A Tale of Two Paradigms

I decided to write this blog for a number of reasons: first of all, I felt that I had something interesting to say; I was writing a lot of stuff on forums and thought it would be good to put my ideas together somewhere; I wanted to write a book, but never seemed able to organise it logically and kept finding new perspectives; I’ve always kept a journal, so blogging fits the style I’m used to writing in; if I want to publish a book (or just more of my writing), it’s probably best to use electronic means for environmental reasons.

In fact, this is my second attempt. When I took the plunge for the first time, thinking that I had gained enough clarity about my work to dare to publish it, the whole edifice seemed to fall apart within a matter of weeks. One of my tasks is to reassess what, if anything, is still valid from that earlier philosophy and what must be ditched, as well as to educate myself on subjects that have opened up to me within my new worldview.

I made a paradigm shift. That process itself was not entirely unexpected. My philosophy involved paradigms and paradigm shifts very centrally. I was not at all surprised to move through one myself, indeed I was working towards deliberately inducing one, it’s just that I hoped it would be a very different kind.

I am hesitating, I realise, to name the philosophies I had before and have now, because putting labels on such compex things is riddled with dangers. I would not want you to read these first descriptions and think that you understand precisely where I’m coming from.

Having offered that word of caution, then, where I was before the change might be described as on ‘the road less travelled’ (as M Scott Peck called it in his famous book). I was of a mystical bent, a ‘seeker’, a tentative believer in a realm of reality that lay just out of sight of the ordinary world, either ‘spiritual’ (in the sense of being inhabited by non-physical personalities or a Personality, God) or what might be termed ‘transcendent’ in a more Buddhist sense (implying a Unity that a human mind can reach or ‘melt into’, sometimes called ‘God’, sometimes not, but still the Great Truth, Mind, Overmind, Oneness, Nirvana).

I rejected the Christianity that was preached at me in a half-hearted, non-committal way every Monday in assembly, but then as a teenager in the ’70s I thought I’d found something incredibly deep and very likely to be true in the confident words of yogis and Eastern mystics.

I made many about-faces and reassessments of Eastern philosophy since then, never studying it formally and never really getting clear about its many branches and meanings – cherry-picking – but I considered seriously what I discovered, and I practised a little Hatha Yoga and meditation. My philosophy meandered towards Buddhism, and for many years I hoped for and worked towards attaining Enlightenment. I am also rather lazy, however, and my practice was never very steady.

My studies got more serious in 2006 and 2007, when I read and reviewed several books on Buddhism and related subjects, but I felt frustrated to find serious faults in all of them, from slightly fuzzy thinking, through infantile failures of logic to blatant appeals to dogma. However, I thought that these were perhaps just the misunderstandings of individual authors, and that behind them the great truth I sought might still lie. In January this year I began to consider really pushing forward in my practice instead of my reading, and work towards attaining Enlightenment. I had understood for quite some time, of course, that that goal was one I must strive for by my own efforts, that it was attained through practice rather than just rational thought, and that success (according to most sources) even depended on things outside my control, like the number and quality of my previous incarnations, for instance. My best efforts might be in vain, but a lack of effort would probably not get me there.

Or would it? Other versions of the teaching – particularly along the lines of Zen – suggested a deep paradox about the journey. If Enlightenment is synonymous with Liberation, the extinguishing of all desire, perhaps striving itself is the problem and perhaps I might get ‘Enlightened’ if I gave up trying. These and other thoughts I began discussing with Buddhist monks and lay teachers at online forums and by email, and out of those meetings and discussions arose further doubts and concerns to add to the heap of errors I’d found in my reading list. The whole sherbang was looking more and more shaky.

Everyone I talked to online who believed in Buddhism showed – in my admittedly partial judgement – the same failures of reason as the authors of the books I had studied in previous months. In this medium, where I had the opportunity to ask questions and engage in conversation, I also witnessed a lot of obfuscation and a deep inertia of intellect, an entrenchment in the current view, an automatic refusal or inability to ‘think outside the box’. This was so powerful that it caused experienced monks, supposedly dedicated to peace, love, liberation and openness (not to mention truth!), to close down, refuse to discuss questions, censor polite expressions of doubt from the bit of the Internet they controlled, become dismissive and hurtful and, most worrying of all, demonstrate a mindless obedience to others whom they considered wise or even divine. They struck me as some of the least enlightened people I’d ever met.

I was really quite shocked. I might have expected this kind of behaviour if I had expressed doubts about Jesus of Nazareth to fundamental Christians, but I had the crazy notion that Buddhists would be open, rational people, not religious zealots. I should not, perhaps, have been so surprised. I remembered joining a Buddhist discussion group many years before, where I was too shy to say very much, but witnessed endless bickering about the meaning of various Buddhist concepts and how to apply them, the clash of what appeared to be enormous egos, and only an occasional word of support, encouragement, care or compassion. None of them seemed to have ‘got it’, whatever it was, the relativity and paradox at the heart of it all. I preferred therapy groups, where all creeds were accepted, as it were united under one religion of moral common sense, mutuality, respect, care and forgiveness.

At about the same time of my final push towards Enlightenment, I became involved in two other forums, Steve Pavlina’s Personal Development for Smart People, and the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), and my relationships and discussions there also influenced my reassessment of my life’s spiritual quest.

I argued with the sceptics and the scientists at JREF that the private subjectivity of human consciousness was an unsolved mystery and, I thought, might be considered primary, more absolute than the energy-matter that science investigated. I went into it defensive and almost immediately fell foul of moderation when I was attacked and ridiculed and decided to bite back, but I came out feeling that I had presented and developed my points and considered those put to me.

There was a scientific proposition I found particularly intruiging, that consciousness could evolve out of utterly unconscious energy-matter, and take place moment to moment because of the actions of utterly unconscious brain cells. I was puzzled how I  – the self, the witnessing centre of all my experience – could seem so absolutely certain, so private to this bundle of nerves and synapses and, crucially, so unlike the material stuff of the universe.

Fuller discussion of the issue of human consciousness must wait for another time, but that single thread I started at the JREF, Subjectivity and Science, from which I seemed to emerge with no significant change in my belief system, sowed invisible seeds of doubt that would bring me back months later with much more sympathy for the sceptical, materialist view, with gratitude for what I had learned.

(Steve Pavlina’s forum is a curious place, of which I’ll say more later, no doubt. Steve’s work – I suppose you could call them ‘teachings’ – come under the protected title ‘Personal Development for Smart People’. To a British person, certainly to one who’s knocked around in therapeutic circles for some time, it comes as a surprise to see ‘Personal Development’ interpreted the way certain people do, particularly it seems in the USA. There’s a whole industry teaching you how to do it, but it seems a very close bedfellow to Business Development, and that merges seamlessly into exploitative practices of the marketing kind and just as imperceptibly into New Age philosophy. There is a strong influence at the forum from something called variously The Secret, Intention Manifestation, the Law of Attraction and Subjective Reality, which I find philosophically interesting, but also quite disturbing.)

I must exercise the same caution about labels in approaching the paradigm toward which I have moved as I did about the one I’ve left behind, but a starting point would be ‘sceptical’. There is some danger of misunderstanding immediately, since many people consider ‘sceptic’ and ‘atheist’ as synonymous. (As a matter of fact, I do not know whether there is a God or not, but very much doubt it. A deeper analysis would require a definition of God.) But the point I want to make is that scepticism is about doubting, rather than deciding such an issue once and for all. A sceptic may doubt his atheism as another does his religion, since both are beliefs. This is something that some self-styled ‘sceptics’ don’t understand: they use the word to mean that they are clear in their view that the world is material and godless; of that they have no doubt, or they fail to accept that non-belief in God has a positive implication of belief in the non-existence of God.

I began this new blog with the understanding that there were things in my old view that may still be useful – I am increasingly of that opinion – and that I have not moved to a traditionally scientific-materialist philosophy either. Materialism (or, if you prefer, ‘physicalism’) is an interesting philosophy I wish to consider and learn more about, and I am willing to contemplate that everything in existence might be energy-matter, while ‘mind’ is an ’emergent phenomenon’, a particular effect, just as a rainbow is not made of a special rainbow-essence, but light and raindrops impacting retinas and eliciting biophysical responses.

As I write this, I am very aware that I did not have difficulty understanding the scientific view at all, and might even say that I believed it to be true. I am struggling to give the subtle sense in which I thought, still, that there ‘had to be something more’. One way to explain it, perhaps, is to say that I applied the law of conservation of energy to consciousness. If there is now consciousnessness in the universe, I thought, it was not created out of unconsciousness. Nothing gives rise to anything essentially different. Of course, that may be true, but the material scientist would argue that mind is not essentially different from matter, but a quality or effect of matter when arranged in a certain way (a living human brain, sufficiently supported chemically and sufficiently developed systemically).

An image I have kept in mind is of straddling these paradigms – the mental/mystical and the material/scientific – keeping a foot in each, not quite crossing, but considering what it’s like on the fence. Nevertheless, what has been reaffirmed is my commitment to reason and the ousting of personal bias and superstition as far as possible. The Buddhist intention to transcend ego-desire in order to see reality clearly is, after all, very similar to the scientific intention to remove subjective bias to the same ends; the method and underlying axioms are completely different. There are further analogies, like the illusory or transient nature of self, a proposition of Buddhism which aligns it with scientific physicalism, in contrast with most other religions. Many of the concepts and rules of Buddhism, however, I now consider likely to be driven by wishful and circular thinking. Some of these I have been forced to recognise as superstitions that I took on. I must say in passing that I believe science also is not free of circular thinking and is based on a kind of faith, a seldom-examined canon, though it does at least hold the intention of overthrowing any it discovers to be false. I will return to this subject in greater detail later.

If this all sounds very dry and analytical, let me assure you that going through it was an emotional rollercoaster. I had caught myself cheating, as it were, making the basis of my philosophy and aspiration the mystical hope of deathless liberation from suffering and full understanding of the universe promised by Eastern mystical philosophy. I am learning that I may never know ‘the Truth’, and I am having to come to terms with the grief. I told myself pleasant fairytales and chased illusions for thirty-five years; I will suffer and die, perhaps not having discovered the meaning of life; perhaps there is no meaning of life.

Part of this work will be retrospective, to publish some of the details of this transition as I wrote them, in longhand, in my journal. I hope that in doing so I may encourage others who are waking up to scepticism, recovering from religious indoctrination and self-delusion, or opening themselves to atheistic possibilities. It is hard to overestimate the fear, grief, anger and depression that can be faced by those who dare to question their religious beliefs, for if those beliefs are right, they could now be suffering from a mental illness or Satanic temptation, and risk losing the most important relationship they have, with the creator and sustainer of all things and the source of all goodness.

The odd thing is that this transition, for me, has a flavour of that beautiful promise of mysticism. I am again reluctant to label it, but it reminds me of ‘enlightenment’ (and it doesn’t make me feel too arrogant if I spell it with a small ‘e’). It was certainly a great liberation, which is another name for the same condition, it was ‘very enlightening’ in the colloquial sense, and I feel that my ego has been, if not completely transcended, at least taken down a peg or two. It offers something of an answer to my question to my temporary guru – Wouldn’t giving up striving for Enlightenment be an enlightened act? – but it is a paradoxical answer: I have not given up striving to learn, I have just given up straining to believe certain propositions, striving to attain a condition that may, after all, be illusory.

About lettersquash

White, male, heterosexual, left-leaning, almost-vegetarian blogger, musician, ex-psychotherapist and ex-mystic, now philosophical naturalist (atheist) ... somewhere near his sixtieth year on the freaking planet, trying to counter some tiiny fraction of the magical thinking and lies of his culture.
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26 Responses to A Tale of Two Paradigms

  1. John says:

    Perhaps even what we call our lives are also illusory? One-life or illusion of it-is likely all we need. Read Asimov’s “The Last Answer.” Just Google it-this short story is online and one of the most interesting perspectives on eternal consciousness I’ve ever read. And all in a very short story.

    Some very interesting thoughts emerge here reading about your journey into the mystic realm. You should read 100 Years Of Solitude if you haven’t already also. It takes mysticism in an interesting direction.

  2. John Freestone says:

    Thanks John. I haven’t read those books, but I doubt they would take my thoughts in any new mystical direction. I’m intruiged: what is the mystical direction you mean? Is it something that you can’t express yourself? Forgive me, but I have learned to mistrust the kind of suggestion you offer here, which is that there is a source – a book or a person or a philosophy – that will reveal something important enough to share, but not clear enough to paraphrase.

    From where I stand now, all such “mystical” stuff is just more of the same. Something mysterious happened, apparently, about 14 billion years ago, and continues to happen with some degree of mystery. Out of The One everything separate emerged through a long complex process of evolution. This suggests a kind of syntropy inherent in the universe, by which complexity arises. Scientists seem to agree that it will all go back to a cold uninterestingness eventually, by entropy.

    Maybe that goes on forever, Big Bangs and Kosmos, followed by cooling, who knows; what it doesn’t mean is that there’s any such thing as “eternal consciousness”, but feel free to tell me about it.

    We love that idea, because we are animals who have evolved a symbolic cognitive process and can understand mortality, but we don’t accept our own, because of that very same genetic programming that allows us to see it. Hence, for however many millions of years that we’ve had culture, it’s been riddled with lies about gods and life after death and eternal consciousness.

    “Mystical” is the end of the real mystery, a “last answer” because we can’t stand not knowing. I probably will google that Asimov, come to think of it. I don’t want to be accused of being closed minded, and I’m curious what it’s about.

    See, when you say that maybe our lives are illusory, it raises the question of who’s having the illusion. I realise, of course, that one answer is that consciousness is primary – there’s a real “me”, like a soul, kind of dreaming it all, or perhaps that is the Godhead – but another answer, which I now favour, fits more with the evidence, which is that what is having the illusion of life is the meat-machine that is my body with its incredibly complex brain. The “soul”, consciousness is an abstraction, a symbolic complex that develops with enough processing power and memory and leisure time. That is the illusion, the self. That’s quite profound when you remember that this is one central idea of Buddhism – that there is no enduring self – though a great deal of “mysticism” surrounded his philosophy, or grew around it.

    And there is a scientific version, without the mumbo-jumbo of past lives and cosmic consciousness. This is the view that I began to understand a little during the discussion I linked to, Subjectivity and Science. People keep saying that what is constant and certain is just their consciousness (it’s what I argued), but the more I investigate this view the more untenable it seems.

    The alternative is crazier and more interesting, in fact. Matter is waking, it seems, not Mind; at least, if we trace consciousness back through evolution, we don’t have to go far before it’s pretty well vanished. We can enjoy poetic notions of Gaia or a conscious universe, but these don’t seem to be particularly truthful or scientifically valid ideas.

    The Earth, for instance, operates in complex systems that interact with others similarly to those of a living being, but does not have a sense of self or even anything like a rudimentary consciousness.

    Human beings, the internet, are these Gaia’s brain? It seems a tortuous connection. We – each human being – is thinking. We can act together through politics. We might imagine a time when we give up the self and merge into a higher mind, all wirelessed up, but we’re in the realm of science fiction. It seems willful romanticism to imagine that the universe was conscious in any meaningful sense before Homo sapiens emerged, unless there are thinking beings elsewhere.

    What do you believe? What is the eternal consciousness you mentioned? Is there any evidence for it? Do you mean your individual consciousness will continue forever?

  3. Donald Telfer says:

    You write very well.

    I believe life has a meaning for me, a profane but transcendental meaning, without being religious. There are other people for whom it has a meaning, without them being self-deluded about it.

    Here is an anecdote from a book I read, written by a pair of authors whose ultimate (= final) vocation was somewhat like mine, although they did things backwards in their life timelines compared with me.

    A man walked into a building site where a cathedral was under construction. He noticed three stonemasons chipping away at blocks of stone. He asked in turn each of the three men about their work.
    The first said he was making a block of stone rectangular.
    The second said he was earning money to feed his family.
    The third man gazed up into the sky and then said he was helping to build a cathedral.

    The way I read that was that the three men had three different levels of consciousness as human beings, the third man´s level was more transcendental than the first two. In Buddhism it arbitrarily (?) assumes there are nine levels. I can think of five or six levels (so I can imagine what would be said if there were instead five or six stonemasons at work). That is what I think is part of what the meaning of life is. For me the meaning is what you do. That girl I knew who drowned, Geraldine, died doing it, although I am not sure if she understood that she was doing it or not.

  4. drops says:

    i knew you were a writer!

  5. lettersquash says:

    Hi drops, nice to see you here. Thanks for commenting!

  6. drops says:

    The thing i keep coming to when i see people talking about consciousness is that i don’t see why there is anything to talk about. Maybe i am missing something. But don’t we know what consciousness means? Why is it that we think as if it means something definitely, and yet, at the same time, we debate what it does (definitely) mean? It’s not like consciousness is some object that fell into our laps from the sky, and we’re left to speculate what this thing is. No, we use this word all the time. How do we use it? That’s the meaning. There is no asking about it, out of the context of its use, until we’ve established that outside of use it does still mean. And it is not my idea that “meaning is use”. I’ve heard it before. But isn’t it true? If not necessarily true, then don’t we need to figure THAT out first, before asking what consciousness is, or making assertions about other forms of it? I am very suspicious of any inquiry into the meaning of a word. It seems that such endeavors are merely the mixing and roaming of an idea in our heads, with other ones. Nothing more than ‘play’. But then why are we treating this play as not play? — As if it were something more objective? Why don’t we just establish what the thing does mean, and everything else will be set (logically). If we don’t know what it means, why do we think it does mean something? I don’t understand how we can ask what something means, apart from the context that we are learning new language. To ask what something means presumes it does mean something OTHER than as we know. But what grounds that presumption?

  7. lettersquash says:

    I think “meaning is use” is Wittgenstein, and you’re putting some interesting ideas here that he addressed. Your question about trying to define meanings as “play” is similar, since he described language as various forms of word games, as far as I understand him (which isn’t very far).

    Words are defined only with other words, so that gives us nothing I’d call ‘meaning’, since we can only know what the definition means by defining all its words, and the whole thing is circular. But meaning is a bit like the “use” thing. We ultimately demonstrate a meaning by an action, pointing to its object or performing the meaning of a verb, and in more complex forms, like giving examples to indicate a general class, or combining ideas into something new, even hard to imagine (“invisible pink unicorn”).

    I think the problem people have with consciousness is that you can’t point at it, at least not in a simple way that satisfies. It seems to be quite easy to define in a sloppy way, but escapes finer investigation. This is because it isn’t a thing, but a complex of behaviours, because it is only directly accessible introspectively (indirectly through report or inference), and because we have powerful intuitions about it that are wrong. I suspect consciousness will turn out to be an embodied computational behaviour, like a set of processes whereby an organism verifies its existence and models itself within its environment. Since it is a body with sense organs, this modeling is simultaneously kinaesthetic.

    People object to the idea of consciousness as computation. They see no reason why an unconscious being couldn’t do computations just as well and thus make the same choices. But the choices an evolved being makes are to benefit its evolutionary success, and it only makes those choices if it is motivated. Well, maybe emotion is what motivates such a body (even if it might be possible to imagine unconscious robots that are motivated by some other means). We have a rich, poetic and impressive history of abstracted ideas about what our emotions and perceptions are (and our memories and ideas and words), but they come down to physical tensions and relaxations, the firings of electrical signals throughout the system. We don’t experience “qualia”, we experience physics and chemistry.

    It’s interesting to see what happens when someone asks, “Are you conscious?” at random times. You begin to realise that you’re certainly not self-conscious until then, but you assume you were conscious of your perceptions, or the “contents of consciousness” at other times. But I’ve begun to question that as well. The usual conscious/self-conscious distinction isn’t clear to me, and I’m starting to think I just act as an automaton until something, like that question, forces me into (self)-conscious mode. And that seems to be just a modeling of myself, an answer to an internal query to the database: Am I still here? Is out there still out there? Where in space am I? And we know from experiments that the computations can go wrong and spit out strange answers, like “I’m here, but I’m above myself” (and write a Big TOE about it).

  8. drops says:

    “Words are defined only with other words, so that gives us nothing I’d call ‘meaning’, since we can only know what the definition means by defining all its words, and the whole thing is circular.”
    That is a very interesting insight. I wonder if it is sound? It looks sound to me. Could it be that simple? Shall we say that asking for the meaning is itself the mistake? Because the activity is by nature circular? So does that settle it?
    I want to distinguish between two kinds of inquiry into meaning. 1. the word is foreign to someone, and so they ask what it means (as asking of a tool what it does). 2. the word is not foreign to someone, and yet they still do ask what it means.
    Case 1 is not the concern. Case 1 is simply about someone learning language (for the first time). They are simply acquainting themselves to the program, so that they may use it. The concern (at least mine) is with Case 2. The guy is perfectly familiar with the term, and yet he asks what does it mean. What is going on here? Can’t we respond.. “Tom— what do you mean what does it mean. I’ve seen you use the word 1000 times in the last 2 years. We’re you joking all along or something?”.
    This may sound like I am trivializing the issue, but I am not. I am trying to get AT the core of the problem. That is, I want to know WHAT Tom will say back? It would be great if you could ‘play Tom’ for me (then I can ask the next question). Rather than I speak for Tom (perhaps in inadequate ways).
    Wittgenstein should be taken very seriously if he came up with “meaning is use”. This is an extremely profound statement and it is not something to overlook, as a crack in the wall, so that we can continue along — painting. We’ve got to address this crack. We’ve got to show that meaning somehow is NOT just use. There is no sense in digging for the meaning of consciousness until we have established that meaning is more than use. Would you agree with that?

  9. lettersquash says:

    “We’ve got to show that meaning somehow is NOT just use. There is no sense in digging for the meaning of consciousness until we have established that meaning is more than use. Would you agree with that?”

    Not really, drops. Take another example. If I need a pencil, I can easily get one in the shops or online. If I try to define what a pencil is, I run into the definition problem (I’m assuming “definition” is the same as “meaning”). Even so, there are good reasons to have some kind of working definition of a pencil, if you want to manufacture them, for instance, or if there’s a legal dispute about being sold boxes of sticks with no lead (or leads with no stick!).

    The last point reminds me that there’s another problem with definitions, besides the circularity one. Things are often made up of different parts and have different attributes, and those are impossible to stipulate exactly. If we mixed, say, 80% powdered graphite with 20% wax or a plastic resin and extruded it into a hollow tube, it might work as a pencil. At 60% and 40%, or some other combination, it might not, and you’d no longer say you had a pencil, but there might be a smooth gradation from pencil to non-pencil depending on the mix.

    The meaning or definition clearly depends on use, too. If it writes, it’s at least potentially a pencil; if not, it probably isn’t. Even then there are semantic questions like “Is a broken pencil a pencil? If not, why call it one?” I referred to a “non-pencil” earlier, but do I mean “a pencil that doesn’t work”? I may be wrong, but I find such exercises ultimately futile, and it’s a well-known complaint about philosophy.

    As far as I know, we’re still waiting for good, comprehensive descriptions of what consciousness is, and there are lots of hypotheses. It’s not too hard to come up with a simple definition, but usually these prove problematic when analysed closely, which shouldn’t be a surprise if that problem applies so widely. In addition, it is subjective, uniquely present in one individual, which brings experimental difficulties, mainly that judging its existence and quality relies on reporting by the subject, or on doing experiments on one’s own consciousness.

    The slipperiness of definitions makes me wonder about science, since it relies on definitions very heavily. It was actually one of the reasons I dropped out of a science degree, because I began to think I had worked this out and nobody else knew about it, and the whole of science was nonsense because there’s no clear difference between one thing and another (I also did too much pot). I noticed it in geological definitions of types of rock, which depend on percentages of minerals (like the pencil-non-pencil issue) and in biology, where, for instance, the definition of a (sexual) “species” depends on the inability of two “different species” to produce live offspring, but sometimes this comes down to a probability, or an incidental barrier between potential mates, etc., besides which, evolution causes “speciation” through time in the same species – by which I mean if you trace your ancestry back far enough you get to an animal with which you could not mate. Hence all of life is one species, and not one species.

    I think I was wrong, and lots of scientists are aware of the everything-is-connected problem, but most things are discrete enough that we can still do science, knowing that our definitions are sometimes a bit fuzzy. The great thing about science, also, is that it’s literally about “working definitions”. Things are judged by behavioural changes in systems, observable results, “use”, even if analysis gets wordy. It’s also about “working definitions” in the sense that they change when required. I suppose it also gets much more rigorous in some fields like physics, where definitions are mathematical.

    I know that leaves a lot of questions. But that’s life – and science. I mean, we don’t really know what matter is, or what’s going on in this mysterious universe. There was a nice easy period when it was all little billard balls working by clockwork!

  10. drops says:

    but you can’t compare pencil to consciousness in that way. the reason there is a need to have a working meaning for pencil is that a pencil is something we interact with, and it is because of this interaction — of our acquaintance with that thing — that it is useful to have it mean something (sayable). but the pencil (to exist) doesn’t need its meaning to exist (whatever working meaning it gets). whether or not you know its meaning, you’re hand starts drawing with it. you’ll remember where you put it, so you can draw later. you will use it in your life, because it’s a part of life. all of this is regardless of it’s meaning. whereas consciousness (the existence of it) is bearing on its meaning. that’s the difference, and that is why you can’t compare the two things. if you say it does already exist, you’d already have it defined (to know that it does already exist). and that is the point exactly. why are we asking what something means when that thing only does exist on the meaning? isn’t that a confusion?
    to ask what a word means, seems only a sensible activity, if you’re learning it for the first time.
    (or have forgotten). in other words, only as asking where the washroom is. what are people Doing who ask what consciousness means? sounds to me like bouncing around in their heads just for the pleasure of it.

  11. drops says:

    to ask what a word means which is familiar to one’s own language, is like picking up a paint brush and trying to find out (in your strokes) how it wants to brush.

  12. drops says:

    next time someone asks me what consciousness means, i’m gonna look at them funny and ask why they think i COULD tell them if i don’t (in the first place) know what it means?
    what would they say to that?
    they can’t say “well as far as i knew, you could have known”
    because that would mean they expected just the very thing they know already.
    (in which case they wouldn’t be asking).
    no– they want something More.
    so they will have to say… “well.. don’t you think you could find out the meaning even if you don’t know it?”
    then i’d say “not unless someone knows it. if someone does, i could find out from them”.
    then what will they say? lol
    “well dont ya think they could be wrong?”
    i’d then say “dopkramic!”
    they’d say “what the hell does that mean?”
    id say “the grass don’t grow when you walk on it with marshmallows in your hands…. and why Can’t you think i could be wrong?”

  13. lettersquash says:

    Sorry, drops, I don’t understand, but I’m enjoying the discussion. You say “the pencil (to exist) doesn’t need its meaning to exist (whatever working meaning it gets),” but I’m not sure that consciousness needs its meaning to exist either, or, as you put it, “consciousness (the existence of it) is bearing on its meaning.” But maybe you’re right. Are you saying that a human being who never learned any language could not be conscious, because they could not give meaning to it (i.e. use words to define it)? It would be an interesting hypothesis, and chimes with the idea that consciousness developed alongside language.

    It seems to be hard to answer that, because we don’t know what consciousness is. People guess that dogs are conscious, or that dolphins are, or that they’re not, but we don’t know. We guess whether they have anything like self-consciousness (since people make the distinction), but we don’t know. But you know that you’re conscious at times, surely? Do you have a “meaning” already for that upon which its existence depends? Don’t you experience without defining what consciousness means?

    I’d say it does make sense to ask what the meaning of a word is beyond having forgotten it or learning a new language. It’s what we’ve done all through the history of science and philosophy. We had words for the Sun, the Moon, the stars, the Earth, rocks, fossils, day, night, etc., but we repeatedly found new (often better) “meanings” or “definitions” or explanations. Surely our own consciousness is another observed phenomenon, and we can discover or invent lots of different definitions, meanings or explanations of that, can’t we? At one time, sharing the definition of the Sun with someone required waiting until it was visible and pointing, or some elaborate mime with a burning log and gesturing to the sky. Now we have insane amounts of data on it. Neither is the Sun. At one time, discussions about consciousness were probably pretty short. Now we have lots of data on it. Neither is consciousness. I don’t see the problem. If you say the Sun is an object, well, very probably so is consciousness. The Sun wouldn’t be the Sun if it were frozen. It’s a behaviour of matter. So is consciousness, as far as we can tell. The only uniqueness, as far as I can tell, about my consciousness is that it’s the behaviour of my matter.

  14. drops says:

    “but I’m not sure that consciousness needs its meaning to exist either”. my point was not (generally) that a thing can exist (i.e., pencil) where there is no meaning of it. my point was that the pencil specifically does exist regardless of meaning, and SO it can’t be true that the pencil needs meaning to exist.
    consciousness is different: right when we say “we don’t know it’s meaning”, we (this time) cannot insist that it (still) does exist. why not? because it exists AS the meaning itself. there is nothing ‘there’ which constitutes the thing we haven’t a meaning for.
    whereas with pencil there IS something there. that’s why you can’t compare them in this way.
    and so, whereby nothing is ‘there’ which constitutes the thing we haven’t a meaning for, to hunt for its meaning is a contradiction of terms — since no “it” is standing TO attach to the meaning we make. hence consciousness exists as a product of the meaning, or simply AS the meaning.
    Now if you show me this thing you intend (consciousness) without giving its meaning (since you don’t have it), then i would say good— it exists (you’ve showed me it), and so now let’s get together and try to pin down (with words) what it is.
    but you haven’t showed me this thing! hence exists as the meaning itself.
    and to hunt for the meaning of a thing which exists ON the meaning, is to hunt for meaning alone (not OF something). and that is just, as i said, ‘play’.

  15. drops says:

    it’s as if i am supposed to think this thing exists just because a word is standing for it. but how do i know the it is There being stood for?
    i could only know this if someone showed me this it (in one way or other, i don’t care how).
    but if i am not shown the it then all we have is a word (a sound) and a bunch of people scrambling to pin the flag down on it first. what???
    this is resolved nice and easy: all someone has to do is show me (in one way or other) this (supposed) thing the word denotes.
    just because a jigsaw puzzle comes in a sealed box doesn’t mean the pieces have to fit.
    and just because a word is situated in language does not mean it has to mean something.
    APART from what it DID mean in order that it DID service the statement said.
    now if we don’t know what it serviced in our statement— that’s fine (and funny).
    in that case, i’d say we should put more care into our speaking. as blowing the trumpet into a loud squeak during a performance— common guys, let’s make music. not nonsense.

  16. lettersquash says:

    I think you are constructing a false syllogism. Like this:
    1) I can’t “show” you “consciousness”
    2) I cannot insist that it exists / it exists only as a “meaning”.

    I don’t know if you understand what I’m saying, but I really don’t understand what you’re saying. It doesn’t make sense to me.

    I can’t “show” you consciousness in the sense of showing you MY consciousness, but that seems to have a fairly obvious reason – each conscious nervous system is isolated and discrete (it’s partly this kind of thing that the Tom Campbells of this world deny). Would it suffice, however, to “show” you YOUR consciousness, by, for instance, giving you a sedative and telling you it will go away for a while. You can note the time for some objective reference when it disappears and comes back? Also, do you have any reason to suspect that I and most other people are conscious if they tell you they are?

    If you take a more rigorous position on the above, arguing that you can’t be sure I’m conscious just because I tell you I am (I’ve no idea how you would come to a different conclusion from the sedative experiment from me), and say that I still can’t insist that consciousness exists, I could do the same for “pencil”, or anything else you care to mention. Indeed, I’d go so far as to reverse your contention, if anything. For me to “show” you a pencil and you to be sure that you’ve been shown it, we have to acknowledge that we are both conscious, so our consciousness would seem to be at least as certain as any communication of the existence of other things. I can’t show you a pencil without showing you our consciousness. We don’t have to know what it is (i.e. construct more complex “meanings” or “definitions” of it) to know that it is a phenomenon.

  17. drops says:

    that’s right. if you cannot show (not even to yourself) what the thing is which you are calling consciousness. if you cannot have the moment “see — THATS consciousness right there” (not even in your own private head) then it is nonsense to say that it exists.
    you call this false syllogism. i call that adequate thinking.
    and keep in mind that when i say “show”, i don’t mean you have to pick it up or point to it on a card. nor do i mean (in case it is not a physical thing) that you have to precisely illustrate it, so perfectly that you miss nothing).
    i mean by show — to put the IT into attention, if only somewhat clearly, so that there IS an it we are “looking” at (in the first place).
    until you do that (with yourself)— you cannot (sensibly) say it exists. that is just obvious. how can you say something exists without noticing the it which it is?
    that’s a complete confusion.
    and if you can notice IT, then unless you can bring out what you noticed to another (for them to notice too), the fact that it exists — is only to your mind.
    (and only if you did in fact notice it).
    it may help you to imagine this:
    imagine that i did not know this word, and did not use it in my speaking. but i kept seeing it around. so one day i ask you what does this mean? i am not asking for some crystal clear absolutely perfect meaning.
    nope— i just want to know what this weird thing means. generally.
    now think about what sorts of things you would say, or do, etc, in order to resolve my request.
    that is what i mean by “show”.
    you are showing me—(however you choose to do it)— you are showing me.
    and i am saying, you have not showed me anything.
    once you show me, then i will agree it exists, and we can talk about working meaning.

  18. drops says:

    you cannot show someone consciousness by giving them a sedative and telling them “it will go away now” and when they become alert say “now it is coming back”.
    how do they know you are not talking about their eye lids? or the colors in the room? or the whole of the room? or the whole of wherever they are (say, if they were smart enough to think that the room is probably not especially key). or the worry they are feeling? or something that happens down the hall at the same time? or something in the needle— or pill. there are infinite things that your showing could be grasping at.
    it is a matter of faith that you think they now know it, when they say “Yes I get it!”.
    and should you improve your attempts by adding to them more, so that the person can no longer think “he was talking about my worry going and coming”, because here there is NO worry at all, yet he keeps talking the same mysterious thing… coming and going”… they will keep on searching. it’s NOT like they will run out of options lol. we haven’t even gotten to combinations yet lol. or if they think you are putting them into a skit or something, and you are asking them to participate by saying things like “yes its going… okay…its’ goooooing! omg!!! gone” lol.
    and my point is not “you can’t be sure they are shown”.
    my point is this: you can’t be sure you are.
    you say you are sure about it, that it exists, — good. then say it. show it. do something. it’s unfortunate that you have to do this, but you (may not notice that) are causing this result onto yourself, because you want to call it something Separate from its general USE — so you have to say what it is — generally (its identity IS the separation). or show it — generally, so others can try to say it for you.
    if you can’t throw the ball to Sarah, then Sarah cannot tell you if it’s round or oval— or anything. She can only stand there watching your arms swinging and no ball coming. Nor any in your hand. And is she supposed to take you seriously when you say at the bar, “hey, that ball we were trying to play with…which i couldn’t pass to you… i know it exists!” ? she will say “pass it then…. shoot it roughly this way (at least)” and if you say… look, it’s hard. is she supposed to respect that?
    As opposed to wondering how you Could think you know it exists, when that obviously takes knowing the IT which does? — As opposed to thinking you have become confused?

  19. lettersquash says:

    I think I’m beginning to understand where we differ. You describe at great length the attempt to be 100% sure that consciousness has been pointed at. Sure, you could think it was the room, etc. But you need to answer these questions: 1. are you a conscious being? 2. if so, how did you manage to understand that “I am a conscious being” is a statement that applies to you? At some point in your childhood, you learned that and understood clearly enough what it means that you can say it.

    You said, “you say you are sure about it, that it exists, — good. then say it. show it. do something. it’s unfortunate that you have to do this, but you (may not notice that) are causing this result onto yourself, because you want to call it something Separate from its general USE — so you have to say what it is — generally (its identity IS the separation). or show it — generally, so others can try to say it for you.”

    I think this may be where you’re misunderstanding me. I am fairly sure that I am a conscious being. If you want me to be very clear in my language use, I would probably refrain from saying “consciousness exists” – it is a question I often toy with and I really can’t be sure that it is anything. Maybe that is all you’re trying to say. If so, that’s fine, although I’m also not convinced that you’ve devised an argument to say that it definitely doesn’t exist, either. The answer to that question DEPENDS on how we DEFINE the thing we’re trying to point towards, which is a feature of ALL THINGS. You know a bit about QM, so you must know that this is true of particles and atoms. Are they really there? We don’t know, but they seem to be enough “there” that we can talk about them and do experiments.

    I do not “want to call it something Separate from its general USE”. I agreed with the “meaning is use”, remember. I use the term “consciousness” to point to its general use, and I’ve said before that NOTHING is clearly ANYTHING other than its general use. This was where we came in – you said it’s different from a pencil. Are you telling me you can “call a pencil something separate from its general use”? … “Pencil” – is that it? I thought we agreed that was a vague hand-waving in the direction of a pencil. Or is it that you think I can hold a pencil, feel what shape it is (like Sarah with a ball)? Does that make it real? Is the distinction simply that “consciousness” – whatever it may be – is fully subjective, so you can’t look at it, hold it, isolate it? I agree with that, but that still doesn’t mean we can’t define it. I’ve just done that. It may not be accessible to our senses as an object, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me you don’t have it. (Remember, I said it is a behaviour of matter.)

    On the other hand, if you define “things that exist” as “things that are objects we can show each other or throw”, I might be persuaded that consciousness isn’t a thing that exists. It’s all semantic, remember. We’re just playing with words.

  20. drops says:

    nice points letter,
    well i wouldn’t say they learned it’s meaning growing up. i would say: they have learned how to use the word (the sound). i do not see the meaning as separate from this usage. now WHAT the usage is, is the question. the question is not what is the meaning, except as a backdoor way of asking for the usage. Hence if someone looks up to the sky and says “gee.. i wonder what consciousness means”— apart from its usage — this is (to me) like trying to think of a square irrespective of its right angles. in other words, somehow people have ‘leaked’ the question into a context where all of its sense (the question’s sense) is lost. but yet the question doesn’t fall away. i see this as an accident. i see the question as senseless.

    you say you are fairly sure you are a conscious being, but your unsureness is not possible unless you KNEW what it took to be one (in other words, you just didn’t know if YOU amounted to it). it can’t be the other way around: it can’t be that what it takes to be a conscious being is WHAT you’re are unsure of. no, that’s backwards. because in this second case, you are presupposing it IS something with a definite meaning, for ONLY THEN would it possible that you approximate it (or hit it, or miss it). Hence the only sensible way to say “i am fairly sure i am a conscious being”, is where the concern resides in whether you meet the KNOWN criteria (not whether the UNKNOWN criteria meets you). How can unknown criteria meet you? Only in one case — where the criteria IN FACT exists (and is just unknown). Only then can “unknown criteria” meet you (or not meet you). But this is the whole point — why do you THINK there is some fact of the matter? That’s a presumption and it does not get to fly free — it has to be grounded (logically). what makes it so that the FACT of the criteria exists (or simply, that the criteria exists), independent of usage?

    the reason i am even talking about this is because you have treated the word as if it means something outside of its usage. you allowed that usage plays some role, but you didn’t have it play the ENTIRE role. that’s the problem (to my mind).

  21. drops says:

    This makes me think of a dog chasing it’s tail. Notice that even if the dog had a sense of humor, he could not laugh. Why is that?
    Because he would also need to understand that what he is trying to do is not doable. Lucky for us, we’ve got both the sense of humor and the understanding. Therefore we can laugh.
    But aren’t we chasing our tails by asking what consciousness means?
    That is, the word is swinging around (like a tail), and because it is there, we chase it. We want to bite it, to have it in our mouths, to acquire it. But like the tail, it is attached to us, and so is not chasable. But yet we are running.
    We do not laugh though. Why not? Because like the dog does not understand what is going on, neither do we.

  22. drops says:

    i just read your last two paragraphs. you see, the reason i am talking about this with you is because your message from posts ago:
    “I think the problem people have with consciousness is that you can’t point at it, at least not in a simple way that satisfies. It seems to be quite easy to define in a sloppy way, but escapes finer investigation. This is because it isn’t a thing, but a complex of behaviours, because it is only directly accessible introspectively (indirectly through report or inference), and because we have powerful intuitions about it that are wrong. I suspect consciousness will turn out to be an embodied computational behaviour, like a set of processes whereby an organism verifies its existence and models itself within its environment. Since it is a body with sense organs, this modeling is simultaneously kinaesthetic.”

    look at what you’re doing. you’re not treating it as “it’s just however we USE the term” (which is what your last post talks about). you’re going on and on into all kinds of speculations about what it is, about how it will turn out, and saying things like “resist finer investigation” — which implies it is something MORE than use (more than simply how we use it). (cause let’s face it, a pencil resists too… as long you stick to semantics, as with consciousness). you’re treating consciousness as if God dropped the term into your lap– and you’re looking at it with wide eyes, trying to make sense of this mysterious thing. look at the way you address it above. No, it’s just how we use it! that’s what it means. just examine how people use it in every day life, Just look around, ask around. Not throw it up in the sky and be like “..what is this thing… that i can’t say what it is!!”….maybe its this… maybe its embodies computation!… or maybe..” If you don’t know what it means, the issue should be “i can’t tell how i use it”. and “i can’t tell how people use it”. so then we have to look to its usage to find out its meaning. but to look instead through the clouds— (in conceptual lala adventure land) is just playing. which is fine (if that’s what you prefer)–but that’s what it is.
    the actual meaning of consciousness is the Actual usage. the question is “can we summarize our own usage of this term?”. That’s the question— there is no fishing around over the hills for the answer. it’s right in your lap. notwithstanding that it’s easy to say in a line or two. you’d have to study how it is Used, analyze your own behavior, etc— closely, think about your past…. and various people too—look closely at How they use it. And the meaning will emerge, as an average. And if you want to find out only exactly what it means to one person, you study how only that person uses it. And the most important thing here is that usage does not include what you are doing in thinking over the hills. that’s not usage, that’s beyond’ use (it’s speculation, which is another matter entirely). by Use i mean how it is typically, casually, freely, sporadically, used (in our normal every day— every day — lives). Across the masses (language is shared). it’s place in language and it’s place in contexts…. situations— not it’s place in photoshop pro (philosophic paint brush professional) lol.
    and don’t get me wrong. i don’t care one bit how people go at finding its meaning (whoever tries). they can look at Use or instead sail like Columbus at sea— to discover it somewhere in the blue. i don’t care what path. All i say is that i find the second approach to be a total error IF the purpose is to find it’s Actual meaning (or closest thing to).

  23. lettersquash says:

    Hi drops. You seem to be misunderstanding me completely, but I think that’s my fault! I’ll have one more go by addressing some of your last comment.

    You said: “look at what you’re doing. you’re not treating it as “it’s just however we USE the term” (which is what your last post talks about). you’re going on and on into all kinds of speculations about what it is, about how it will turn out, and saying things like “resist finer investigation” — which implies it is something MORE than use (more than simply how we use it).”

    Yes, that’s NOT what I mean by “meaning is use”. That might be closer to what Wittgenstein intended, in which case it would be my fault for confusing you with his idea instead of sticking to my own. And I did talk about words just being defined as other words. However, that is to point out the error of mistaking the map for the territory. Worrying about the meaning of words is pointless UNLESS that is to relate them to the real world.

    So, the discovery of the meaning of a word like “consciousness” by the method you advocate above – asking people how they use it, “typically, casually, freely, sporadically”, and some “average” emerging – is one that doesn’t interest me particularly, and which is some kind of linguistics or social studies.

    You’re aware, perhaps, of how important it is to define things clearly in science. That’s because it’s doing something different, relating our words and concepts to the behaviour of matter. That’s the real world, and we only approach knowledge by this forced discipline on the words we use about it. It’s so important that we often have to forego words, or at least remind ourselves of their sloppiness, and turn to mathematics as a better, stricter language with which to describe reality.

    I hope that clarifies my position, and I’m sorry for any confusion I’ve caused. This discussion is getting pretty long, so I’d appreciate it if you could focus and be as concise as possible. This feels like such a minor issue to argue about. Even posting comments where we met, on Tom Campbell’s youtube videos, seems relatively useful by comparison, which is saying something. Given the state of the world right now, there are a lot more important things to be doing than this.

  24. lettersquash says:

    Also, I’m getting quite frustrated with your assertions. You said: “consciousness […] exists AS the meaning itself. there is nothing ‘there’ which constitutes the thing we haven’t a meaning for.”

    That is plainly untrue. You can only make that mistake when you’re awake. You tacitly admitted that there is something called consciousness, that it goes away when you’re “unconscious”, when you argued that you COULD be mistaken in your judgement of what it was I was trying to show you if I gave you a sedative. If you can be mistaken about the judgement of it, there must be a correct judgement to make. You know you’re conscious.

    Denying your own experience, or that you’ll be unconscious the next time you’re asleep, leaves little room for a discussion, and makes me wonder if you have trolling tendencies.

  25. drops says:

    of course consciousness exists as the meaning itself. otherwise you’d (at least) be able to say what it is. if you can’t say what it is, you obviously don’t know what it is, and if you don’t know what it is, then to go on and think it IS something (other than use) — is just a silly presumption. Hence IF you (still) insist it means anything other than its use, then it would exist AS it’s meaning (since not as use). or else you think it exists regardless of meaning (and of use), and so in some actual way (whatever that is) — and in that case, you’d be no only slightly better than preaching a god.
    the question is very simple: do you think it’s meaning is separate from how you use the term, or not? if you think it is separate (at all), then it exists as it’s meaning (for that ‘at all’ amount), for it does not (that amount) as it’s use. And i would add that you’d be confused to think so, for the reasons said (over and over).
    if instead you say it is entirely it’s use, then your inquiry is properly this: “i can’t tell how i use it”. not “i don’t know what this thing means” (except as a backdoor way of saying you can’t tell how you use it).
    it’s fast for you to think it means something greater than it’s use (or somewhat greater)– but fast don’t cut it. sensibility does. just because you can’t nail what something means (how you use it) does not make it grows wings and flies into being some special evading thing (with a definite meaning (at all regardless of use)). I’m afraid that’s not how things work— rather, you simply can’t understand (precisely) how you use the term. So then watch yourself use it. Watch how everyone uses it — that’s just what you do. Look, analyze, learn. You (like many) want it to be something more. — but wanting it to be more can’t make it be, and a faster dog won’t win his tail.

    i wouldn’t say things this way if you didn’t make your trolling comment. as far as i knew, we were having a focused discussion (that’s the truth). much like the one’s i have every day with people around me. but seeing your comment doesn’t surprise me: the fact that you considered that option Enough to say it — to put it out there — is just like the fact that you cannot grasp what is being said. Those two things go together — the ideas here evade you, and so what you do is ‘make sense’ of them (of my effort) in the Simple way you think.
    for that i regret even starting a discussion with you.
    I considered things too, such as— you were playing dumb this whole time, or you just had trouble admitting your errors— yes, actually i did consider that (once). And i could have asked you whether you are playing dumb, or whether you have trouble admitting your mistakes. I could have slipped that in, just as you did. Notice that i did not. Because 1. i preferred to be respectful to you and 2. i don’t like to think things which are not totally sensible. You apparently differ in that regard.
    Finally— the fact that you think that i think i am not conscious, shows (finally clear) that you have not understood me (which explains everything). If you find this post rude, know that i would have been very different if you didn’t spill your naive, narrow minded bias (about my purposes) into the discussion. Not interested in good writing. Take care,

  26. lettersquash says:

    Drops, I am sincerely sorry if I misjudged your motives, and can only excuse myself by saying that I was – and still am – genuinely unable to make any sense of your words at all, and find your attempt to deal with my counter-arguments utterly inadequate. So, maybe I’m stupid, closed-minded, or whatever, or maybe your grasp of logic, or of the English language, isn’t what you imagine it to be. It’s not your first language, presumably.

    I THINK I understand the point about consciousness that you’re making – “if you can’t say what it is, you obviously don’t know what it is, and if you don’t know what it is, then to go on and think it IS something (other than use) — is just a silly presumption”

    However, as I have tried to explain, that is true of almost anything. And you have given no reason why that is untrue.

    I CAN approximately say what consciousness is. I HAVE said approximately what it is. I CANNOT use any words that will encapsulate it completely. That is true of pencils, black holes, gravity, my left hand, the computer I’m typing this on, human rights, air travel…need I go on? You have failed to refute this.

    I have also explained why, despite not being able to make a perfect 1-to-1 correspondence between words and their “meanings” (events they describe in the real world), it is nevertheless useful to investigate them to improve our definitions and knowledge, and STUPID and POINTLESS to deny that one particular one you choose (consciousness) doesn’t exist, and accuse anyone who says it does of making a religious statement. Why do you have faith in pencils?

    You appear to be trolling because you fail to address these criticisms. There is also your repeated contention that I’m not thinking straight about all this (an accusation you have thrown at me fairly rudely for some time).

    It seems you now have to explain how you can identify yourself as “conscious” without implying that you exhibit “consciousness” or falling foul of the error you accuse me of above. Perhaps you allow this only as an adjective, not a noun. Maybe you also don’t believe in “gravity”, but are happy to concede that things “fall”. Maybe you think certain other phenomena share this quality of not-existing, or maybe just “being conscious”.

    I literally have no idea. Obviously I’m left guessing as to your motives. I hold out little hope of getting any intelligible answers to any of these points.

    Instead of investigating reality through empiricism, you now advocate gaining understanding by watching how everyone uses the term, like some kind of social osmosis will help us. This is why the Stone Age lasted so long.

    If those are indeed your views, we’re done. We just need to acknowledge we see things very differently and move on.

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