the prosaic materialism of the majority condemns as madness the flashes of super-sight which penetrate the common veil of obvious empiricism
H.P. Lovecraft The Tomb
One of H.P. Lovecraft's core themes was the danger of forbidden knowledge. That a reality exists beyond the acceptable illusion maintained by 'the majority', and this true reality has answers to questions we are fearful to ask. More than 100 years later, the frustrations his characters voice about the 'common veil of obvious empiricism' are frustrations we still might expect to see in certain circles.
For example, we have cast aside notions of 'spirit' and 'soul', using them as nothing more than metaphors. We know the mind is located firmly in the brain, and "the prosaic materialism of the majority" relegates talk of something more to the woo-woo corners of the internet. The 'soul' is forbidden.
But not all forbidden knowledge is dangerous. Indeed, this ignorance of notions of the soul is a mistake; a heuristic that helps us understand less about the mind and the world we occupy, not more.
What's the difference between mind and soul?
The word spirit or soul captures something about a principle of conscious life: that which animates or is vital to the body but not part of its physical structure.
Unfortunately, the notion of the mind has always been something about that very same thing.
Plato defines the soul as the psyche: the essence of the person. He describes three aspects of the soul, and locates them in parts of the body.
- logos/logostikon or reason. This aspect lives in the 'head' related to reason and regulation of the other aspects of the soul;
- thymos/thumoeides or spirit. This aspect is found in the 'chest' related to spirit; and
- eros/epithymetikon or appetite. This aspect resides in the 'stomach' which both produces and seeks pleasure.
In other traditions, we see similar patterns---the attempt to capture what we might call the mind in terms of spirit, soul, or energy.
In the Hindu Vedantic philosophy, the sukshma sarira is distinguished as the subtle body, not the physical one. The sukshma sarira is comprised of energy, not form. It is the equivalent of Plato's psyche in many respects, and mirrors something like Plato's in it's various incarnations. Similarly, the notion of chakras are often very much like nodes of psychic energy---energies of pleasure, willpower, love, and thought.
In Taoism, we have the shen or shin, one meaning for which is something very close to the human spirit or psyche. Taoism also, variously, decomposes the human soul into parts---two, three, or ten commonly---the Yin souls that are responsible for aspects of the human body, and the Yang souls which manage the less mortal parts.
The Rarámuri believe that each moving body part has a unique soul, from the joints of the fingers to the ‘heart’ and the ‘head’. These souls, or ariwi, must be cared for lest they become sick and the body begins to fail. In a sense, each of these bodily features have something like their own 'mind'---an agenda they pursue and needs to be met.
In all cases, the delineation of souls have overlapped very closely with any notion we hold today about the mind--the energetic force(s) that manages the body, but is not the same as the body. Indeed, this fact is not hidden today---psychology is the study of the psyche, an ancient Greek word that overlapped with the concept of soul and the name of their Goddess of the soul. Our western tradition was born out of Aristotle's investigation into the nature of the psyche, and advancement on Plato's which is more or less indistingishable from the modern conception of mind. Psychology is, literally, soul science.
Where does the mind end? Or, minds, souls, selves, and systems
Yet, as evidenced by these various incarnations and aspects of the psyche, and its unclear delineation from the body, the mind is something quite difficult to characterise. A more secular perspective moves away from the search for the soul, and instead towards the search for the 'self'---a much safer core or organising principle of the mind.
David Hume famously wrote that, after searching in earnest for the mind, he'd be better off giving up, going off instead to play some backgammon:
For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.
Hume noticed that, in searching for the mind or self, he could find nothing but a collection of experiences. The mind, for Hume, is nothing more than a bundle of impulses, perceptions, and other properties.
The Buddhist teachings of the Abhidhamma describe things a little better. The mind, or the self, is characterised as five 'heaps' of properties:
- Forms: this is the physical body and the environment it inhabits.
- Feelings/Sensations: this is the 'tone' of an experience---the goodness or badness of the thing.
- Perceptions/Impulses: this refers to the moments of recognition and the basic impulse for action towards the recognised things.
- Dispositions: these are the habitual patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting that colour our impulses.
- Consciousness: this is the combination of the other four 'heaps' that that make up the character of an experience. The contact between the forms---for example when the body meets the environment. The feeling of the experience of contact---pain for instance, or pleasure. The awareness or recognition that contact has been made---what we might call 'concious awareness' as opposed to unconscious behaviour. The intention to act in response, which may be conscious or unconscous. And any disposition that might go along with it---confidence for instance, or laziness.
But what of these are the mind? What of these are the 'self' that coordinates it?
Is the self our body?
It's easy to confuse our 'self' with our body. These are the forms---the physical sensations and the body responsible for generating them. But on inspection, of course, this is not quite true. Remove our leg and, though inconvenienced, both our mind and self remain more or less intact. Remove even the body itself, and we have no problem imagining that our essential 'self' might remain somewhere. We are not quite our body, then, though we will return to the trope of the brain in a futuristic jar, or a mind that can be downloaded from the brain shortly.
Is the self our feelings?
For now, let's continue through our Buddhist 'heaps'. We'll leave the material and seek the mental. Are the feelings of those sensations generated by the body the self? We seek these sensations, or seek to avoid them always---the autopoeietic drive to seek out the good and avoid the bad is the fundamental concern of living things. And yet, we wouldn't call these feelings our 'self'.
Perhaps we look to what the feelings are affecting. Our perception of the feeling, and the corresponding impulse. We observe or identify some object, and activate an impulse toward it. This feels closer to the mind---as soon as we recognise something, from the very first instant, that something is seen in relation to the self---either desirable, undesirable, or irrelevant to the self. That then leads to the impulse to response (or not) in in the relevant way. But what is this grasping entity, seeking or avoiding these objects relevant to it?
Is the self our habits of thinking and behaving?
We might look to our habitual pattern of being in the world to explain the thing these feelings are referring to. Our patterns of thinking and acting---our dispositions. These certainly colour our impulses, and they last past the impulses themselves. But, of course, our habits are not something we consider us. Indeed so much of the literature on self-help and psychology are designed to help us change these very things. Habits of thinking and acting feel something closer to clothes that our selves wear.
This is where the idea that perhaps the self is something that lives in the brain falls apart. As Marvin Minsky, maker of the first artificial brain, wrote:
it makes no sense to speak of brains as though they manufacture thoughts the way factories make cars.
Rather, the processes that the brain engages in are processes which change themselves. These processes transform perceptions into actions, and they lay down or alter memories which change the ways we process information in the future. The brain tries to create habits, and update them in response to the world around it. As such the brain is an ever-changing piece of machinery, perhaps less stable in its composition than the rest of our body.
Is the self our awareness?
So we are left with merely the sense of experience itself. This mental combination of the previous four 'heaps', but yet something superior when it collects them together into an experience or an awareness. But this 'consciousness' cannot exist without the something that it experiences. The object it recognises and the relations that object generates---the feelings, impulses, and dispositions. Indeed, each of our forms---our eyes, ears, nose, and so on---have a different consciousness. Each is capable of having its own 'experience' of something. At each moment of experience we have, there is a different experiencer as well as a different object of experience. And between these moments of 'awareness' or 'consciousness' we, like Hume, can't seem to find the self in the background.
The traditional metaphor for this 'illusory continuity' of experiences is a candle. It lights another candle. That new candle lights the next, and that the one after. The flame is passed on, but nothing material unites them.
Selves as systems
Modern sciences of the mind and brain largely agree. Various theories of mind describe something similar. Minsky, an early AI pioneer, writes of a 'society of mind'---for him "minds are what brains do". A vast collection, or society, of inter-related processes he calls agents. Together, we call this society a mind just as we call a society of people a nation-state.
At the foundation of modern cognitive science lies Jerry Fodor's modularity of mind theory. Here, Fodor characterises the mind in a similar way to Minsky's society, a collection of modules each with its own agenda and role.
In a clinical setting, the two major branches of psychological intervention approach the matter much the same.
Cognitive-behavioural therapies (CBT) look at the relationships of these patterns of thinking and behaving, with an emphasis on their mutability. Are patterns are not us. It should be no surprise that Buddhist principles of 'mindfulness', derived from the teachings we've briefly explored above have become increasingly integrated into CBT methodologies.
Psychodynamic theories concern themselves with a vast number of competing unconscious processes---battling drives, dispositions, and motivational forces. Some theories, like Internal Family Systems, take this to its logical extreme, characterising the self as a conglomerate of agents too---each with a role, perspective, interests, and even memories.
And at the forefront of cognitive neuroscience---a science that tries to unite the notion of 'thinking' with the architecture of the brain itself---is embodied or enactive theory which recognises that the mind does not exist in the brain, but rather exists in the whole body. Without the presence of arms, a whole realm of cognition would be lost to us---those concerned with the manipulation of the world with our arms. The mind, in this conception, is the body, and each part of the body has some form of 'mind' to give to us. Indeed, philosopher Andy Clark takes this to its logical conclusion, suggesting that the our minds even extend to the world itself---our calendars and notebooks are just as much a part of our memory system as the parts of the brain that recall information.
And so we have been forced back to something quite similar to the notion of souls that have proliferated throughout other and more ancient traditions of thought. The 'mind' is not some unitary phenomenon, united by the self. Rather it's a 'society' of cognitive systems, a collection of modules, a scrabbling heap of unconscious processes. Discreet mental creatures, who when active produce some experience we interpret as a continuity of self. Or perhaps, if the self does exist, hiding out of sight somewhere, it is just another member of this varied society with its own agenda and perspective.
Where does the body end?
Andy Clark's extended mind thesis asks an important question that arises from this line of thinking. If our minds are a collection of cognitive systems, what differentiates the systems outside of our bodies from those within? Does this society of mind stop at the border?
Clark uses the example of a notebook as memory that lives outside of us, functionally indistinguishable from the memory inside. More fundamentally, our perceptions and actions very often transcend the body. They are an attempt to shape the world around us. Without the world they would simply not exist. Indeed, many of the mental creatures that exist in our society of mind are the product of the mental creatures of others. We both consume features of the world, and produce them.
This reminds me of the biologist's time machine.
At our level of experience, we contain these mental creatures. Without stepping far outside the modern medical model, we can extend this a little further. The Raramuri believe that each moving part have a little soul, an agenda and needs we must satisfy. This picture is not so different from how we treat our organs today. Organs, too, are systems. Ones, in fact, that are a crucial part of our society of mind.
And if we slow time down and zoom in further, our organs can be seen to be comprised of various cells, each with a series of agendas themselves, and each with 'organs' of their own.1 Each organ, then, contains a number of 'little souls', which each contain their own 'little souls'. They are each a society of systems that both create and interact with the societies of systems at the level above and the level below.
Returning to our level of experience, there are many other humans like us, who contain multitudes---collections of systems all the way down. And at a more expansive level of time and space, we simply become the little souls of larger ecosystems. If we were to zoom out and speed time up:
Ecosystems, formed of combinations of these species, have become the creatures of our vision. A pond is fringed with larch, fills up with waterweed, and then congeals into a bog. A sand dune sprouts beach grass, then wild rose and other low shrubs, which yield to jack pine and finally hardwood forest ... Organisms are no more than ensembles defined by the mathematical laws of birth and death, competition, and replacement.
At this distance, and this speed, these ecosystems look much like little souls too---minds in their own right, when defined in terms of societies of interacting systems within systems with agendas. Each connects the forms of the environment it 'experiences' and the forms of their 'experiencer' in meaningful ways at the level at which it operates.
The society of mind, then, never truly stops. It stretches from the microscopic to the macroscopic. Across time, people, and ecosystems. We draw these arbitrary lines around our 'selves' and our 'minds' and our 'souls'---all sensible ways to solve the problems at hand on the level of experience we inhabit. But these arbitrary lines can also get in the way of understanding the world better. Again, Wilson:
an embryo’s development depends not just on its genes but on the way its cells are deployed in the surrounding environment. Or that an organism’s behavior is shaped in part by learning, in other words by the alteration of its nerve cells by external stimuli. In a still deeper dimension, the very genes that comprise [the organism] ... were assembled through a long history of mutation and selection within changing environments.
The body is merely a circle we draw around one interconnected society.2 The mind, another circle. Our communities, another still. And so too ecosystems. But those lines only exist because we have decided that they do.
The Consciousness Problem
Perhaps I have overstepped. Perhaps these societies of systems cannot be called minds. The human, at least, has a quality of consciousness despite the vagaries of its precise borders. The fifth 'heap' in the Abhidhamma, the combination of sensations, feelings, impulses and dispositions into fleeting moments of awareness.
But also, perhaps this notion is just another futile way in which we try to tell ourselves that humans are special.
Our conception of consciousness is typically and intuitively 'dualist'. Our conscious 'self' can be distinguished from any material form it might inhabit. We also fall into 'physicalist' thinking---Lovecraft's prosaic materialism of earlier. Here, we attempt to squeeze consciousness into the physical processes of brain or body.
A different, and less intuitive perspective is the 'panpsychist'. Here, as philosopher Philip Goff puts it:
As the word is standardly used in academic philosophy, for something to be ‘conscious’ is just for it to have experience of some form. Human experience is rich and complex, involving emotions, sensations and sensory experience of the self and environment. However, there seems nothing incoherent with the idea that experience might exist in very simple forms. According to common-sense opinion of our time, consciousness takes up a small part of the vast universe, residing only in the central nervous systems of living animals. In opposition to this, the panpsychist claims that consciousness is everywhere.
For the panpsychist, the material world is what consciousness does, but not what consciousness is. Electrons, atoms, and quarks are all descriptions of the behaviour of consciousness. As Goff notes, "mass, for example, is characterized in terms of gravitational attraction and resistance to acceleration". But in the same way as merely describing the action of Sarah eating tells us little about what Sarah is, such physics don't necessarily tell us about the underlying nature of these physical properties.
But, as Goff puts it:
On a standard form of panpsychism, each of the most fundamental constituents of the physical world, perhaps electrons and quarks, instantiate unimaginably simple forms of experience. It does not follow that all things are conscious; a rock may be a mere aggregate of conscious particles rather than something that is conscious in its own right. But, of course, some composite objects – most obviously human beings or their brains – are conscious, and in these cases the panpsychist would claim that the experience of the composite is derived from the experience of its most basic parts.
Panpsychism is seeing a renewal in modern sciences of mind, precisely because the questions we have raised here today are so puzzling to the 'common sense empiricism' that Lovecraft was lamenting in his 100-year-old story. The facts don't quite fit the form.
Goff's article, linked above, nicely lays out the ways panpsychism helps us better understand modern problems in the science of mind. But panpsychism is not a new idea. Plato, among many many others across time, argued something similar to what we have argued here---that everything is a participant in the nature of the world, and thus everything must have some form of psyche:3
This world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence ... a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related.
A spirituality of mind
James Maffie tells us of the core principle of the Ancient Aztec view of the nature of things. At the root of their metaphysics lies a single, basic, unifying energy which underlies everything:
At the heart of Aztec metaphysics stands the ontological thesis that there exists just one thing: continually dynamic, vivifying, self-generating and self-regenerating sacred power, force, or energy. The Aztecs referred to this energy as teotl. Teotl is identical with reality per se and hence identical with everything that exists. What’s more, teotl is the basic stuff of reality. That which is real, in other words, is both identical with teotl and consists of teotl. Aztec metaphysics thus holds that there exists numerically only one thing – energy – as well as only one kind of thing – energy. Reality consists of just one thing, teotl, and this one thing is metaphysically homogeneous. Reality consists of just one kind of stuff: power or force… What’s more, the Aztecs regarded teotl as sacred. Although everywhere and in everything, teotl presents itself most dramatically – and is accordingly sensed most vibrantly by humans – in the vivifying potency of water, sexual activity, blood, heat, sunlight, jade, the singing of birds, and the iridescent blue-green plumage of the quetzal bird. As the single, all-encompassing life force of the cosmos, teotl vivifies the cosmos and all its contents. Everything that happens does so through teotl’s perpetual energy-in-motion
Teotl is the ultimate process then. The ultimate society of mind. The society to which all the societies contribute, and all societies terminate. The Aztec notion, interpreted thus, lays it out quite neatly, but it's easy to see the same kind of feature in almost every spiritual mystical tradition, or secular ecstatic one. The goal of these traditions is to 'transcend' the self, and become one with something greater.
Is this, then, easier to swallow? That the core of spirituality is not to find a god as defined by a church, surrounded by incense and robed men. The core of spirituality is to recognise that bounderies we have drawn around ourselves---our society of mind---is arbitrary, and nothing stops us from redrawing those lines around something greater. That we can take responsibility for more than ourselves, or our families, or our organisations. We can take responsibility for ecosystems, for biospheres, for something like teotl. Or, we can turn inside ourselves and nourish our 'little souls' with the same care we nourish our big one.
Mircea Eliade makes the case that what makes something sacred to us, rather than simply meaningful is precisely a structure like this. Meaning is a transient thing, appearing and disappearing as time passes. When we tie this meaning to a greater structure, we can begin to have a dialog with these meaningful moments. Without this structure these moments remain isolated, and we are isolated from them.
The difference between your favourite song and the song that played at your wedding is the difference between something you will tire of and something that will call into your mind the structure of something far greater and far more meaningful than the song itself.
The mind is mundane. So, indeed, is the soul. Both become something empty when reduced to Lovecraft's 'prosaic materialism' or hidden by the veil of 'obvious empiricism'. A society of mind is something far deeper, and yet follows the patterns of empirical trains of thought, if only those slightly less obvious.
A society of mind is a far better heuristic to approach the world. One that allows us the chance to have an ongoing dialogue with meaning. A spirit, or soul, or even a god that everyone can believe in.
Indeed, once, a very long time ago, cells were themselves a symbiotic pairing of distinct organisms. They came together to become one organism, just as many cells now come together to make us as an organism. ↩
I wanted, here, to talk a little bit about the architect Christopher Alexander, but ran out of the steam required to do him justice. He has an incredible body of work that touches on something very close to this idea. He would call the thing we are talking about here a 'center'. I can leave it to him to explain: "for example ... a fishpond ... Obviously the water is part of the fishpond. What about the concrete it is made of? .. the air which is just about the pond? … the pipes bringing in the water? These are uncomfortable questions … The pond does exist. Our trouble is that we don’t know how to define it exactly ... When I call a pond a center, the situation changes … the fuzziness of edges becomes less problematic. The reason is that the pond, as an entity, is focused towards its center. It creates a field of centeredness ... The same is true for window, door, walls, or arch. None of them can be exactly bounded. They are all entities which have a fuzzy edge, and whose existence lies in the fact that they exist as centers in the portion of the world which they inhabit." The Nature of Order: Book 1 ↩
The most digestible of these he places in his Republic. In this Utopic picture of civilisation, the literal society is a psyche. The citizen is the eros---producing and seeking pleasure. The logos is the ruler---ruling through the love of learning. The thymos is the military---obeying the logos while defending the whole from external invasion and internal disorder. A society of mind which is itself an actual society. ↩