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Andy SmithAndrew P. Smith, who has a background in molecular biology, neuroscience and pharmacology, is author of e-books Worlds within Worlds and the novel Noosphere II, which are both available online. He has recently self-published "The Dimensions of Experience: A Natural History of Consciousness" (Xlibris, 2008).


A Perspective On Perspectives

Further Discussion with Desilet

Andrew P. Smith

This is where I disagree with the postmodernist view. I am unwilling to assert with so much certainty that a feature of our own consciousness must necessarily be a feature of any other type of consciousness.

“When you know how to look,” goes a saying well-known to those pursuing the spiritual, “everyone is the guru.” In a similar vein, one might say, “If you want to understand postmodernism, start an argument.” The key to this maddeningly non-committed philosophy, it seems to me, lies in the concept of individual differences, or perspectives. When you start to argue, about anything, you become instantly aware of these: I have a perspective, you have a somewhat different one; everyone else has one, too. At this point, perspectives become very real to us.

The debate I have been having with Greg Desilet [See "Is Transcendence Possible?" and "Reply to Smith's 'Is Transcendence Possible?'"] is an obvious example of this. He has one perspective, I have another. Our different perspectives are shaped by our different backgrounds and interests, by the fact that we are informed to different degrees on different issues. But even if these factors were far more similar—as they would be, for example, if Greg entered dialogue with another Derridan specialist—the differences in perspectives could still be fairly substantial.

Perspectives are a universal feature of our species, part of the human condition, one could say. They are an expression of our uniqueness as individuals, and I think Greg puts it well when he says, “Individuation is a grand part of the mystery and value of human experience.” But postmodernists like Greg go further than this. They claim that perspectives are a universal feature of all existence, of all being, at least of any being that has consciousness:

Any awareness, even the so-called awareness of full enlightenment, requires difference; difference entails separation (spatiality) and separation creates time.
Consciousness is always at least an object to itself and thereby divided. If this were not the case, consciousness would never be aware of itself, would not even exist to itself. And this “itself” is not even one self, since it is constantly changing. In my opinion, Derrida would also not subscribe to the notion that there can ever be an instance of “no distinction between self and other.” Not only is there always some distinction, some gulf, between self and other there is also always a distinction between self and self. An individual is never, as the term implies, indivisible.

This is where I disagree with the postmodernist view. I am unwilling to assert with so much certainty that a feature of our own consciousness must necessarily be a feature of any other type of consciousness. In my previous reply to Greg, I suggested that the possibility of consciousness without difference—an awareness that does not distinguish self from other--was supported not simply by the claims of mystics to experience a state of oneness, but also lower forms of life that interact minimally with their environment. In my book The Dimensions of Experience I refer to this type of awareness as zero-dimensional consciousness, to distinguish it from one-dimensional consciousness (capable of making self-other distinctions), as well as still higher forms of consciousness, including our own, which distinguish different types of others, in both space and time.

In response to this, Greg replied:

such studies may suggest no distinction between self and other in primitive or developing organisms, but do you really want to count that as a “higher form of consciousness”? Why is this form of collective consciousness “higher” or “better”?

The short answer to this question is that that this kind of consciousness, like all forms of consciousness, is higher than what came before it, but not as high as what has evolved since—including our own type of consciousness. Here I will elaborate a little on this, as well as try to address some other aspects of this consciousness, as I understand it, contrasting them with the Derridan view that Greg Desilet has been expounding.

Zero-dimensional Consciousness

I begin by giving Greg and the postmodernists their due. Individual differences or perspectives are nearly universal, and the best evidence for this comes from science. In order to survive, an organism has to interact with its environment in certain ways, which usually means that it has to recognize the environment, as an other, apart from itself. It would seem that any form of life has to do this in order to obtain nutrients, avoid predation, and propagate its species.

Such recognition is not necessarily conscious. Bacteria can sense the presence of nutrients, such as sugar, in the surrounding medium, and move in the direction of the source (Koshland 1974; Adler 1975). Very few people believe that bacteria are conscious in any meaningful sense, that they are aware of themselves as distinct from the sugar. But like all living things, their behavior has been shaped by evolution to enable them to survive as something distinct from the environment. Even if they are not conscious, we could say that their behavior unconsciously makes a distinction between self and other. What bacteria do only makes sense if they are understood to be distinct from the environment, and constantly attempting to maintain this distinction. Indeed, a good working definition of life is a set of coordinated processes that transform part of the environment in order to create and maintain something that is separate from that environment (Deacon 2011).

One would think that if such relatively simple creatures as bacteria can distinguish between self and other, then surely any multicellular organism that is or might be conscious must also make this kind of distinction. But it turns out that the situation is not quite that straight-forward. Bacteria actually have something very important in common with our own species, something that some more complex, multicellular organisms do not share with us. Bacteria are social, generally living in large colonies. They can not only recognize other bacteria, but some species are even capable of kin discrimination, that is, individuals can distinguish members of their own species from members of other species (West et al. 2002; Rice et al. 2007). Bacteria that colonize other types of organisms, for example, those many different strains that reside in the human gut, also may recognize different kinds of foreign cells. This is actually an example of two-dimensional perception, the ability not simply to distinguish self from other (one-dimensional perception), but the ability to distinguish different kinds or classes of others.

I emphasize this point because it illustrates an important aspect of consciousness, or at least sensation/perception, that is generally not appreciated. Bacteria, and many other one-celled organisms, exhibit forms of behavior that, on their level of existence, are more complex than the behavior of many multicellular organisms on their level. There are many multicellular organisms that can't distinguish kin from non-kin, and indeed, as I have been insisting all along, even some that don't seem capable of distinguishing self from other.

Does this mean that bacteria are more complex than these multicellular organisms? No. The latter are composed of a large number of cells that may be every bit as complex as, if not more complex than, bacterial cells. The cells that compose even simple multicellular organisms also have to distinguish self from other, in order to associate with each other, and in most cases, kin from non-kin, in order to form specialized tissues. The organism emerges from the interactions of all of these cells, and in this key sense is higher and more complex than any one of these cells.

It's in this transition from societies of cells to an organism, I'm claiming, that the self-other distinction is lost. The individual cells are of course continuing to make this distinction, but the organism that emerges from all these cellular interactions is, at that moment, nothing but these interactions. In other words, all the self-other distinctions made by the individual cells, both with each other and with the environment beyond them, are included as part of the organism. But while there is no other, there really is no self, either, because—and here I'm in agreement with Greg and the postmodernists—a self is defined in opposition to (or as Derrida would put it, as complementary to) an other.

I emphasized earlier that interaction with the environment is virtually essential to any form of life. But whenever and wherever this process of forming a new, higher form of life occurs, conditions are in play that minimize the need for this interaction. The developing organism is to a very large extent protected or shielded from change, from fluctuations in the environment that demand such interactions.

The first multicellular organisms evolved in the ocean, an extremely homogeneous environment in which temperature, pressure, light, ion concentrations and other relevant environmental factors are mostly constant and controlled. These organisms lacked the ability to move from one location to another; they accumulated nutrients passively, for example, by filtering water as it passed through them, or by photosynthesis; and they reproduced by extruding gametes into the environment, rather than by direct interaction with another organism like themselves. All of these features typify a form of life that requires minimal interaction with the environment.[1]

Likewise, newly developing organisms also exist in a protected, highly controlled and stable environment, such as an egg or the womb. The whole point of such an environment, of course, is to enable development of a form of life that is helpless, by which we mean almost completely incapable of interacting with anything beyond itself.

So when Greg asks:

is it an experience of oneness or more like a feeling or sensation of quietude and harmony? Feelings and experiences can be many and varied, peak and otherwise. Why place the emphasis on an experience that seems like oneness when that may be entirely misleading and perhaps even counterproductive to self insight, in light of Derrida's views. ...For Derrida, the sense of NOT belonging is at least as sacred and beneficial as the sense of belonging.

I would say there is neither belonging nor not belonging, just as there is neither self nor other.

Is there then absolutely no self-other distinction whatsoever? I wouldn't make that claim. One can always argue that even during the transition from multicellular societies to whole organism there must be some sense of other. There is evidence that even in the womb, the fetus has some interactions with its environment, not only the internal environment of its mother, but with the external environment beyond her (Gallagher 2005). It's debatable whether there is ever a point at which we can say that a higher form of life has genuinely emerged, yet is engaging in no interactions with the environment at all.

But at the very least we can regard the self-other distinction as occurring on a spectrum, with our own species at one end of the spectrum, and developing organisms at the other. They are far, far closer to a complete lack of distinction than we are. To speak of a sense of oneness, if not exact, is surely close enough for anyone to understand that this state of being is conceivable, and profoundly different from the social environment we are all so familiar with.

In conclusion, let me return to Greg's question of whether this type of consciousness is “higher” or “better”. It is “better” than what it emerged from—the consciousness, or if one prefers, the sensation—of individual cells, because it is associated with a multicellular form of life that in many respects is evolutionarily advantageous with respect to cells. Even a very primitive multicellular organism that interacts minimally with the environment offers many benefits to its component cells that they would lack while existing independently: a more reliable source of food; protection from many kinds of predators; a primitive division of labor that allows specialization.

Conversely, however, more complex organisms, including our own species, have a consciousness that I view as decidedly “better”—again, in evolutionary terms--than this primitive consciousness of early organisms. The options for an organism that can't recognize the environment are obviously severely limited; its existence is at the mercy of factors over which it has no control. If there is no food in the vicinity, it can't move to a better location; if a predator attacks it, it is defenseless. The emergence of a differentiated self, conscious or not, completely changed the evolutionary game, not simply by allowing organisms to have some control over changes in their environment, but also by becoming a major part of this environment themselves.

Awareness of What?

So far, I have argued for the existence of a form of consciousness that does not distinguish self from other. But Greg's interpretation of Derrida makes the further claim that the self is divided not just from other, but from itself. As stated in this previously quoted remark, it's not just self and other that exist in a complementary, mutually contaminated situation, but self and self, so to speak:

Consciousness is always at least an object to itself and thereby divided. If this were not the case, consciousness would never be aware of itself, would not even exist to itself. And this “itself” is not even one self, since it is constantly changing…Not only is there always some distinction, some gulf, between self and other there is also always a distinction between self and self. An individual is never, as the term implies, indivisible.

I agree with Greg when he says, “If this were not the case [that consciousness is an object to itself], consciousness would never be aware of itself, would not even exist to itself.” Our difference is that while he clearly believes this is impossible or nonsensical. I take it seriously. Consciousness without an object, or what I call zero-dimensional consciousness, is indeed not aware of itself. That is, a newly emerging higher form of life, whatever the level of existence, is not aware of being a self. In fact I made this point earlier, when I said if there were no self-other distinction, there really could be no self. A self is defined, or exists, only in relation to an other. If there is no other, or awareness of other, there can be no awareness of self.

The reader at this point is likely to be confused. If there is no awareness of self or other, what exactly is this form of life aware of? Assuming it is conscious, it must be aware of something, mustn't it? The answer is that it is aware of itself—what we, as objective observers of it would say is itself—but not as a self. If it were aware of itself as a self, then this would indeed be an object of its consciousness, and I would agree with Greg that consciousness in this sense would be divided.

But if it is aware of anything, then isn't that thing, whatever it is, an object of its awareness? No. My claim is that there is simply awareness, period. An object only arises if it is in some manner recognized as an object. Even if an organism has no consciousness, if it interacts with the environment, it is recognizing aspects of that environment as objects—it's behaving towards them as if they are one type of thing rather than some other type of thing. But again, a very primitive organism basically does not interact with the environment, so it is not recognizing anything in that environment as an object. And since it does not, neither can it recognize itself nor any part of itself as an object.

Greg will almost certainly object to this conclusion, insisting that this kind of awareness is impossible. I can only reply, why? The evidence of primitive and developing organisms may not be compelling, but it certainly suffices to show the risks of generalizing from our own human experience.

Is awareness without an object logically impossible? Greg seems to imply that it is, that awareness virtually by definition involves experience of space and time:

Any awareness, even the so-called awareness of full enlightenment, requires difference; difference entails separation (spatiality) and separation creates time…

If timelessness is already everywhere contaminated by time, then there is no such thing as timelessness…Time, as special relativity has already revealed, is not Time but times. Time is always flowing but in different ways as a result of motion…

Furthermore, as Martin Hagglund, following Derrida, has argued via the logic of succession, Timelessness (immortality) is the suspension of the possibility of existence, because, without the succession of one moment to the next, no existence could emerge, nothing could happen, including consciousness…

Derrida via Hagglund renders every notion of timelessness nonsensical from within any logic that would permit consciousness/self-consciousness.

However, these arguments seem to me directed not so much against experience as against the nature of reality as revealed by our own particular experience of it. To say that nothing could emerge if there were not time, and change within that time, is not to say that a form of existence could not exist that has no awareness of time.[2] I do not mean by this an organism that is completely unconscious, for obviously that kind of life would have no awareness of time, but an organism that is aware without being aware of time. If I understand Greg Desilet correctly, he is saying that this type of awareness is not possible under any conditions.

While we can only speculate what such organisms may or may not be aware of, there is clearly no problem in principle with consciousness being unaware of aspects of both space and time. Many physicists believe there are dimensions of space in addition to the three that our experience is limited to. While the most popular view, embodied in string theory, is that these extra dimensions are exceedingly small, and have no direct effect on the macroscopic world, some theories suggest that they could expand, so that our entire known universe could in effect be part of a still larger universe, or brane, that exists in four dimensions of space (Greene 2001). There are also physicists who believe there is a second dimension of time (Bars 2001).

If it's possible to be embedded in a world of multiple spatial and perhaps temporal dimensions, and not be aware of all these dimensions[3], why is it not possible not to be aware of any dimensions of space and time? Greg seems to believe that any general aspect of the world that has been revealed by the human intellect must be part of the experience of any form of consciousness. This view seems to me to be needlessly anthropocentric, and ironically, at odds with other tenets of postmodern. For as I suggested in my previous article, if all is perspective, and there is no given, how can we insist that the general outlines of the world as our perspective finds it must be experienced by every other form of consciousness?[4]

In that previous discussion, I argued that Derrida's ideas in fact apply only to objects of consciousness, not necessarily to consciousness itself. In responding to this, Greg makes a somewhat more substantial argument that consciousness is part of the world of space, time and objects:

as Derrida and others point out, this does not entail that consciousness is not itself a kind of presence susceptible to the same constraints Derrida sees within the metaphysics of presence. Just because the mirror can reflect another object does not mean the mirror is not also of the object world, subject to the constraints of time and space. Perhaps consciousness may be understood in an analogous way, as yet another kind of presence—but much more rare and extraordinary and indicative of the marvelous complexity and potential of being within time.

This argument, as I understand it, assumes a materialistic perspective, in which consciousness is a product of purely physical and physiological processes in the brain. If it is, it seems to follow that it must be an integral part of the world of objects, and therefore hardly capable of existing in a form independent of all objects. In fact, though Greg does not make that connection explicitly, this passage could be read to imply that consciousness without an object implies a dualistic view, in which consciousness exists independently of the physical world.

However, I don't see that to assume that consciousness has a physical basis means that it must have an object. In fact, the relationship between consciousness and the physical world is so unfathomable to science now, and is likely to be for a very long time to come, that I think it would be premature to conclude anything about what that relationship implies about any objects of consciousness.

Moreover, a strict materialistic view of consciousness may be incorrect. Certainly it has been incapable of explaining consciousness so far. A significant minority of philosophers have suggested a way out of this dilemma is to assume a form of property dualism, in which consciousness is an inherent feature of all matter (Chalmers 1996; Griffin 1998; Seager 1999). This would also connect consciousness to the physical world, but again, I don't think it necessarily carries any implications about the relationship of consciousness to objects.

In conclusion, if Greg believes that awareness without an object, without the experience of space or time, is logically impossible, I need to hear more of his arguments for this. And is the notion of such an awareness really that difficult to imagine? Think about the kind of consciousness we have when we dream. Sometimes we have a very clear sense of self during these dreams, a self that is quite consistent with the self during waking experience. These dreams are so real that they seem like being awake. But there are other kinds of dreams—at least in my experience—in which there is little or no coherent sense of time, space, objects or self at all; there is mostly just some awareness. Upon awakening from such a dream, we may look back on it and say there was an experiencing self, and we can remember aspects of the dream that we regard as objects of our consciousness at that time. But that view, it seems to me, is just another example of the bias of our usual perspective. We are interpreting what happened in terms of how we understand our ordinary, waking consciousness. When we are actually immersed in such dreams, there is very little sense of self or other, or of time and space.[5] Other examples are provided by states brought about by certain drugs.

Evidence for a Higher State

Thus far I have been discussing a state of consciousness that I freely concede is a lower form, that is, is not as developed as that of an adult organism, certainly not as developed as our mature human consciousness. Therefore, one might look at my claim that such organisms have no awareness of space or time as just reflecting this lack of development, and not very relevant to the human experience. There are many organisms that can't see or hear the world as we do—let alone use language, think abstractly, and so on--but we don't conclude from this that we can learn nothing about the world from our experiences of sights and sounds, our use of logic, and so on. In the same way, while the claim that some organisms may not experience space or time suggests that awareness may come in forms not familiar or even easily conceivable to us, one might argue that this is not very relevant to our understanding of the world.

My claim, however, is that the experience of primitive or developing organisms is analogous to higher consciousness, in that in both cases this awareness is associated with the emergence of a new level of existence. To the extent that there is empirical evidence for this kind of consciousness among organisms, it is at least plausible or possible for it to be associated with a higher form of life beyond the individual organism. A state in which neither space nor time is experienced therefore could be associated with a form of life higher than the individual human. Regardless of our steadfast belief that time and space are real phenomena, the possibility of a state transcending human existence in which these phenomena are not experienced surely would be of enormous interest.

But what kind of direct evidence do we have for this state? Greg expresses skepticism:

Do you have any evidence of higher consciousness apart from individual consciousness? If so, there would be many scientists interested in seeing it…
As I've argued elsewhere, claims such as this can be made but how can such INNER experiences be demonstrated to the satisfaction of others? Wilber's response would be: Do X, Y, and Z, and you will have experience E. But here the problem of demonstration consists further of the question of whether experience E is in fact what adherents claim it to be. If the proof is in the spiritual actions of such enlightened persons then that may go some distance toward validating the experience as spiritually valuable. But when many persons who advocate such approaches and claim to have attained such heights behave in obviously reprehensible ways, others are right to question not only the genuine spiritual value of such so-called heights but also the truth of whether these heights have indeed been attained, are attainable, or are even desirable in relation to beneficial spiritual growth.

I don't really have much disagreement with Greg here. I have my own experiences, but I don't put these forward as evidence, since they can't be replicated in any scientific sense. In fact, anyone who might have been following my writings here will know that I have been a fairly strong critic of studies that are supposedly designed to provide scientific evidence of higher consciousness or “God”, such as imaging studies of long-term meditators (Newberg et al. 2001; Holzel et al. 2007; Brefczynski-Lewis et al. 2007; Lutz et al. 2008). As I have discussed elsewhere (Smith 2001; Smith 2009b), since there is no independent way to confirm that the subjects of these studies are experiencing higher consciousness, the fact that certain changes in the brain may be reliably associated with these meditators doesn't prove either that higher consciousness is real, or that if it is real, it is associated with such changes. (Greg will surely appreciate my respect for Derrida's criticisms of transcendence). I have additional criticisms about some of the assumptions underlying the methodology of these studies.

Nevertheless, Greg makes two assumptions of his own about higher consciousness that I think need to be challenged. First, he repeats the very widely held misconception that spiritual experiences are inner. They are private, in the sense that they are no more visible to others than ordinary human experiences, but they involve just as much awareness of the outer world of objects as the inner world of thoughts.

This may appear inconsistent with my emphasis that a state of consciousness without objects is possible, but I mean it as a restatement of this view. The process of meditation breaks down the distinction between self and other, between inner and outer. Gradually the meditator realizes that there is not inner awareness of thoughts and feelings, and outer awareness of objects and people, but just one kind of awareness. This awareness is still capable of identifying objects, in the sense of features of the world outside of the human body, but they are increasingly viewed as aspects of oneself. In the limit, as I discussed before, there is no real self at all, since there is no other.

Second, Greg notes the existence of spiritual frauds. I have two comments here. First, to discount the claims of spirituality because of frauds is like distrusting all investment advisors because of Bernie Madoff. Yes, there are people who take advantage of the possibility of gaining personal power to abuse the notion of spirituality, but that doesn't mean that there is no one genuine or trustworthy. The Madoff analogy is pertinent in another respect. Everyone hears about the Madoffs, or the Andrew Cohens, because people who engage in outrageous behavior make good news. Nobody hears about a reputable investment advisor, except his clients, and nobody hears much about gurus who don't abuse their flock. Even in an age when in it often seems it's becoming increasingly more rare, treating people with respect is not big news.

Second, and more important, I regard it as a great mistake to view spirituality as a form of personal growth. As I have discussed in more detail elsewhere (Smith 2006), personal growth is better regarded as a side effect of raising awareness, rather than as the means to the end, or even worse, the end in itself. In principle, higher awareness means enhancement of all human qualities, including intelligence and emotions in all their great varieties. But in my experience, there is frequently conflict between the two. Anyone who gets very far along the spiritual path will find that acting in what is considered the more socially acceptable or beneficial way often makes meditation far more difficult.

This really shouldn't be surprising. Meditation is the process of stopping/transcending thoughts, and these thoughts are critical to all our social interactions. Even the seemingly random daydreams that plague all of us—let alone the more focused thoughts we need to play the roles of parent, friend, professional, etc—all serve to ensure that we behave in a way that stabilizes social networks. In challenging these thoughts, meditation necessarily breaks the bonds that connect us to others. So meditation, understood correctly, is in fact a profoundly asocial process. Not, I emphasize, anti-social, but a-social.[6]

Thus the meditator often must choose between what her social conditioning has taught her is the most appropriate way to act, and behavior that will facilitate meditation. The inevitable result is actions that may be puzzling if not downright incomprehensible to others. This does not generally excuse behavior that is abusive of others, but it most definitely provides a cautionary note to anyone seeking to judge someone's spiritual progress by outward behavior.

Given this view of meditation, it's not at all surprising that someone thoroughly immersed in social networks would recoil from it:

It may be comforting for some to think of an individual human consciousness as a piece of a greater consciousness, but personally I don't find this comforting insofar as it obviates, substitutes for, or, as you say, transcends at some point individual consciousness. The reason being that such collective consciousness then dissolves individual differences and these differences are a good part of what makes individual lives valuable and worth living. Individuation is a grand part of the mystery and value of human experience.

I could respond to this by pointing out that meditation profoundly enriches human experience. That as one's awareness increases, everything about life becomes more vivid and intense. As one meditates, one gradually realizes that one was only dimly aware of life before, that the ordinary consciousness goes through life every single day missing literally thousands of moments of experience that begin to become accessible as awareness is raised. This enhancement, by the way, includes individual differences, which become far, far sharper and clearer than they ever were before, until they finally become so clear and distinct that they disappear.

But again, this would be to miss the point. One does not meditate in order to enrich one's life. It just happens along the way, and if one begins with that goal in mind, one will soon dispense with it, and not at all reluctantly. For it is an unfortunate but inescapable fact that enrichment of life means increasing the intensity of negative as well as positive experiences. In my experience, people who praise ordinary human existence for all its rich and valuable experiences have an immense capacity for forgetting all the times in life when those experiences, undeniably rich and valuable, were also painful to the extent that at that time one would have given anything not to have to live through them. Life has a way of blotting out this pain over time, of making people forget just how frustrating, disappointing, frightening or dull it is so much of the time. One of the great values of meditation is that one is forced to experience such suffering more frequently and more intensely, so one does not ever forget, or make the mistake of thinking that such life is really all that worthwhile if there were any alternative to it.

Nevertheless, most of us, most of the time, do forget. Evolution, naturally, has produced creatures that are mostly comfortable—if only uneasily so--with who or what they are. If they weren't, they couldn't continue to behave in the way that they do, and prolong survival of the species. After living in societies of some kind for tens of thousands of years, our species has grown extremely comfortable with them. The sentiments that Greg expresses are exactly what is needed for the human societies of the future to grow and remain stable—and exactly antithetical for any particular individual who wants to free himself from these networks:

If I were to be granted a wish I would wish to live longer than a normally advanced human lifespan because I just don't feel a normal life span is long enough to become very wise or to take adequate advantage of life's many opportunities, challenges, and enjoyments. In other words, I want more of THIS life, not something beyond.

I'm reminded of the studies that ask people how much material wealth or income it would take for them to be satisfied, and they so very often reply with a number twice what they currently have. So someone making $20,000 per year would be just fine if she could just make $40,000 per year—but someone making $40,000 needs $80,000, and so on. Most Americans who are suffering under the current recession are actually far better off materially than their ancestors in the best of times were.

Likewise, I have little doubt that if the human lifespan is lengthened, as it likely will be someday, people will soon become accustomed to it, and wish for a still longer lifespan. After all, life expectancy at birth in today's developed countries is more than double what it was for our ancestors. So why do so many people like Greg find it too short, and why do they think that if it's lengthened they will be any better off? What problems will it solve?

I know a problem that lengthening life will not solve. It's called desire. It doesn't go away by satisfying it, any more than a fire dies down by feeding it more fuel, because it's insatiable.


1. An additional point I want to make is that when very simple organisms interact with their environment, these interactions are frequently made by individual cells, rather than by the organism as a whole. The individual cells, as I have emphasized, do make self-other distinctions, which allow them to perform these interactions with the environment. These interactions occur below the level of the whole organism, and thus do not affect how the latter itself interacts or does not interact with the environment.

2. There is another point to be made here. Even if one concedes the premise that all consciousness must involve awareness of time, one does not have accept that this includes an awareness of the flow of time. Some philosophers, and apparently most physicists, believe that the flow of time is an illusion, created by some process in the brain. This understanding, known as the tenseless view of time, is contrasted to the more familiar tensed view, in which the flow of time is real, and exists independently of human observers (Oaklander and Smith 1994; Mellor 1998; tense here is used in the sense that it applies to verbs, as in past, present and future tense). One could argue, therefore, that while our ordinary human consciousness perceives time as flowing, other types of consciousness do not necessarily do so (I have suggested that this may be the case with some lower vertebrates; see Smith 2009a, Chapter 6).

This view would not invalidate the postmodern insistence that consciousness involves awareness of time, but if time is not flowing, it would certainly affect our understanding of change.

3. Further evidence comes from studies of other organisms. Just as the most primitive organisms seem to have no awareness of (or sensitivity to) space and time, there are other, somewhat more complex organisms that seem to be sensitive to some dimensions of space, but not all three that we (and demonstrably, most other vertebrates) are aware of (Smith 2009a).

4. When I suggested in that previous article that this postmodern view is at odds with the mainstream scientific worldview, which very much accepts a given and therefore an absolute, Greg responded that:

“natural laws” formulated by physicists should not be confused with Absolutes. High science considers nothing absolute because every law is always exposed to further empirical evidence. And this evidence could potentially call for a revision of that “law.” In high science “law” does not dictate evidence; evidence dictates the law. With such weighting of empirical input there can never be the acceptance of a “final” truth or absolute of any kind, precisely because no one has had all the experiences there are to have.

I agree with Greg that specific natural laws do not constitute a belief in an absolute. But what about the belief in the existence of laws of some kind in general? For example, if we did not believe in natural laws of some kind, that is, of regularities in nature that exist independently of our own observations of them, how could we have any knowledge of the physical and biological world prior to the emergence of our species? Quentin Meillassoux, who I mentioned in a footnote in my earlier article, refers to this as the problem of ancestrality, and he argues that science's presumption that it can know anything about our prehistory betrays a subtle but inescapable belief in an absolute:

far from encouraging us to renounce the kind of philosophy that claims to be able to discover absolute truth solely through its own resources, and far from commanding us - as the various forms of positivism would wish - to renounce the quest for the absolute, it is science itself that enjoins us to discover the source of its own absoluteness. For if I cannot think anything that is absolute, I cannot make sense of ancestrality, and consequently I cannot make sense of the science that allows me to know ancestrality. (Meillassoux (2007), 431-432 in Kindle edition).

5. Again, I'm not claiming that this type of awareness is totally devoid of any object. The fact that the dream seems to be of something, however vague and confused, rather than of something else, suggests an object of some sort. The value of such examples rather lies in that they point to the possibility of awareness where there is no object at all. As I emphasized in my earlier article, this is the ineffable aspect of consciousness, the aspect of it that every type of conscious experience shares.

6. This is reflected in the well-known saying, “in the world but not of it.” You can't live very effectively in the world if you are anti-social. But you must be asocial if you are not to be of the world.


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