Thursday, July 24, 2014

Consciousness, the World and Mythological Thought

Consciousness and the outer world are inextricably tied to one another. How we treat the world is a reflection of how we treat ourselves. If we see the world as essentially soulless, as lifeless matter to be used without consideration, then that is also how we treat ourselves and each other: as units of economic productivity, to be tossed aside once we are of no use.

I suppose I’d trace it back to Science, with its tendency towards materialism; to Protestantism and its work ethic – good units of economic productivity go to heaven; and to the Old Testament God, who enjoined mankind to rule over all the animals.

So the environmental crisis is really an inner crisis. The environment is suffering because people are suffering; we have become split off from our natural relationship to the world, with its respect and its give and take, and split off therefore from a natural relationship to ourselves.

And I think this broken relationship is also reflected in the scientific view of the macrocosm, a place that is 99.99% chilly and lifeless, and whose destiny is to become increasingly that way, the eventual ‘Heat Death’ of the universe. Give me Armageddon any day!

I don’t see science as the objective art it claims to be, i.e. that it is simply discovering what is ‘out there’. It can easily seem like that if you’re not very reflective. The world so impresses us with its hard, separate reality that it can be hard to experience it as intermingled with, and conditioned by, consciousness. Quantum physics has known this truth for over 100 years, that you can’t separate the observer from the experiment. But it is subtle.

Eurynome Creates the World
So I don’t see the largely lifeless scientific universe and its eventual Heat Death as objective. It is an idea that reflects our broken consciousness, and we have found the evidence to support the idea, something that humans seem to be very good at! I think it takes a balanced human being to be ‘objective’, to see the universe in a way that reflects its real nature, which is one of aliveness: and there are many ways to do this, many Creation Myths, which are true to the extent that they reflect a living universe in which people have a balanced place (i.e. not ruling the animals!)

The Hunt for Dark Energy
From this perspective, the hunt for ‘Dark Energy’ seems to me quixotic. We may or may not find the stuff. But to say that 99% of the universe is missing and undetectable, that it can only be inferred, is also a way of saying that the universe we have in a sense created is woefully narrow.

We need to think mythologically, because that allows room for the part consciousness plays in generating views of the universe. Science is a myth, a story, that does not recognise itself as such. Its mythological nature is repressed, and when you repress something it comes back at you in demonic form: a chilly, lifeless universe that is 99% beyond our ken.

Truth lies more with the intuition, with direct experience, than it does with the intellect, which needs to have a supportive rather than a commanding role. I see an idea as true if it is imaginatively appealing, if it ‘rings true' in my experience, more than whether I can find hard evidence to support it. That way my experience of myself and my view of the world are not at odds.


Anonymous said...

so what was the universe like before the (extremely recent) advent of humans and human consciousness? Pretty much exactly the same as it is now I would have thought. You ask for greater balance in our relationship with the universe, but in an act of the most extreme anthropocentrism you dismiss (some of) the findings of science because they are not emotionally satisfying to you.
You surpass yourself!

Barry Goddard said...

What I'm arguing is that over the millennia humans have had many different understandings of the universe. The modern scientific view is one more of those, but like any fundamentalist religion, it often (not always) exceptionalises it, treats it as the view by which all others should be judged. That is what I don't accept. As a story, I think it has its strengths and weaknesses, and one of those weaknesses is I think a tendency towards nihilism.

As for what came before humans, well who knows, I think it's imponderable. For starters, who was observing?

Anonymous said...

Who was observing? Erm, well we are -- we are seeing starlight from billions of years ago, fossils from hundreds of millions. None of this is contingent on human consciousness for its existence. The physical nature of the universe is not dependent on us being around to observe or describe it.
Science expressly excludes judgement of other stories -- you can fill up the empty 99% of the universe with faeries and sprites if you want, science doesn't care. It will just gently point out that you have no evidence for your pixies and spirits, and you knew that already anyway.
But there are two key differences that mean you are wrong to lump science in with "other stories".
The first is its predictive power -- to take just a few: the atomic nature of matter, the existence of genes, even the dear old Higgs Boson were all predicted, by science, long before there were the means to establish their truth by direct observation.
The second is its self-reflective and transformational nature. Science accepts, indeed is driven by, the fact that it is imperfect and incomplete. If it is a story then it is one the telling of which always ends "so is any of this true? Is there more we need to know? Let's find out."
Of course there are stories that might make you feel more warm inside, that after all is what they were originally designed for.
And of course the vastness and emptiness of space is daunting. But it is also magnificent, and science helps reveal the extent of that magnificence. It's unfortunate this makes you feel uncomfortable, but that probably says a lot more about you than it does about science.

Barry Goddard said...

Perhaps you could include the findings of quantum physics in your argument, namely that you can't separate the observer from the experiment? In other words science (which of course is just a series of models -or stories! - rather than reality itself) is a co-creation between the human mind and whatever it is that is 'out there'.

Anonymous said...

You can't separate the observer from the experiment, but that doesn't mean it all just goes away if it's not observed. Schrödinger's cat may be alive or dead, but it's still a cat.

Barry Goddard said...

No, it doesn't go away, but what I'm asking is what is the 'it' that doesn't go away? To what extent is the outer world a creation of our brains, and to what extent is it literally there? If you read The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by the neuroscientist Oliver Sacks, this sort of consideration moves out of the realms of abstract philosophy and becomes empirical, yes the brain really does play a major part, in a deep structural way, in creating a workable model of the world around us.

That is why I say story, maybe I should say model for those of scientific sensibilities. At any rate, I don't think we can take our experience too literally. Even time is a way the brain has of ordering events, so what does it mean to talk about events before humans were around? Was there a consciousness perceiving the universe, and what model did its brain come up with?

mike said...

Barry, you state, "Truth lies more with the intuition, with direct experience, than it does with the intellect...". I think that is exactly the reason for humans believing they are superior to animals, to other humans of different races, or the environment. Their intuition tells them it is true. Why do particular religious groups or believe they are the chosen?...their intuition tells them it is truth. Intuition is qualitative, intellect is supposed to be quantitative.

Not too many centuries ago, the science of that time implied the universe revolved around the Earth. With the evolution of scientific methods and analytical techniques, we now know that to be a myth. With the advent of DNA analysis, we now know that all humans are related and can be traced back to a single mother...our genetic evidence suggests our relationship to all animals, and even plants and microbes. Quantum physics is verging upon the ideas first espoused from metaphysics: multi-universes, holographic universe, consciousness controls reality, etc.

Science is always evolving, taking us from mythology to current understanding. The intuition is a driving force behind science...the two co-evolve over time. Albert Einstein highly regarded the intuition to guide science.

Barry Goddard said...

I agree that the intuition on its own can be wrong-headed. But my 'intuition' doesn't tell me I am superior to animals. For some Native Americans, humans are the 'new-born' ones, because they are the only animal that doesn't know who it is!

But I think what science tends to do is to take us away from direct experience, that true knowledge can only be possessed by specialists who have reduced knowledge to an abstract form.

So I am all for reclaiming the power of direct experience. Which tells me, for example, that the Sun goes round the Earth. Even physics tells us that motion is relative, so you can argue it either way.

Quantum physics has been around for over 100 years, and it does take us away from a simplistic understanding of science, and takes us to metaphysical places where space and time start to break down.... but science has also taken the place of religion, it dispenses simple certainties to the masses, so I'm not sure that the implications of quantum physics will ever become popularly accepted.

mike said...

Unfortunately, science has become denigrated by becoming entwined with politics, religion, corporations, and government. Intuition is dependent on a belief system and that belief system can be manipulated with science to form conclusions to fit the desired view. Hence, creationism vs evolution, man-made global warming vs natural cycles, genetically modified foods vs natural, etc. Intuition can be manipulated as readily as science. For an interesting essay on manipulating science to fit the desired propaganda:
"Duck and Cover: Science Journalism in the Digital Age"

Barry Goddard said...

I like the idea that both creationism and evolution are required to be taught in some American schools: both views are easily held in a fundamentalist way i.e. this is the one reality, and it introduces children to the idea that there can be more then one way of seeing things. Like the Native American people's who have several Creation Myths, some of them contradictory. It's the same thing. It produces open mindedness, hopefully.