14 February 2021
In the field of consciousness, still a mysterious frontier of the scientific landscape, the meaning of many terms has yet to be adequately defined. Even the word ‘consciousness’ is problematic, but here I find it useful to avoid the all-too-common attempt to separate consciousness from a broader evolutionary process.
In the widely accepted, though still questionable, theory of the ‘Big Bang’ as the birth of the universe, we see it exploding into existence out of an infinitely dense, infinitely hot singularity. As it began to cool, this explosion of energy began to coalesce into hydrogen, helium (still the two most common elements), lithium and beryllium. Over a timespan of about 13.8 billion years, the universe evolved to increasingly complex units that, in the wake of the essential explosion of a first generation of stars that formed a much wider range of elements essential to life, eventually arrived at the extraordinary complexity of the human mind with its intellectual capacity to consider that complexity.
From a Source beyond our comprehension, but obviously with potential even if beyond our ability to explain, the earliest units of existence can be seen as carrying a fragment of consciousness. The mental capacities that we humans enjoy of course, is quite different, but only, I believe, in that it is more complex. It seems both misleading and foolish to attempt to draw a line between the human mind and the matter of nature that led to them. A proton, or a neutron, obviously carries with it enough inherent ‘knowledge’ to make it one or the other. The same can be said of each atom, each element and, as they come together to make ever more complex entities, each entity as well. I prefer to consider this process from the simplest, original units of ‘consciousness’ to the most complex, as a continuous evolution – with human consciousness a part of it, even if no more than a polite, belated burp in the cosmological breath of existence. This idea equates to. If we see human consciousness as being simply a different aspect of universal consciousness (panpsychism), it helps to clarify the essential premise of the theory I propose in order to deal with art, and our other vehicles of evolving consciousness. All of these attempts are incorporated in a sort of Theory of Everything (Existential Field Theory).
We will leave God out of this process for the time being since if He exists as prime mover, any religious structures are simply lower-level, human, intellectual interpretations; as such they are no more relevant than any other intellectual interpretations, and God becomes indistinguishable from ineffable Source, both remaining beyond the reach of proof. The two issues of whether or not God exists, and any reported experience of hearing from him are separate, regardless of our view of either. This is the logical conclusion of the two ways of knowing presented here. Thomas Aquinus set out five ‘proofs’ of God’s existence that have been broadly accepted by the faithful for centuries. But all of them rest upon the supposition that there must have been original, supernatural intent and, therefore, some entity capable of intention. If we substitute the idea of ‘Nature’ for ‘God’ in each of his five, they prove the existence of Nature and her laws, no intention required, rather God and His. But it is worth noting that Aquinus himself believed that God was unknowable, and therefore, ineffable, which is why he felt the need to provide lower-level, rational evidence of his existence. In effect, he too was acknowledging the well-established eastern concept of our two ways of knowing, the intellectual and the trans-intellectual - his ‘proofs’ and the unknowability of God representing the two.
For theoretical purposes, it seems sensible to look upon all intellectual interpretations, whether in religion, philosophy, science or art as arising out of the universe rather than in any way being responsible for it. They are, in philosophical terms, a posteriori rather than a priori.
With later distinctions in the evolving process the terms are equally elastic, but we can see intelligence as beginning when living entities, however simple, evolved the capacity to react to their circumstances, evolving to the point of creatures that could eat as a response to hunger, flee or fight as a response to danger, and propagate the species, regardless of the degree of intelligence exhibited. As part of the overall process of evolving consciousness it is also a continuing phase, distinct from unintelligent consciousness but leading to more sophisticated forms. In this sense we can agree that a rock is not intelligent in any way while a bird dropping a clam onto a rock in order to break the shell to get at food, clearly is. One Australian species of raptor takes burning sticks from a forest fire to drop on grasslands in order to start a blaze to frighten out creatures they can then swoop upon. This suggests intelligence beyond the instinctual, but we need not be diverted by deciding where to draw the line between a rock and living creatures, for our purposes, it doesn’t matter.
I define intellect as the point at which our ancestor acquired the capacity to mentally separate self from environment and consider each independently. It was born along with a sibling twin, ego, since the moment we can separate the self conceptually it becomes natural to favour it. Again, we have no need to define when this happened and we have the luxury of leaving such questions of history and biology to science. We need only deal with the consequences and their impact on our various domains of perception and expression and focus on the more recent results of intellectual consciousness.
The basic premise underlying the theory of art and consciousness I have proposed (and religion and consciousness which I will1) is the proposition that the intellect is not our only way of knowing. We have access to a second, essentially different mode as outlined in the introduction to these essays (4 February 2021). It is a trans-intellectual counterpart that is both undifferentiated and ineffable. Other recognizably distinct modes, such as the oneiric (dreaming), visionary, psychotropic, or other states, are lower-level responses to these two.
As fundamental modes of human consciousness, the two are incompatible but complementary, performing two quite different roles. My contention is that only by integrating the two can we gain access to the full bandwidth of consciousness and envisage the fulfilment of its evolution. Buddhist teaching sums up the importance of the integration of our two ways of knowing. In the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra the Buddha is reported, albeit centuries after his death, as explaining to a group of disciples (enlightened bodhisattvas in this case) the two ways of knowing as exhaustible (intellectual – active and mundane in the text) and inexhaustible (trans-intellectual, non-active or supramundane in the text), then instructs them that ‘As Bodhisattvas, you should not exhaust (or put an end to) the mundane (state); nor should you stay in the supramundane (state).’2
The intellect is an ever-expanding set of tools for perception and expression, but it is important to recognize that anything that can be considered or expressed intellectually is essentially metaphorical or allegorical. Allegoresis is the act of interpreting written, oral or artistic expression as allegory and sums up the nature of intellectual interpretations.
This is true of any of our specific, separable languages, be they verbal or otherwise. All languages are essentially metaphorical, analogical and allegorical. The word ‘polar bear’ is no more the real thing than is a mathematical equation. They are symbols that stand for real things or ideas so we can deal with them more readily in communications with ourselves and others. It is precisely what makes the intellect invaluable to us as a tool that also makes it relative and limited. It allows us to fragment reality, name its disparate parts, and piece them together in endlessly different ways so that we can delve into meaning and, ultimately, since we have introduced the concept of capitalizing to distinguish transcendent concepts, Meaning. But in order to do so, it is useful to recognize that everything it fragments and names is limited, as is the domain itself.
Despite its vast potential range, the intellect is a closed system, a separate domain of consciousness. The moment something is separated from everything else and named, whether that name is as precise as a particular insect or as broad as the concept of intellect itself, it is, by definition, limited. We don’t need to know every detail within the domain for this to be true of the domain itself. The number of grains of sand in the world, or stars in the universe is precise and limited at any given point in time even if we are forever unable to count either. The intellect fulfils its essential role in consciousness precisely because of its nature as a limited domain.
Gödel (1906-1978), the American-Austrian logician, demonstrated in his two Incompleteness Theorems that it is forever impossible to understand a closed system, such as mathematics - the domain in which he was working - within and confined to the languages of the system itself. Gödel reached this important conclusion in response to the German mathematician David Hilbert (1862-1943) and his attempts to find a complete set of axioms for all mathematics. Gödel demonstrated that this would be impossible within the domain of mathematics. The broader implication that no closed system can be fully explained within the system itself go far beyond mathematics and applies equally to the intellect, which can never make complete sense of itself confined to its own domain. It is natural for the intellect to constantly expand the details of knowledge in encyclopaedic fashion, but it offers an eternity of increasing knowledge of ourselves and our environment without putting it to any higher use than the accumulation of knowledge and its application in everyday life. An analogy might be found in the concept of a vehicle where every detail of the engineering was constantly improved to be ever more efficient, but its fuel was denied. We might end up with a perfect machine but it wouldn’t serve its higher purpose of going anywhere. The goal of an isolated intellectual domain is worthy at the level of the domain, with enormous evolutionary and material benefits, but not, ultimately, a fulfilling one for consciousness. In order to satisfy the perennial quest of the intellect for complete understanding we must transcend its limitations. This also implies that if the intellect continues to flirt with autonomy, while the benefits in incremental knowledge can continue indefinitely we can envisage no satisfactory end-result – only ever-greater complexity of detailed understanding.
The trans-intellectual mode is beyond the metaphorical, beyond fragmentation, and is thus undifferentiated. It can only be directly experienced as a unified Whole. In the West this is known as the Enlightenment experience and in the East as the Dao, or Buddha-nature, Brahma, Atman, and Satori, among other terms. In directly experiencing this paradigm-shift in consciousness the individual enters a transcendent domain of consciousness that alone is capable of providing the perspective to make final sense of the intellectual domain.
Access to the transcendent has, as the name might imply, been considered the higher way of knowing but, like so much we encounter when trying to explain the inexplicable, this leads to paradox. It is clearly transcendent in the sense of transcending intellect, but otherwise it is simply an alternative mode of consciousness. The urge to create a hierarchy between our two ways of knowing, in a typically western, binary and, ironically, intellectual manner, is rendered invalid by the fact that only the intellect is capable of dealing with the experience! Therein rests their compatibility since subsequent to the experience, the intellect is the only mode of consciousness capable of transforming it into a useful understanding of it as part of the full bandwidth of consciousness. Without the intellect, we could not even recognize transcendent experience. All pre-intellectual life-forms live in the undifferentiated realm, but lack the intellectual capacity to understand what that means. My view is that the highest way of knowing is when the two are fully integrated. Of the three stages of Enlightenment - aspiration, realization and integration – it is the second two that are essential to the fulfilment of consciousness (it is possible to realize Enlightenment without aspiring to it).
They are incompatible because the transcendent mode can only be experienced by quieting the continual chatter of the intellect. As noted elsewhere, Wordsworth decried it as the ‘meddling intellect,’ implying, quite rightly, that at least part of his inspiration lay beyond it. Without it, however, he would neither have been famous nor capable of distinguishing a field of golden daffodils from a lettuce. A Daoist metaphor for successful meditation is to enter the birdcage without awakening the birds – the chirping of birds representing the constant internal chatter of intellectual thought. For millennia, meditators have understood that the intellect is antithetical to the transcendent mode, preventing access.
The transcendent state is the core of non-god religions. We sensibly might refer to them as atheistic religions, but the western, binary concept of atheism is probably too deeply rooted to avoid confusion by adopting it, so perhaps non-theistic religions would provide an alternative. In the lower-level religious structures of all non-god religions, a higher State of being replaces a higher Being at the pinnacle of Meaning. This is true of Hinduism, Buddhism and Daoism. It may be obscured by a complex proliferation of lower-level deities and immortals set in hierarchical layers of imaginary domains (conceptions of heavens and hells), but these are just intellectual interpretations. They are created by a combination of what are essentially shamanic intermediaries and a priesthood, whose role it is to interpret the mysteries for the mystified.
These lower-level religions remain intellectual constructions, separate from their Source, they are metaphorical and relative. The concept of Dualism in Buddhism and Daoism is helpful in understanding this. It is the foundation of an idea encapsulated in the Advaita Vedantic tradition of India that became the core of Buddhism and Hinduism. It is found amongst other traditions including Sufism and some western neo-Platonic traditions, but it is also part of Quietism that evolved into Daoism long before Indian ideas penetrated Chinese culture. Legend has it that the Indian mystic Vimalakīrti famously responded to a debate challenge to explain Buddha-nature by remaining silent, demonstrating his understanding that ultimate meaning is beyond the direct grasp of the languages of the intellect. All transcendent philosophical systems emphasize the difference between a phenomenal and a non-phenomenal dimension, giving rise to relative truth and ultimate Truth as two different, and frequently contradictory concepts.
The Chinese, and many other Far Eastern cultures, have understood the essential distinction between the realms of duality (intellectual) and non-duality (trans-intellectual) for millennia. Any study of eastern philosophy and religion provides endless examples of both the existence, and vital nature of the transcendent way of knowing. Recorded history offers countless records of the Enlightenment experience, of attaining Buddha nature or the Dao, as a paradigm-shifting, liberating, luminous and completely transformative experience. Such records permeate the literature. In China, throughout recorded history, it has been a paramount goal of the culture, as it has in other East-Asian cultures.
In the West, however, since the height of Greek influence over the cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean and in particular under the influence of Socrates and Aristotle, we have increasingly tended to favour the intellectual mode. During the aptly named ‘Age of Reason’ that reached its peak in eighteenth-century Europe, complete denial of any trans-rational way of knowing was the goal. The intellectual tyranny encouraged in western culture over the millennia has created a bias that informs every aspect of western life, including religion. It is no coincidence that the god religions, those that believe in separate deities at the helm and particularly monotheism where a single God rules everything from beyond the phenomenal world, arose in western culture as the supreme expression of the tyranny. The crucial phrase here is ‘at the helm.’ In eastern culture non-god religions prevail, a higher state of being is paramount, and any gods exist only as part of the lower-level structure created by, and for, those who require something phenomenal, even if imaginary, to which they can comfortably cling in the stormy seas of life. Such lower-level deities are only at the helm of lesser domains, under-managers as it were. Once the Enlightened way of knowing is directly experienced within such systems, the religion and all its minor deities become irrelevant other than as a means of transmission to others. The moment of Enlightenment lifts aspirants beyond all intellectual demands, including any concept of gods and what they require of us; it allows us to then return to the intellect fully emancipated, thus transforming it into a vastly more efficient tool for evolving consciousness.
In western theistic religions, what inevitably happens is that by personifying the Source as God (in polytheistic traditions, gods), the distinction between our two ways of knowing becomes confused at best, or entirely lost. Conflating the two and granting authority, indeed autonomy, to the intellectual mode, is the root cause of all the confusion and harm that has permeated theistic religions for millennia.
It is the nature of religion to lay claim to a spiritual source, however sincere the claim, which immediately establishes duality between ineffable Source and its intellectual description. Indeed, intellectual misinterpretation of transcendent experience tends to create theistic religions in the first place (either in dreaming states, or visionary revelatory experiences which, in my view, arise out of misunderstanding of the visionary Enlightenment experience). The transcendent mode may be the Source, or Ground of the religious impulse, but it is the intellectual mode, coloured by local, socio-cultural aspiration and expectation, or bias, which creates the interpretations, structures and instructions of religion – which, in theistic religions, are then granted autonomy over the experience itself. Dreamers of course, dream based upon their own socio-cultural aspirations and experience, while the same factors lead to misunderstanding of any waking, transcendent, visionary experience. Subsequently theistic religions manage to convince the faithful that these, whether dreaming of visionary, are authentic instructions from a paramount, trans-universal God. It is because of faith in these intellectual interpretations that we are faced with the paradox of monotheism where conflicting and contradictory instructions as to what God is, means, or demands of us - as in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity - have become so contradictory and confusing as to be existentially threatening. In Islam we have an early, fundamental schism between Shia and Sunni interpretations and in Christianity, the least logical and by far the most complex of all monotheistic religions, there has been an ongoing, dizzying number of subsequent schisms based entirely on local interpretations. In Elizabethan England you could be executed for believing in Catholicism, whereas a few miles across the Channel, the opposite was true of belief in Protestantism. Judaism remains the least schismatic and purest monotheistic religion, I suspect because Jews over the millennia have loved a good argument so much, that they may prefer the process of arguing to the forceful implementation of its results.
My contention here is that as the power of the religious structures arising out of monotheism has grown, the tendency has been for conflation of the two ways of knowing resulting in confusion and, therefrom, a great deal of harm regardless of such concurrent benefit as may also arise.
The solution to this problem, once the full bandwidth of consciousness is integrated, is actually simple: all we need do is recognize the nature of duality, as do Buddhists and Daoists in their philosophical systems, then distinguish between what is explicable and what is not.3 It would make for a far more promising future if we leave what lies beyond the intellect domain undefined and undefinable, and stop convincing ourselves that our relative, subjective, and contradictory human interpretations are worth arguing about, fighting over, and killing for.
We urgently need to recognize the fundamental madness of granting human definitions, armed only with inadequate and limited intellectual means, the right to rule tyrannically over a transcendent Source. Even the intellectual tyrant must, surely, see the fallacy of assuming that we humans have the intellectual capacity to define the transcendent Source. Even to the committed monotheist, to describe God is to diminish Him. It is we humans defining omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, when not a single one of us has ever experienced any of the three. In the different monotheistic religions, to varying extents, and the Jews are the most reasonable in this respect, the implication is that we humans dictate our definitions of God. For the faithful who prefer to reverse that in claiming that it is God who is telling us all of that, there are two responses. The first is that He is not; all we have is the subjective, intellectual interpretations of visionary experience, often in the formative years of monotheism even in dreaming state. But even in a waking state, such revelations were tailored to meet their immediate, local, and strictly limited aspirations governed by their equally limited understanding of the universe. It is worth emphasizing that in the Eastern Mediterranean at the time monotheistic religions were being forged (and we might entertain both meanings of that word), dreams were widely accepted as an authentic source of religious revelation. The second is that if God is revealing all this to us, why the utter confusion of his message? Surely God cannot be confused, so it must be our human understanding that is causing the confusion. In which case, why take it so seriously? And, of course, if God is confused, why take Him so seriously?
The intellectual realm will never be sufficiently autonomous to provide a meaningful definition of what is beyond its reach or comprehension. On the other hand, while it may be difficult to explain, the paradigm-shifting Enlightenment experience does provide the perspective to allow the intellect to do so. Multiple reports of the experience throughout recorded history, once stripped of their local, socio-cultural and religious interpretations, agree on the core experience: the dissolution of ego and self into a higher mode of universal, undifferentiated consciousness; a sense of all-encompassing luminescence (of which the halo is a symbol); an overwhelming sense of comprehension and release from all existential concerns, including death; and unbounded joy. It also leads in the philosophically inclined to overarching clarity in the domains of religion, philosophy and, of course, art.
Even science, our fourth vehicle of evolving consciousness, despite its seeming hermetic isolation as a discipline, benefits, not because it completely changes perception of what science is all about, as happens with the other three, but because it, too, is provided with a clearer perspective as to its role in evolving consciousness and its possible limitations. We might claim that science, above all is purely intellectual and requires no outside perspective to make sense of it all, but today we seem to be reaching a point where exploration of the realm of fragments as an autonomous domain begins to struggle with the level of reality encountered. It becomes increasingly possible that while the admirable scientific aim of trying to delve ever deeper into reality with our existing intellectual tools, the scientific rule of neutrality might suggest that we also consider delving deeper into our approach to reality by allowing the perspective of the transcendent way of knowing. We may be reaching an underlying level of meaning in the universe that threatens centuries of intellectual expectation and is no longer determinate. James Lovelock, the inventor and scientist, summed up this notion with his recognition that we already live in a quantum world ‘which we have glimpsed but not yet grasped because it does not accord with our step-by-step logic.’4 Quantum mechanics is so full of contradictions and ambiguities that Philip Ball questions the general scientific approach of assuming that our knowledge of it is incomplete only because we await some theoretical breakthrough to make it rational.5 He prefers to think that at the fundamental level of reality quantum mechanics is dealing with, ‘the apparent oddness, the paradoxes and puzzles’ may be real. We may have reached a point where our intellectual expectations have reached their limit. We are, in short, prompted by the real world to reconsider how we think, how we know. Ball sums it up as ‘We realize that particles and waves, uncertainty and fuzziness calls into question ‘the meaning and limits of space and time, cause and effect, and knowledge itself.’ He sees quantum theory as being about information rather than physics as we have come to define it. Recently Eddy Keming Chen has introduced the concept of nomic vagueness that implies that any fundamental law of physics (a Theory of Everything) cannot be precisely defined and is beyond the ability of mathematics as we know it.6 This would also accord with Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems. The implication drawn is that we must consider our way of knowing at a profound level.
The recent academic focus on trans-cultural philosophy, or trans-culturalism, begins to recognize the distorting filter of the traditional western perspective that has traditionally coloured the approach to alternative cultures and the importance of recognizing perspectives beyond that entrenched by western bias, and, as stated elsewhere in these essays, I intend no pejorative implications for the term ‘bias.’ Intellection without bias is an oxymoron. We can only interpret with the intellect, and that is a subjective process, and we can only apply subjectivity from a personal, local, and socio-cultural perspective which inevitably incorporates bias. Transculturalism aims to unify global understanding in a more meaningful way. My own theoretical excursions into the domains of evolving consciousness also reveal the essential need to apply a trans-cultural philosophy to an understanding of eastern philosophy, religion, and art. Through it we may, finally, be able to talk more sensibly to other cultures, whereas until recently, this was possible mainly only in the sciences.
Once we step back from our flirtation with the possibility of intellectual autonomy and silence, for a moment, our intellectual tyrant, we can understand why our aspiration for some higher way of knowing, some meta-domain to make sense of it all, has always been with us. The quest for a more profound understanding beyond the surface details, to find out ‘what it is all about,’ is hard wired in human consciousness and reflected in our religions, myths and legends. Every culture focuses, in its own way, on discovering the Holy Grail, the Dao, the Buddha-nature, the self-beyond-ego, the ineffable cosmic principle, ekstasis, even when, as in monotheism, we outsource this urge to God rather than seeking to satisfy it directly for ourselves.
Western culture has never entirely, or convincingly, marginalized the idea of transcendence. Despite a governing trend of intellectual tyranny, it survived through the millennia in multiple forms, and is incorporated in the more mystical, transcendent interpretations of monotheism. In the recent past, a more reasoned concept of our two ways of knowing has begun to seep into western thought, although as yet without broad acceptance. Jonathan Shear summed up four theses of the notions of a Perennial Philosophy, one made widely popular in the west by Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) that unites it with Hinduism, Daoism, Buddhism, and other transcendentally founded systems:
(1) The phenomenal world is the manifestation of a transcendental ground;
(2) human beings are capable of attaining immediate knowledge of that ground;
(3) in addition to their phenomenal egos, human beings possess a transcendental self which is of the same or like nature with that transcendental ground; and
(4) this identification is life's chief end or purpose.7
They are broadly in harmony with the philosophical basis proposed here if we allow that the first explains the two ways of knowing. His ‘phenomenal world’ being the universe and everything in it, including intellect; his transcendental ground is what equates to the trans-intellectual, ineffable source. The second then states that anyone has equal access to it regardless of race, religion, gender, affiliations or status. The third confirms the dual nature of human consciousness as the key to our ability to fulfil the second. The fourth states that it is the fulfilment of the evolution of consciousness.
This perspective on the nature of consciousness is, I propose, essential to any clear understanding of our main domains of perception and expression, our vehicles of evolving consciousness. Linking all our theoretical ideas of these domains to their role in the evolution of consciousness is a prerequisite if we are to overcome the confusion that reigns to some extent in all of them.
At the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat, February 2021.