Is it actually experienced reality, or are they “just dreaming”? Is it wish-fulfillment? Are they merely spinning elaborate stories, fairy tales?
CHAPTER SIX: Ritual Control of Experience
“Perception is not determined simply by the stimulus pattern”, writes R.L. Gregory in Eye and Brain, “rather it is a dynamic searching for the best interpretation of the available data”. In short, we “see” not simply with our eyes but with a great part of our mental equipment as well, and since this mental equipment varies greatly from person to person, there are inevitably many things which some people can “see” but which others cannot, or, to put it differently, for which some people are adequate while others are not.
E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed
We were speaking in the last chapter of the social influences over the structures of experience: that is, social conditioning of the development of typical sensorial entrainments such that social control over experience is possible. As we have seen, a minimal amount of control of experience is necessary to produce social action. What we want to do now is to step back from the social perspective and look at experience again. We want to examine the structures of experience, and suggest just how experience can be controlled via ritual. This will then allow us to move towards an understanding of why a transpersonal perspective in anthropology is necessary. Somewhere along the line I’ll talk a bit about the relationship between phenomenology and transpersonalism.
CONTINUITY AND ENTRAINMENT
We have defined the sensorium as the functional space in which experience arises within the nervous system. We’ve said that any moment of consciousness is mediated by a discrete entrainment of neural processes and that these processes are never the total field of neural processes. Any particular entrainment is highly selective. And a continuum of experience (i.e., a cognized pattern of continuous experience) is mediated by a repetitive, continuous re-entrainment of one set of networks selected vis-à-vis alternative possible sets of networks. He latter either remain latent, or function unconsciously to conscious network.
One thing we can tell fairly readily from our own introspection is that consciousness is phasic. We all recognize phases of consciousness that we code as “us”. We commonly have labels for them: I am awake now, asleep before, I am sober now, before I was drunk, I am high now, I am ‘X’, I am not ‘Y’ – fill in the blank. Strips of experience, as it were, seem to be cognitively chunked. As a mature contemplative knows, consciousness is continuously changing: “No matter how hard you try, you
Can’t step in the same river twice!” There is nothing permanent whatsoever about consciousness. It never remains the same two thought-moments in a row. There is a whole fresh new field of dots every moment and continuity of experience becomes known as a cognitive imposition upon this flux in the field of dots. To put it in George Miller’s terms, experience is chunked into plans: cognition operates not only to structure space within the sensorium, it also structures duration, or put crudely, experiential time. Spatial chunking corresponds to what Whitehead called the mode of simultaneity, and temporal chunking to his mode of causal efficacy. These are the two axes of consciousness, both imposed by consciousness upon its phenomenal productions. Our question has been: how does the nervous system perpetuate a structured, continuous entrainment?
Q: Are you saying that time is real relative only to the functioning of the brain?
A: The problem may be simply semantic. One might watch the terms and see if one is caught between a view of objectivity and a view of total subjectivity. I’m being very phenomenological here and talking about the experience of time: we experience time as a series of conscious events that are causally interconnected - again, causal efficacy, in Whitehead’s terms. One of the functions of the nervous system is to recognize patterns of cause and effect, and it does that in a sense by imposing cause and effect internally upon a continuously changing field of sensations.
Q: So the structure of the continuous entrainment, does that mean like a continuous change, although keeping within the same phase?
A: Exactly. One can immediately recognize the fact of continuous change in consciousness if one pays attention to the moment by moment transformations that are going on. One can also track oneself imposing a sameness: we’re in the same classroom, we know we’re here, we know we’re listening to a lecture, or we’re in a seminar, we know that everybody here is the same as they were three minutes ago, one week ago, and this sameness is being continuously mapped onto the every-changing lifeworld as constituted in the field of dots.
There are unfortunate neurological disorders that cause problems experientially and behaviourally and that are very interesting and bizarre. Certain types of hippocampus disorders render an individual incapable of time-binding strips of experience into chunks. That sort of individual can be reading the newspaper, be very interested in the story and follow it very closely, and then walk out to get a cup of coffee, come back and start reading the story all over again, having no recollection whatsoever that the story is familiar or that they had read it previously. There’s no continuity in their experience and it causes them great problems in everyday functioning. You don’t even notice it in them until they turn around and say “Hi, how are you today?” when you’ve just been talking to them for two solid hours. But they don’t recognize that you’ve been there “before”. So we know that there are parts of the brain that are particularly interested in maintaining continuity in experience; that continuity is imposed, becomes an ingredient in the stew of the sensorium as it is busy generating the world.
We also know from the experiences of mature contemplatives that there comes a moment when we recognize that there is awareness of the real now, and that the past and future have vanished because they are no longer being imposed on the real now. All that remains is the totally concentrated study of the coming and going of the now, and there is no continuity other than this awareness. Consciousness seems timeless. I’m not talking about time in the abstract physics sense. That is sort of a projection of a quality of the operational environment out upon it, though they are obviously connected. It becomes fascinating when, for instance, Bohm suggests that in the implicate order there is no time – time is an aspect solely of the explicate order. My suspicion, as I’ve suggested to you already, is that there is no explicate order apart from the mind. All there is in the real world is something like an implicate order, whatever that may look like.
PHASES AND WARPS
We define phases of consciousness as strips of experience that are cognizable, even labelable as chunks and which are mediated by enduring patterns of re-entrainment in the sensorium. If you will recall, I emphasize that much of what neural models do is inhibit other neural models, keeping them from operating while they themselves are holding forth. Models thus become reverberative. That is, they operate to perpetuate their own activity. They feed back on themselves and keep themselves going, and in the process of doing so, keep others inactive. They often compete for control of intentional processing. Phases are mediated by enduring patterns of entrainment. Obviously there must occur, between the phases, a short duration of re-entrainment that is radical relative to the phases. Radical re-entrainment of the operating structures mediating experience are called “warps” (see Laughlin et al. 1983). The easiest examples of warps I can give you are the hypnagogic at the beginning and the hypnopompic at the end of sleep. We know from sleep research that there are many phases that constitute sleep, many re-entrainments that occur, some of which are now labeled: REM as opposed to non-REM sleep, stages one through four sleep, all of which are defined on EEG and behavioural artifacts of the transformations that are occurring in the nervous system. Which, by the way are somewhat matched to experience. When you wake someone up you can sometimes predict what stage they are in from the experience they recount to you. Warps can be externally or internally initiated: that is, triggered by events external to the organism (e.g., an explosion in the environment), or internal to the organism (e.g., ultradian and circadian rhythms).
There are many reasons for suggesting that maximal control of phases depends upon maximal control of warps; if you can control the warp, you can pretty much change the phase. And what happens when you cognitively control the warp is that you make a phase out of the warp. One of the most telling pieces of evidence is, unfortunately, one which most of science won’t yet accept as legitimate, and derives from transpersonalism itself.
One of the types of meditation carried out by Tibetan mystics is called dream yoga, and I spent a lot of time doing that work. It’s clear that the beginning practice of this yoga is directed specifically at controlling the warp between being awake and being asleep and being in a dream experience. I won’t go into much detail other than to say that the results of performing the dream yoga are, among other things, to expand that roughly five second warp between awake and dream until it can last thirty minutes, even hours. And what happens is that you become so acutely aware of the warp that the awareness itself transforms the warp; as it were, opens it out into experiential space-time. Conscious network becomes a part of the entrainment of the warp and one gains control over how long one stays in the warp. If you are familiar with hypnagogic imagery enrooted to sleep, like a brilliantly coloured slide show that can happen as you are falling asleep, you’ll perhaps appreciate that it can intensify and expand to produce hours of slide show material, accompanied by an intense bliss-state. The internal projector starts giving you a movie and eventually you can gain some control over what movie is showing. What happens is that dream yoga changes your sleep patterns and you begin to wake up the dream-life and to take therein a more active part. The dream-ego becomes less passive.
Anyway, what I’m homing in on is the fact that there is a tacit recognition – cross-culturally – of the importance of warps, and that this recognition is manifest in the placement of rituals. Anthropologists have long been aware that rituals are often put at the interspaces between life phases. But what has not been so easily recognized, until Turner wrote about liminality, was that there is ritual control exercised by societies on much more subtle warps, on phases of life much shorter, phases within phases within phases. The Tibetan yogi may expend a lot of energy developing facility in the rituals involved in going to sleep and waking up. These rituals have to do with transforming consciousness into a deity form, playing with internalized, visualized lights, moving through the dream phases with as much consciousness back from that of the deity into the waking human form. One is also encouraged in this work to conceive of the waking body as sort of a dream-body, so that consciousness becomes for the dream yogi something closer to a twenty-four hour a day flow of experience, rather than disjointed as it tends to be for most of us. It isn’t just dream states. We all go off on fantasy trips. Our experience is very fragmented, without a peak continuity of awareness.
Q: The yogi can still sleep but that doesn’t mean he’s unconscious?
A: Yes, and what sleep is becomes quite different. Even the patterns in the brain waves change, indicating again, in a gross mechanical way, a different system of entrainment happening. Meanwhile the body gets plenty of rest. Every meditator knows that it’s just as good to meditate as it is to take a nap. The reason for that is fairly clear. Sleep as we know it has its switch in the brain stem, and it tends in most of us to turn the whole conscious system off. But the yogi is staying awake and alert from the brain stem up, and going to sleep from the brain stem down. So that the loss of feeling in the body that one feels when one is doing certain kinds of calming meditation is precisely the body being shut off and going to sleep. The calm can reach the point where you can’t feel anything. One has floating sensations, and may feel like one is levitating. Meanwhile, the brain is perhaps intensely alert. This is why beginners in meditation don’t lie down, because they are conditioned to turn off in that posture from the brain stem up, as well as from the brain stem down. What you do when you train a meditator to sit in an erect posture is you create a state of dissonance relative to lifelong conditioning. You give the message to the body to go to sleep but for the mind to stay alert.
Q: Are there not meditation disciplines that involve release which is basically achieved in a state of flow and from an awareness which is non-fragmentary?
A: You’re speaking of flow experience which is mediated in part by the sympathetic nervous system. There’s another type of passive meditation in which the parasympathetic nervous system comes to predominate and the body goes to sleep. The message is sent down the hierarchy of control: “Okay guys, vegetate, there’s nothing interesting happening outside, you don’t have to track it anymore, go to sleep, and meanwhile we’re going to play some games up here”.
Q: Okay, that’s the first step for anything to do with relaxation; then the intention is to achieve that point where I’m not actively engaged, I simply am, and the body is simply moving. Instead of being still and feeling shut off, it’s not shut off, it’s moving but still the same – you can let that be without attending to anything and then you can seize the opportunities as they arise and that’s kind of becoming attentive within the moving body.
A: Quite nice. Yes, I’ve experienced that in many different endeavours in this lifetime, and have furthermore questioned a lot of other people who have been involved in things I haven’t personally been through. I just experienced it anew skating in the last two days; I’m not a very good skater, gut I just experienced the capacity to go into flow on the ice for the first time yesterday, and it was an ecstatic experience. My friend and I were hand in hand in total synchrony, and I became aware that I was in flow once again and this time in the midst of skating. There’s a sense now of another plateau in that particular work. If you were to wire us up with all sorts of intricate telemetry, we would know from autonomic measures that the sympathetic nervous system is in the state of flow. In order to get into that state of flow you may have to go into dead calm. The experience mediated by those two systems most common to folks is orgasm. Orgasm is a type of flow. Sexual activity in the male and the female is mediated first of all by the parasympathetic nervous system. There has to be a state of calm for it to work. If there is a lot of fear and uptightness in the being, one can’t get cooking. The erection of the clitoris and the penis is mediated by, interestingly enough, the parasympathetic nervous system. The ejaculation in the male and related experiences in the female are sympathetic nervous system operations – the two systems firing simultaneously. So much of the flow experience that individuals will have in dance, in motocross racing, in skating, even in conversation, is mediated by both systems in a particular tuning (Gellhorn 1967).
MORE ABOUT WARP CONTROL
Coming back to the central point, in order to gain control over and hence evoke particular phases of consciousness, it is necessary to affect the entrainments that mediate the phases of consciousness. In order to do that, control must be exercised at the warp level. It may be something simple and gross like if I want to get you drunk, I’ve got to give you alcohol. Many rituals directed at attaining other phases of consciousness involve the imbibing of psychotropic substances. If you read Bourguignon (1973) on altered states of consciousness, you will find that in almost no cultures is the imbibing of these substances allowed to occur in other than socially controlled ritual circumstances. Only in modern society have we individually experimented with psychotropic drugs, and much of the difficulty that some people have encountered in those explorations can be accounted for by the lack of relatively enlightened, ritual control over the circumstances in which those explorations are carried out.
Q: Other societies have that sacredness attached, we do not.
A: I date my own drug experiences to the time in the early sixties when a lot of these explorations began and many of us were influenced by people like Timothy Leary. Leary (Leary et al. 1964) wrote a very influential book that taught us how to go about doing LSD trips. When you reflect back on what he was saying in that book, he was trying to impose ritual control over the conditions and situations under which psychedelic drugs were taken, so as to maintain a sense of sacred wonder and a minimum of danger of bummers, when encountering these new states of consciousness. In other words, warp control.
Warps are relatively short, compared to phases, relatively rapid in the entrainments that ensue, and are relatively unconscious to participants. We are aware of being high as a kite while skiing down the hill, and then we become aware that we’re physically tired. We tend not to be aware of where the elated phase ends, and the tired phase begins. If we start questioning that then maybe we get a little more sophisticated awareness going. Oh, that’s interesting, I really would like the ecstatic phase to last longer and this is a bummer being fatigued, what can I do about it? We begin to look in there, and maybe we realize that we are fatigued because of blood sugar. So maybe we become aware there’s hunger and chew some munchies when the signal becomes apparent. Before we had two phases with one warp; now we’ve got three phases – elation, hunger, and fatigue. We’ve sort of ritualized the warp so that we control it, and gain some control over the phases. That’s a trivial example, so let me give you a much more serious one.
There’s a type of psychotherapy that is called cognitive therapy, originated by a psychologist named A.T. Beck (1967), now retired. Gene d’Aquili worked with Beck’s group over a number of years. The best citation I can give you for the therapy is a book called Feeling Good by David Burns (1980). The therapy is probably the most radical departure from psychoanalysis available today. This therapy is in essence an insight work in which the client learns as quickly as possible to watch the warps between mood states, and to then control the mood states by controlling the warps. Now, they don’t speak in terms of warps and phases; they say that all mood states, all ‘affective disorders’ are the result of wonky cognitions. The object is to produce ‘funky’ mindstates and get away from the ‘wonky’ mindstates, so you’ve got to find the ‘funky’ verses the ‘wonky’ warps.
What Beck’s theory involves is an unconscious warp between the stimulus event and the mood state. That warp is cognition. It has to do with a model, a presumption, an image of the world. Take a simple but extreme example: Somebody is phobic about dogs; they see a dog and go into a panic attach. It’s a problem because their rational mind knows that this is inappropriate and neurotic. There’s a little poodle in somebody’s hand walking down the street and our phobic is so terrified they have to cross the street rather than pass this little dog. They know in the conscious part of the mind that this is ridiculous, preposterous, but the terror remains. What Beck’s technique does is to school the mind to look for the little cognition that happens in the brief space of time between the first identification of ‘dog’ and the ensuing panic. Obviously this technique requires a certain level of self-awareness, a capacity for concentration on one’s own mind. There must be a rudimentary capacity to contemplate upon the operations of the mind. What one discovers is that there is a sort of presumption going on down there. That dog is going to bite me. Or it may not be a thought in the linguistic sense; it may be an image, an anticipation of danger. It can be a voice, a flashing image of being bitten by that dog. An unconscious image triggers the effect because it is a right lobe thing and I’m not entrained to right lobe processing at the moment, but the right lobe nonetheless has a lot of control over affect.
The task is to become aware of these ‘automatic thoughts’. An automatic thought is a repetitive warp, and just as repetitive as the phases. Every time you have a repetitive phase you must have a repetitive warp. The Beck method is in part a pencil and paper exercise; one becomes aware of the cognition happening, then one evaluates how much one believes that cognition to be true; one writes down the ‘adult’ evaluation of the situation. You get more rapid with this and no longer need the pencil and paper. What happens, seemingly by magic, is that the moods disappear. Not only do they disappear, but before they do so you actually look forward to the moods, because the exercise is so interesting. This method works beautifully for depression.
What am I saying here? I’m using the essential feature of Beck’s cognitive therapy as a much more sophisticated and serious example of ritualized warp control – the imposition of awareness via ritual procedure upon the warp changes not only the warp, but the subsequent phase. It can eliminate the mood state altogether, often in a very rapid time. The client is often very quickly dealing with his/her ‘problems’ on their own. This as opposed to month after month, year after year of tedious psychoanalysis, or some other such therapy.
Q: Is ritual really necessary? Can’t you just drop the repetitive pattern? Because after a while, having stopped the repetition, then when you do act on a completely new thing, that action gives rise to a new experience which is so wonderful that it re-entrains your desire. You, learning how to learn.
A: I think many, many different approaches use ritual to break habit patterns. That is to say, break-in to de-condition the repetitive entrainments so that the entire community of cells which make up our being develop a greater freedom of expression. We’re neither reacting against nor towards any particular entrainment. It has its adaptive advantages to react in certain habitual ways. It gets us food and prevents us from becoming food, but we all know that we’ve left that one behind. As any meditator who has done long retreats knows, the problem of guaranteeing survival is minimal: people feed you good food, you are sheltered, you’ve got clothes and medicine, and what else do you need? So you can give over your entire being to a new way of experiencing, which may, by the way, involve ritually breaking up old patterns of entrainment. The being becomes involved in breaking up the repetitive warps, becoming aware of the warps, expanding the warps and the phases, or overriding warps with consciously-imposed alternative warps. When the whole system is freed up you experience flow in which there is just maximal awareness of each moment of consciousness that may not fit neatly into any particular cognized phase. Maybe you’ve got a sort of gross cognization – I’m involved in dance now – and this is a chunk of experience which you are now calling flow; there was a time before you were in flow, and there’s a time after the flow ends, and you begin to react once again in more repetitive ways to the world.
All of this makes perfect sense, if you can understand if not yet realize, that each moment of consciousness is a totally fresh, new burst of activity in the sensorium. It’s a whole new field of dots, and there are adaptive advantages to clinging to an imposed continuity of form in that sensorium, but there are also payoffs for letting that go. And, funny thing, there are experiences when you are able to let that go. These are often called ‘higher’ forms of consciousness in more mystical traditions. There are two characteristics par excellence of higher consciousness: one is totality, a loss of the fragmentation of experience, even a loss of the subject-object dualism; and the other is flow. In culture after culture these experiences are coded as higher states of consciousness, and of knowing, and of power.
The key is the choice, and that gets into the question of what freedom means. Freedom must at least involve choice over alternative entrainments. If conscious network has no control over its own constituent entrainments, how can consciousness be said to be free? No political movement will increase that freedom, no ideology, no legislation, nothing in fact that does not free up conscious network from its own repetitive, habitual, robot-like entrainments. The number of paths to loosening up the entrainments and establishing a freedom of choice is great – it’s a spiritual smorgasbord out there these days! “There is only one path and a million ways to say it”. So, you can practice aikido, contact dance, skating. There are good paths, and not so good paths in that some of them will only carry you part way along.
One of my favourite anecdotes is taken from John Travolta’s character in “Saturday Night Fever”, in which he is a virtuoso disco dancer and gets very high when in the flow of dancing, and at one point he walks out the door with his new found love, looks up at the sky and he says, “Why can’t I get this high in the rest of my life?” In the movie his woman influences him towards freedom, showing him he can move out from the dance into a wider sphere of experience. Yes John, there is life after the disco! There are paths that are better than the disco path or the skating path, in that there are fingers pointing at every stage you’re at, at every step in the garden there’s a little sign saying “next stone – don’t stop here – this is just a stepping-stone to the next”.
Q: It’s not just a question of freedom – okay there is freedom of choice, and that is intrinsic to us – but you’ve said that it’s a matter of choice of whether to detach yourself or to attach yourself, but never a choice to be attached or be detached. It’s always being detached and then you enter into form but always from that higher state.
Q2: You can’t not be attached; it’s a matter of what you’re attached to and the flexibility to go from attachment to detachment. Ultimately no matter where you go, you’re there. If you’re in Nirvana, you’re there. And so you can’t not be somewhere. You can’t be not in a position. So having a choice of saying “I’m here, and I’ll move there” occurs within the context of attachment.
A: At any rate, there are paths that will carry you further along the line; as the Buddha put it “My teaching is good in the beginning, it’s good in the middle, and it’s good in the end”. Perhaps what he was pointing to was the fact that on that path there is teaching for all beings. No matter how free we have become, there’s always freer. There are other paths – Sufi, Kabala, shamanic traditions of various sorts – that clearly carry beings as far as each being is able to go; whereas there are many more limited paths. There’s things one can do to experience flow but then they don’t tell you what to do with it, you see.
The upshot of all this is that the human brain is capable of producing any phenomenal reality that it can know. So in a sense the sensorium is a very, very intricate stage upon which can be produced any movie for which there is an audience. By audience I mean a part of the being that desires that movie or that aspect of a movie; very often not the ego. If you are with me in stating that nothing arises in the sensorium except via the activity of living cells functioning in concert with each other, then nothing arises unless it is desired by those cells. There are far more cells in the community than the number that actually control what arises and passes away in the sensorium. The entire being is not the sensorium; the sensorium is an organization within this community involving millions of nerve cells, and which is specialized in portraying a phenomenal world for the rest of the being. So that the desire for portrayal in the movie may originate from cells that cannot directly produce what arises in the sensorium.
If you think of the being as a horrendously complex community of cells, all interacting with each other in an ecology of mind, and within that community dwell the cells that specialize in producing the world as a subsystem, then the question of the relationship between non-sensorial and sensorial cells suggests itself. We wished to find a word for that relationship. We presumed of course that it would exist in systems theory, but no. There isn’t a specific word for the influence of subsystems upon each other within a total system. At least we couldn’t find one in set theory, although the relations can be admirably modeled using that tool. To make a long story short, we finally invented the term ‘homeomorphogenesis’. It is a term compounded from ‘morphogenesis’, a change in form and ‘homeo’, same as, or similar to. It denotes an intercausal isomorphism between two or more changing subsystems of the same system. In the real world this is rarely a total isomorphism in which set A can be mapped into and onto set B, but rather a partial isomorphism such that set A can be mapped onto B, but B can’t be mapped onto A. It’s vaguely the relationship between a model of a Boeing 707 and a real Boeing 707. There are causally linked correspondences, but they are not the same.
Q: Is there a relation between the differences? Gregory Bateson talks about the world of forces and impacts and the world of differences, and what happens is that the relationship between the map and the territory is the isomorphic relation of differences. The difference is between the parts out there relating to the differences happening in here.
A: Yes, but there’s no word for the general process, which incidentally, indicates a previous lack of awareness of the significance of that relationship in the behaviour of organic systems. Certainly once the significance is recognized, one would like to speak of it when one sees it. So, we’ve been forced to invent one just as we were forced to invent ‘neurognosis’. There was no good term for that either. We do try, we don’t invent them so we can pat our egos on the back for how clever we are for inventing them, but rather when awareness changes and you see something new you want to label it so you can talk about it.
Now, after all this is said, what is the significance of homeomorphogenesis? It is a two-way relationship. The audience for the sensorial event may be an organization of cells outside the network of cells that actually controls the sensorium. The audience might be another neural system, or it may be the heart, it can be the liver, the big toe. Mind you, all of those are innervated by neurons, and it is mainly through neurons that they communicate with other parts of the body. But it also works in the other direction because sensorial cells are entrained to non-sensorial cells, so that events can arise in the sensorium that are isomorphic with, and causally interconnected with events occurring in non-sensorial cells. By creating events within the sensorium you can affect the entire being. So, you want to calm out; you can imagine your body as this sort of hollow tube, no substance at all. It has a membrane like cellophane, and then you put a little blue radiant star or sphere in the lower abdomen – in the “fear center” – and you are creating an event in the sensorium, which by an intricate network of homeomorphogenic connections calms out and centers the energy in the body. That’s how it is experienced. It can be reversed. You can be doing yogic work, and all of a sudden a blue sphere spontaneously arises before the mind’s eye - called a nimitta in Buddhist psychology, a “secret sign”. The nimitta occurs unbidden in the sensorium. This calming event can occur in our being and result in a sensorial symbol, or we can affect the symbol in the sensorium and that in turn can affect the being’s activity.
Now, this brings us back to John Schumacher (n.d.). You will recall he challenged biogenetic structuralism with failing to see that causality upon the world can originate from within the mind outwards, as well as from the outside in. The latter is a Newtonian view – the outside-in mechanical notion of perception. It may be that through homeomorphogenic relations we can create sensorial events which not only influence the being, which is the internal operational environment, but the entire operational environment, or some aspect of the outer operational environment like making things float or making some sensorial event occur in someone else’s nervous system because ultimately it is all interconnected.
Q: So that there is a world in there but it depends on how we have organized the dots, the patterns we impose on these dots, certain realities may arise.
A: Yes. Now one of the major ingredients of ritual used to control experience is the imposition of sensorial plays that end up influencing the whole being. For example, there is a problem raised by Boaz when he was watching shamans on the northwest coast. The Kwakiutl have speaking tubes that run from the outside of the spirit house up through the fire. Somebody will stand outside the building and talk through the tube, and it sounds like it’s coming through the fire. They do all manner of elaborate things: walls that move and shake, various noises and so on. Everybody knows the tricks, the stagecraft involved. It’s not like a sophisticated magician on the television where perhaps you can’t tell how the trick is done.
The methods in primitive society are very crude by modern movie standards. The healing shaman does his act, perhaps reaches down and “sucks out” this bloody bit of meat that he offhandedly stuck in this cheeks before he started sucking. Or maybe he has been talking around the pebble in his mouth which he later “sucks out” of the patient. Boaz wanted to know what was going on here; could anybody be so stupid as to believe this is actually a demon being sucked out? Boaz was really puzzled. What he couldn’t see, but what we are now in a position to see, is that a staged event, however crude, experienced in one phase of consciousness can be used to incubate experiences that come alive in other phases of consciousness – dream or trance or whatever. Psychodrama!
Q: It is the liminoid experience which is important.
A: Exactly! By manipulating the symbolic material in the sensorium – in other words, by taking control and creating a new movie – you can affect the entire being, either in that phase of consciousness, or in a subsequent phase of consciousness.
May I suggest that the principle of homeomorphogenic entrainment is a powerful explanatory device. It provides a neurophysiological mechanism for a feature of ritual that has been recognized in anthropology, at least at the level of symbolic significance, since the time of A.W. Hocart:
I wish most particularly to insist upon this equivalence which is the basis of imitation, which is itself the most fundamental thing in ritual. The ritual turns upon the fact that one thing can be made equivalent to another, and so that principle remains the most constant throughout the ages; for, if it drops out, the ritual loses its meaning, and the very reason of its existence. If you cannot act on A by acting on B there can be no ritual.
And, of course, we are referring particularly to the power of symbols ritually manipulated in one of consciousness evoking direct experiences in another phase of consciousness. This view contravenes the naive supposition that primitive magical or cosmological ritual is impractical, superstitious or fundamentally different than techniques used in more civilized societies:
A careful analysis of most, if not all, magical ritual shows that it has survival value. It deals at root with the unconscious forces governing individual and social behaviour. By bringing them into the open, suitably disguised in ritual or symbolized in tangible objects or actions, it makes them manageable. Far from being “silly superstitions”, they become essential tools for survival – and are beginning to be seen as such by most sensitive anthropologists.
(Watson 1982: #121)
Far more than an heuristic device, the principle of homeomorphogenesis points to the crucial importance of theatre cross-culturally. More than anyone else in anthropology, Victor Turner was beginning to do this. By the time he was writing From Ritual to Theatre (1982), he had already begun to comprehend that there was something powerfully evocative in really very crude primitive theatre. Maybe evocation of direct experience is the central intent of such theatre. Very thin illusion, just about as thin as one cell’s depth. One can create the theatre for oneself, one sets ones own stage. The Tibetan dream yogi may dance around in this phase of consciousness coding it as a dream state, and then in the dream phase, coding it as reality, until the two get balanced in consciousness, perhaps until the thin veil has parted.
There are, of course, phases of consciousness beyond that kind of theatre; there’s theatre in the round, so to speak. There are states of insightful awareness in which one is watching the projector. In the Buddhist tradition all ritual, all learning to control phases of consciousness is directed towards a mindstate of dispassionate observation of all the movies. One learns to code all realities as illusion, as a thin veil. This is Krishnamurti’s “choiceless awareness”. One wants to know what desire states are causing this movie and that movie to arise. Soon the movies get thinner and thinner and thinner, more flowing and more flowing, as the mind looks at the passing away of the projector. There is absorption into the passing, and within the space of a single moment there is absolutely certain knowledge of the builder. And then a moment later the movie starts again, but it doesn’t start up exactly the same way, or rather it is like “before awakening the projector, after awakening the projector”.
We are pointing to the mechanisms that are operating in at least the kind of rituals used to control experience. Our theory gets much more elaborate. We’ve done papers on all of this, so this is just a summary. What I wish to suggest here is that certain types of ritual are used to evoke extraordinary realms of experience that, in turn, provide empirical verification of the multiple realities that make up most cosmologies. This will be the main issue addressed in the next chapter.
[The book is continued at: http://cdlaughlin.googlepages.com/anibisinthetree%28part2%29]
An Ibis in the Tree: A Biogenetic Structural Prologue to the Study of Freedom is a record of a series of seminars I gave on biogenetic structuralism in 1986 in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. The original book was privately published and very few copies were made. But thanks to the kindness of my friend Mary Roberts who retyped the whole thing into digital format, I am able to make this work more widely available. It is presented here in its original form (Judy Melanson did the original cover art, and typed the original book), but I will add update notes to each chapter as I feel it is needed. I will be placing links to this page on both my website: biogenetic structuralism, and my blog: Charles Laughlin's blog. This book should be considered in the context of a more thorough understanding of biogenetic structural theory. You are free to quote this book, but I ask that you give credit where credit is due.
Charles D. Laughlin, PhD.
Emeritus Professor of Anthropology & Religion