The Focus on Thought in Western Naturalism
We in the Western world have come to identify ourselves with thought and egoic structures ever since the early Greek thinkers such as Plato. But Descartes is perhaps the one who has shaped the modern Western intellectual tradition the most along those lines of identification. In a sense, Descartes was a modern figure when it came to consciousness. He thought of consciousness not primarily as a field but more importantly in terms of content and, for him, that content was essentially thought. Descartes came to identify himself with being a thinking thing and thought that if he did not think, he would cease to exist. This is an odd position to take, but it is clear why Descartes took it on. It allowed him to set aside humans as the only creatures with souls because he could make a case that they were the only ones who had language and could engage in real thought processes. Yet, from an Eastern meditative perspective, to be constantly thinking is not to be fully alive; it is to live a life of illusion, ungrounded and disconnected from the formless—we could say it is to be unconscious or overly conditioned and constrained by thought structures.
Could it be that we in the West have adopted an illusory fundamental view of consciousness? As we have seen earlier, Daniel Dennett took on the position that babies are not conscious, because they are not thinking. Dennett was inspired by psychologist and historian Julian Jaynes (Jaynes 1976) and his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, where Jaynes argued that consciousness was invented in Mesopotamia around 1300 BC. Both of these positions are, from an Eastern perspective, fundamentally mistaken. To declare that babies, chimpanzees, and people living before 1300 BC—even those who engaged with the Upanishads, who had a refined philosophy of consciousness (Margetts 1951) and its place in reality—were unconscious is mistaken. Why would anyone make this mistake? As the philosopher Ned Block points out in a review of Jaynes’s book, Jaynes appears to be confusing consciousness with theories of consciousness:
Jaynes’ main argument for his view is that the literatures of the “bicameral” period do not talk of reasons, motives, deceit, hope, indecision, etc., and instead they ascribe the springs of action to the gods. But even supposing Jaynes is right about bicameral literature, there is a better explanation of this “data”: namely that while the ancients thought and decided much as we do, they nonetheless falsely believed that they were ordered about by the gods rather than deciding for themselves. In other words, it is far more plausible to suppose that their basic processes of thought and action were like ours, though they had a bizarre theory about these processes. (Block 1977)
Dennett, in contrast to Block, defends Jaynes as being an insightful “software archaeologist”:
Now Jaynes, in his largest and most dispensable optional module, ties his entire theory to the structure of the brain and I am fascinated to know whether there is anything in that. But I am quite content to jettison the whole business, because what I think he is really talking about is a software characterization of the mind, at the level, as a computer scientist would say, of a virtual machine. (Dennett 1998, p. 129)
Jaynes is saying that when the right concepts settled into place in the preconscious “minds” of our ancestors, there was a sort of explosion, like the explosion in computer science that happens when you invent something like LISP. Suddenly you discover a new logical space, where you get the sorts of different behaviors, the sorts of new powers, the sorts of new problems that we recognize as having the flavor of human consciousness. Of course, if that is what Jaynes’s theory really is, it is no wonder he has to be bold in his interpretation of the tangible evidence, because this isn’t just archeology he is doing, this is software archeology, and software doesn’t leave much of a fossil record. Software, after ah, is just concepts . . . Jaynes’s idea is that for us to be the way we are now, there has to have been a revolution— almost certainly not an organic revolution, but a software revolution—in the organization of our information-processing system to have come after language. (Dennett 1998, pp. 129-130)
Whichever way we want to read Jaynes, we cannot read him as acknowledging the formless. We could expand the list of intellectuals who have come to identify consciousness with thought forms, by including more writers from the Western tradition, but what is important for our purposes here is simply the observation that the Western intellectual tradition has not been very interested in consciousness as something other than mental contents or other variations on form such as behaviors. Even Heidegger—who is often touted as a forerunner of a new style of thinking, from an egoless perspective of being in his second phase of intellectual work—was nevertheless driven to understand being in terms of a new way of thinking. Indeed Heidegger too was obsessed with thought. But, what if consciousness is not something that can ultimately be understood by our intellect? What if the conscious is, as Kant thought, noumenal? What if the writers of Eastern traditions are right that consciousness cannot be grasped by thought but is nevertheless the source and essence of our very being? We cannot rule out this possibility even if our thinking minds cannot grasp the formless.
We can see the Western focus on thought in Weinberg’s writings even more explicitly in his suggestion that intellectual understanding gives grace to the tragedy of human life in a pointless universe:
The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy. (Weinberg 1977, p. 155)
But nowhere in his text does Weinberg discuss consciousness as part of the universe. Why not? This is unclear, for consciousness is still a mystery to science. Moreover, we are no solipsistic Cartesian points of consciousness alienated from the rest of the universe: we are the universe, and consciousness is part of it; we are the conscious universe, just as other conscious creatures are. There is no mysticism involved in saying this; it is a plain fact that the universe is conscious and that it observes itself through Weinberg and other conscious creatures even from the perspective of thoroughgoing materialism. What is mysterious is how the Western subjectivist tradition has come to ignore and cover up this fundamental fact through elaborate philosophies of the self as a thinking, ego-based entity in an empty, cold, meaningless universe. It is as if the Western intellectual tradition sought to cover up who we are.
Perhaps this should come as no surprise. After all, any intellectual tradition, qua intellectual, is a tradition based on thought. It is not a transcendental experiential tradition based on consciousness. “Transcendental” doesn’t mean anything esoteri- cally mystical here; it means thought-less existence or being, as explored in Eastern meditative traditions. Those traditions also had their intellectual aspects. Indeed we find within many of them sophisticated philosophical works, yet they never lost sight of the meditative, experiential aspects of conscious being. They all saw that sort of being as fundamental and as a source of creativity and power that went beyond the human intellect.
From an Eastern meditative perspective, the thoroughly intellectualized, thinking mind is a conditioned mind, largely ungrounded in the formless and thereby lacking clarity of perception and direction in life. I think we can hear Einstein’s thought resonating with such a perspective as he writes the following at the end of his career:
Our age is proud of the progress it has made in man’s intellectual development. The search and striving for truth and knowledge is one of the highest of man’s qualities—though often the pride is most loudly voiced by those who strive the least. And certainly we should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality. It cannot lead, it can only serve; and it is not fastidious in its choices of a leader. This characteristic is reflected in the qualities of its priests, the intellectuals. The intellect has a sharp eye for methods and tools, but is blind to ends and values. So it is no wonder that this fatal blindness is handed from old to young and today involves a whole generation. (Einstein 1950, p. 260)
In Einstein’s view, a whole generation was blinded by intellectual thought processes—a generation conditioned by thought and therefore also directionless with respect to higher ideals that come from something nonintellectual.