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INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
Steve Taylor is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, and the author of several best-selling books on psychology and spirituality. He is the current chair of the Transpersonal Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society. He is the author of The Leap and his new book Spiritual Science: Why the science needs spirituality to make sense of the world, Watkins Publising, 2018. See: www.stevenmtaylor.com
Consciousness and Complexity
A Defence of Panspiritism
As consciousness cannot be derived from physical laws, it has to be seen as a fundamental feature of the universe.
Let me first of all respond to Smith's point about altruism. He argues against my view that altruism is the result of a fundamental connectedness amongst human beings. He states that 'If there is a universal form of consciousness animating all life, we should feel connected to all life. We should act altruistically not only to members of our own species, but to members of other species as well. Clearly, this is not the case.'
With regard to the last sentence, I would say that there is nothing 'clear' about this at all. In fact, I would say that this is clearly not the case. Of course we act altruistically to members of other species! Human beings often act with tremendous kindness towards members of different speciesnot only to our pets, but to many other animals we encounter. What happens when we come across injured birds or foxes or other animals? I know many people who have driven many miles out of their way to take injured animals to vets. I know many people (including myself) who regularly remove spiders and other insects from the shower or bathtub so they won't be in danger of drowning. A sense of empathy towards other species motivates many people to become vegetarians and vegans.
It is certainly true that, as Smith points out, 'we have adopted a purely utilitarian attitude towards other species. We have treated them in any way that suits our purposes, from servitude, to a source of food, to outright enemies that need to be exterminated.' However, it is important to point out that, to an extent, our brutal treatment of animals is the result of abstract thoughtlessness, rather than intentional cruelty. It is likely that many more people would become vegetarians or vegans if they were aware of the brutality and cruelty which lie behind meat products (or if they were required to kill the animals they eat). All in all though, our treatment of animals is not dissimilar to our treatment of other human beings. It covers a very wide spectrum of behaviour, from saintly altruism to psychopathic brutality.
So in my view our shared fundamental consciousness does make it possible for us to empathise with animals as well as other human beings. At the same time, I would agree that altruism is stronger towards members of our own species. Presumably because of closer contact and our common mental features and shared environmental experiences, we feel the strongest empathic connection to other human beings. At the same time, it is completely plausible that if we had equally strong contact with members of other species, then we would feel the same degree of empathy towards them. (And in fact, this is true of our pets.)
Why Aren't Psi Powers more Common?
A related point made by Smith is that psi powers are rare, and this doesn't seem to fit with the idea that they are the result of interconnected consciousness. 'If there is a universal consciousness, why is it manifested so weakly in some people, and not in all in most?' Smith asks.
There is a good point. The particular issue which puzzles me, when I ponder over it, is why altruism is very common, while telepathy is quite uncommon, when both have the same source: i.e. our interconnected consciousness. But there are a number of issues that can be raised in response. Firstly, I don't think psi abilities are as uncommon as Smith suggests. There are some 'everyday' types of telepathy which are so common that we tend to take them for granted: for example, what Rupert Sheldrake has referred to as 'the sense of being stared at.' So it is possible that we have frequent telepathic experiences without being aware of them. It is also worth mentioning that the existence of telepathy has been taken for granted by many traditional societies. When the South African writer Laurens van der Post lived with the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert, he learned how they had a mental “wire” with which they communicate across a distance. For example, a hunter would mentally send “news” of a successful catch back to camp, so that others could prepare.
Nevertheless, the fact that telepathy (which is the ability we are specifically talking about here, since I explain it as the result of our interconnected consciousness) does not manifest itself more frequently does need to be explained. Most likely, it is related to our strongly developed egoic selves, with their incessant chattering thoughts and their strong sense of separateness. This seems to be obscure our innate connectedness. You could compare it to spiritual experiences. The essence of our being is fundamental consciousness, which we share with all other beings. Spiritual experiences occur when we 'tap into' this fundamental oneness, usually in states of deep mental quietness, and in exhilarating moments of connection with the natural world. However, although this state is potentially open to us all the time, we experience it very rarely, because of our strongly developed egoic selves.
So it may be that telepathy and spiritual experiences are relatively uncommon (compared to altruism) because they depend on a heightened degree of union than altruism. That is, they require our normal egoic sense of separateness to dissolve away altogether, rather than simply to soften, or weaken. And with regard to telepathy, it is probably important that it depends on the mental state of two people. Both people must undergo a softening of ego-separateness for telepathy to occur - and that mutual occurrence is obviously much more rare than its occurrence in one person.
It is also important to remember that psychic abilities vary from person to person. In some people, they don't appear to exist at all, whereas others (such as creative people) may possess them to a high degree. ( I cited research showing that creative people perform around twice as well as others in psi experiments.) Psychic abilities may also be situational; even with a person who normally demonstrates them to a high degree, there may be some circumstances when they failfor example, when they are nervous or stressed. You can compare ESP abilities to creative abilities like painting or writing poetry. Some people have very little ability in these areas, perhaps none at all. Some people might be able to do them passably, and some peopleprobably the smallest groupare very skilled in them. Even a very skilled creative person may not be able to demonstrate his or her creativity in an uncongenial environment, in which they feel uneasy. Both ESP and creative abilities work best in states of calm and relaxation.
More broadly, ESP and creative abilities may be linked in that they are both related to 'labile' self-boundaries. The more labile a person's self-boundary is, the more open they are to creative, psychic and spiritual experiences. Again, we can see the connection between these abilities and our strongly developed egoic self.
Smith writes that, 'So again, it appears that believers in psi have to put forth their own convoluted arguments.' What other convoluted arguments is Smith referring to here? Earlier he seems to be tacitly accepting the existence of psi phenomena, but arguing that my explanation of them (in terms of an interconnected consciousness) is invalid. But in this statement he seems to show a prejudicial attitude towards them. At the end of the essay, he suggests an intriguing possible explanation of telepathy (as the result a kind of interconnected social being) which I think is worthy of further development, so it is clear that he has not rejected the possibility of ESP outright.
Mind and Brain
In response to the discussion of how the mind can influence the functioning of the body, Smith writes that my argument is invalid because materialists (and/or scientists) do not see the mind as an epiphenomenon but as an emergent phenomenon. Some examples would be welcome here, because I do not think this is representative of most materialists or scientists. There is a common belief amongst materialists that all mental states can be reduced to brain states. If we have psychological problems, they are supposed to be due to neurological imbalances or malfunctions that can be 'corrected' by medication. If we have anomalous experiencessuch as higher states of consciousness, out of body experiences or near-death experiences - they are supposed to be due to aberrational brain activity. Such experiences have no reality in themselves, but are just brain-created illusions. (As the philosopher Daniel Robinson put it, 'All mental states, events, and processes originate in the states, events, and processes of the body and, more specifically, of the brain.')
This attitude is so prevalent, and so embedded in our culture, that it's often reflected in the language that people use to talk about psychological issues. Neurological terms are used to describe psychological phenomena, as if they are the same thing. A person who is suffering a mental problem might say that their 'brain is all messed up' or that they need to 'get their brain sorted out.' But of course, they are actually talking about the mind, not the brain.
But even if it is true that materialists see the mind as an emergent phenomenon, it is still not clear how it could have such a powerful influence on the body. Smith writes that: 'A materialist, though, would just say that it was the activity in the neural networks that had this effect. While the way in which this activity does this may not be understood, it's quite explainable in principle.' This sentence makes very little sense to me. To state that the suggestions of a doctor could affect the neural networks of the brain in such a way that they have a painkilling or healing effect is nothing short of magical. (And of course, the effect of the mind over the body manifests itself in a variety of other settings than placebos. As discussed in my book, phantom pregnancy is an especially interesting phenomenon.)
In the same way, the term 'emergent' phenomenon in itself explains nothing. To say that the mind can emerge from the brain is like saying that wine can emerge from waterin other words, just a variant of the 'hard problem.' Like many materialists, Smith is simply couching magical beliefs in scientific terminology.