I stumble through and bump my head

For a couple of years now I have been reading various works from Asia and pondering how Eastern thought contributes to our understanding of ourselves and our world.  This includes specific ancient texts, like the Tao te Ching and various sutras, as well as commentaries thereon, and ancient to almost modern poetry.  Lovely stuff!  I have also been going through The Gateless Gate  (an old collection of Buddhist koans—paradoxical statements meant to help one along the way to enlightenment, like “What is the sound of one hand clapping? Or one of my favorites:  What was your primal face before your parents were born?) very slowly and marveling at how Buddhists can confound linear thinking.  While I learn much from all of these texts, I also have had a nagging quibble that seems important but difficult to articulate  . . . .

. . . Until I read a statement of some hybrid beliefs involving Buddhism and Gaian theory and my quibble crystalized into a coherent structure.

More context before my quibble.  I was reading a book not about Eastern thought but one about Gregory Bateson, a very interesting fellow.  He comes from a self-described family of atheists, himself being the fourth generation of skeptics.  In Gregory’s youth they hobnobbed with some of the great thinkers of early 20thcentury England such as the Huxleys and Alfred North Whitehead.  His father was instrumental in spreading the ideas of Gregor Mendel, the monk who worked so assiduously on plant genetics, integrated with Darwinian ideas; indeed he was one of the first to call this study of heredity “genetics” and Gregory was named after the monk.  The father seems to me a prime example of being in the right place at the right time with a mind prepared to grow the opportunity.

Gregory Bateson was a mostly independent scholar who worked across many disciplines.  As a young man he married Margaret Mead and they did research together in the south Pacific islands.  He then had a long and influential career studying cybernetics, psychiatry, semantics and communication theory, as well as anthropology.  I had heard mention of him over the years without remarking upon him very much until recently, and then his ideas seemed quite relevant to mine and important in general, so I read Understanding Gregory Bateson:  Mind, Beauty and the Sacred Earthby Noel Charlton (a decent read though Mr. Charlton spends much energy evangelizing for Bateson’s ideas—they are good but this is not how change comes about.  I may get around to a more thorough review of this book later).

Bateson saw all of nature as a series of nested minds, ours being nested on some intermediate level, so that all of our ecology is actually one mind composed of many minds.  He saw that in our separating ourselves from nature, we had lost ‘grace’ and were harming our world and so also ourselves.  The way back to grace is to engage with the sacred or the unitary grandness of life on our planet (oh, I am simplifying here a great deal—read more for yourselves) through aesthetics, the beauty of nature, and human art.  If you follow my blog you can understand why I wanted to know more about his work.

In the penultimate chapter Charlton reviews how other thinkers were influenced by Bateson and how other ideas meshed with his ecological views.  One of these was Gaian theory, of course, and one of these thinkers was a Buddhist-Gaian scholar named Joanna Macy. This seems a natural confluence here, and you know I like confluences.  When I read Charlton’s rendition of Macy’s ideas, I realized what my mind had balked at as I read other ideas from the East.  Specifically I struggled to understand the notion that enlightenment involves experiencing the unity between objective and subjective or the truth that there is no self.  Yes, I do accept that in meditation such boundaries can and do dissolve but once again, anyone who experiences enlightenment is a biological creature and that entails certain corollaries.

So Charlton says this of Macy’s ideas:  “Similarly, in both Buddhism and General Systems Theory (Macy uses this term interchangeably with ‘systems cybernetics’), the self is a process that cannot be abstracted from its context in nature and society.  It is an ‘open system’ and it is impossible to distinguish self from non-self.  Any division is arbitrary; the individual self is a fiction” (p. 189). Oops!  Sure self is a process on many levels but it can and is abstracted from its context; indeed, at a very basic level anything we use words to discuss is already abstracted from the flux and phantasmagoria of experience.  My question is always about the adequacy of the abstraction, i.e., does it capture the primary structure and its history along with its inter-relationships and dependencies with its soma, its ecology and its its ancient past?

The self, like its soma, is not an ‘open system’ and can certainly be distinguished from non-self, just like the soma is understood to be a life form. These are not ‘open systems’ because a soma, a brain and its MEMBRAIN maintain their integrity through control of the membrane functions, passing information in and out, keeping information in and out. The self follows along with this pattern.  Sure the soma is a wonderful composition of different life forms—the biome is a necessary adjunct to its healthy vital operations, and the self is also a complex composition dependent upon social interaction for its derivation.  I maintain that that the basic features are an autobiographical sense of its life and a sense of its agency, but secondary features abound, e.g., roles, selves associated with those roles, an apprehension of conscious subjectivity, etc.  Again, an adequate abstraction must also include what supports these features that operate below the limen of awareness, and also what the self keeps out of its ‘self-definition’.  For example, I am myself a father and husband, which are clearly within my self’s bounds, and I know the alphabet and basic math, but those are not a part of myself. Is this a fiction?  Why yes it is as a construct in the mind, but as Dumbledore told Harry, it is still true.

Somehow my mind likes Eastern philosophies; I find a good deal of truth and wisdom in their approach.  I think Buddhist enlightenment is a worthy goal, of sorts.  As I say in my creed, I follow an ethic of knowledge, and this leads me to explore the mystic boundaries within and beyond myself.  I find there a most agreeable landscape to wander (yes, yes, remember that not all who wander are lost).  But read the third chapter of The Gateless Gateabout Zen Master Gutei who always answered any question about Zen by raising one finger.  When he heard that his young assistant answered a question about his master’s teaching by raising his one finger, Gutei cut off the boy’s finger with a knife. The boy ran away.  Gutei called him back and raised one finger, and “the boy was suddenly enlightened”.

Somehow this enlightenment came with the experience that the self is a fiction, that his finger was part of what separated him from this realization, and that he understood that his self was a fiction and experienced reality as unitary and without conceptual distinctions—finger or no finger is a distraction.  Oops and ouch!  I have reached a mystical boundary and bumped my head in finding it.

With any religious school of thought and discipline my skepticism finds antiquated constructs, and there one is.  My ethic of knowledge keeps me grounded in my biological roots.  So enlightenment is a biological notion (maybe a rock or tree is enlightened but they, not some human being, would have to communicate that to me and I do listen out as I wander the farm.)  The self is an outgrowth or feature of life; it bears many relations to all that surrounds it now, past, and future, but a life has an onset and termination.  Some spiritual and religious traditions maintain the self is independent of those events, and I myself wonder about that, i.e., about how it could be true in my cosmology which is devoid of the supernatural. (Remember my motto: “If it is, it’s natural.  If it isn’t natural, it isn’t, except as an imaginative dream).  But the self and its soma is not an open system nor a closed system but a gated system operating to sustain the negentropic balance of energies working at the heart of life’s vitality.

How we understand life and cherish Gaia and structure our participation in this transcendent reality is important.  Bateson and many others know that we as a species are not doing a good job of this. How do we find and follow a better path? I do not know, but I think, like Bateson, that engaging with natural beauty and the vital experience artists render for us is very important.  I also think following an ethic of knowledge and seking a knowledge of ethics is important, e.g., appreciate our science and our human relationships with each other and Gaia.  As the previous post put it, “sometimes human beings are stupid”.  And sometimes we are smart.  I wonder about the cultural rhythms of wisdom and ignorance and travel on seeking a better wave.  But I cannot hold up one finger to indicate the one true way or condone mutilation in the interest of religious purity or spiritual realization.

Descartes’ errors

I have finished reading Damasio’s Descartes’ Error and I was right to suspect that he saw more than one error.  The simplest one was his “I think, therefore I am” (‘cogito ergo sum’) that Damasio says is backwards, because being comes before thinking.  The backwardness is part of a larger error though as Descartes believed thought was a manifestation of spirit or soul and that the body was a mechanical, thoughtless bit of life.  This error, Damasio relates, has rippled out through our science and philosophy since Descartes plopped it down in the sea of intellectual life.  Never mind that many of his contemporaries challenged this, e.g., Diderot as reported in last post; Descartes’ stature was such that his name carried forth the error while those assigned a lesser prestige carried the truth to the discriminating few.

In the last chapters Damasio waxes a little philosophical himself as he extrapolates from his very real scientific understanding of neural processes and mind to what this knowledge means.  One important obvious conclusion that our culture seems to ignore is that given the lack of robustness, e.g., prone to error, in our rational thinking, we ought to cultivate a more rigorous intellectual way of thinking, e.g., perhaps staying closer to data, safeguarding our conclusions from errant assumptions and shortcuts, tending our logical ways more carefully, etc.  In short, ensuring our educational systems work to counter our tendencies to thinking falsely.  (Let’s not mention current political discourse here and keep our tears to a minimum).

Damasio also takes his understanding to a different place.  He writes that given that “reason is nowhere pure”, we need to attend to the vulnerability of the world within, and a most serious consequence of Descartes’ error is that its subsequent versions “obscure the roots of the human mind in a biologically complex but fragile, finite, and unique organism; they obscure the tragedy implicit in the knowledge of that fragility, finiteness, and uniqueness.  And where humans fail to see the inherent tragedy of conscious existence, they feel far less called upon to do something about minimizing it, and may have less respect for the value of life”.  Well now that is saying something so very well:  that ascribing mind to any supernatural forces prevents us from realizing that our biological nature is incredibly special and must be cherished—that this life and our minds that experience it is of the utmost value.  (And that is not done shutting off education, engaging in conspiracy theories, or misconstruing what we know to aggrandize our selves and our positions or beliefs).

Damasio also believes that neurobiology can and does contribute to our appreciation of, he quotes William Faulkner’s words, “the old verities and truths of the heart”.  Damasio points out that our challenge here is to understand how our neurons respond so “thoughtfully,” and that this challenge is literally enormous. The number of synapses is at least 10 trillion and the length of the axons forming neuronal circuits is “on the order of several hundred thousand miles.”  Some of our thoughts are indeed well traveled, eh?  Further, he asks why some events are experienced as suffering and answers, “Because the organism says so”.  Our suffering is a necessary feature of our existence and no wonder I find Buddhism’s percepts here so apt—they keep the cause of suffering in the natural world and the solution in our minds and actions towards others.

Damasio ends with a story about Almeida Lima, a gifted and compassionate neurosurgeon who helped develop a procedure called prefrontal leucotomy wherein pain centers are dissociated from emotional centers.  This is used very rarely in cases for the management of intractable pain—pain that is mind-numbing yet of no immediate consequence for life.  Lima introduced Damasio to one such patient, who, when asked if his pain was gone, replied, “Oh, the pains are the same, but I feel fine now, thank you”.  Though in pain, it was not emotionally excruciating and he did not ‘suffer’ the mind numbing effects.  I am reminded of Reynolds Price, a marvelous author who suffered spinal cancer.  Though it was successfully removed, it confined him to a wheel chair and left him in severe pain, unable to live and think and write.  He learned pain management skills using self-hypnosis at Duke Hospital and went on to enjoy life (I watched him enjoy dinner at a fine restaurant one evening) and write more incredible books.

So read this book or one of Damasio’s other books.  He understands that William James was correct when he asserted that humans have more instincts and not fewer than other animals, and that one of our instincts is a passion for reason, “a drive that originates deep in the brain’s core” for us to be reasonable.  It is still, after all is said and done, an instinct, and means that we must cherish our reasonableness all the more.  Travel on.

self or no self–that is a question

I learned a new word this week: autonoetic.  It means something like the ability to place one’s self in the scene or narrative or situation as part of episodic memory, i.e., memory for one’s own life experiences.  Research shows that we can remember our autobiography through two perspectives, 1stperson (we see the experience through our own eyes) or 3rd  (we see the ourselves in the experience like a movie).  Seems important.

One of the pleasures of reading widely is coming to understand different approaches to the same phenomena, and learning this word has brought some of these issues to the front of my mind.  In my thinking here and in my book (forthcoming someday) I consider that what we call the self arises from two basic mental functions.  The first is a sense of agency—we do and we know that it is us doing; the second is our sense of autobiographical experience, what Endel Tulving called episodic memory (as distinct from semantic and procedural memories).  So I guess that one’s self is some integrated, amalgamated hodgepodge of those, and a human hodgepodge is one that grows out of social connection into an identity, i.e., a self that operates through its social roles.

I read a book a good while ago now by the great Antonio Damasio, Self Comes to Mind, in which he self-corrects his own previous thinking; to wit, he had thought that the neuropsychological construct of a self was not needed or justified but as he studied the brain some more, he came to understand that we did have a self.  It is a good book and he knows brain science as few in the world do.  Now more recently I read what is described as a landmark book, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experienceby Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, wherein they endeavor to bring together the twin strands of cognitive psychology and Buddhism.  Their basis for doing so is the challenge that what we call the self is quite illusionary.  They state this claim explicitly:  “all of the reflective traditions in human history—philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, religion, meditation—have challenged the naïve sense of self.  No tradition has ever claimed to discover an independent, fixed, or unitary self”

They go on to quote David Hume:  “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 observe anything but the perception.”  Varela, Thompson and Rosch maintain that this “insight directly contradicts our ongoing sense of self,” and that this comports with the long and thoughtful tradition in Buddhism that the self is an illusion.  This is also consistent with some Hindu traditions, e.g., the Yoga Sutra attributed to Patanjali from around the second century BCE.  The realization through meditation and other practices that one’s self is an illusion would seem a step towards enlightenment.

Alas, I am going to walk on another path for a moment, postponing my meditative quest for enlightenment a short while.   I learned my new word, ‘autonoetic,’ reading a 2011 article by Robyn Fivush, “The Development of Autobiographical Memory.”  In an excellent, well thought out paper, Dr. Fivush lays out the conceptual prerequisites for autobiographical memory and its importance to our human sort of mind.  The first prerequisite is autonoesis, the subjective sense of self who experiences events and the second is the personal narrative of action that includes the thoughts and feelings while experiencing these events.  Now you can shift perspective and call this self an illusion, but I think that even such an illusion is still a biological function.  Fivush thinks autobiographical memory is “uniquely human” and that I doubt. Remember, if you will, my post from 4/8/16, “de Waal Admits Tickling Chimpanzees”, on Frans Van der Waal’s observation of a bonobo who inadvertently bit off the finger of a favorite handler and who quite clearly expressed his dismay for doing so, even some years later when the handler returned from another job to visit, that same bonobo tried to see the injured hand and seemed to re-experience the distress over its actions. Fivush also says autobiographical memory depends upon one’s social-cultural group and cites research showing the influence of maternal reminiscing style on how we create a “story of how one’s self became who one is”.

So autobiographical memory as developing from autonoesis and narrative coherence seems a pretty solid notion.  Let me wander a bit further here and consider some of its implications in dreaming, Dissociative Identity Disorder, dementia and novelists.  Of course I will end with a reference to Susanne Langer and return to the question of self or no self.

So, we form our episodic memories incidentally for the most part and that means when we recall them later, we reconstruct the episode according to current circumstances and purpose.  We often dream some of these memories elicited from episodic memory, the information transformed into dream material.  I think many dreams include a sense of self, an autonoetic perspective.  Of course some dreams derive from the self’s current state, like when I dream of water sloshing over the road or the gunwales of my boat and wake up to a very full bladder. My point here is that while maybe in dreams your self is not imaged from a 3rdperson perspective (though I believe some few dream this way a good deal), your autonoesis is still operating.

My dissertation research was with a person with what is now called Dissociative Identity Disorder.  At that time the diagnosis of Multiple Personality Disorder was gaining validity. For example, research showed different somatic, e.g., autonomic, responses for different personalities.  Alters (alternate identity or personality) manifest in various ways, e.g., some know about others, some don’t, some know about the soma’s entire life, some remember only fractured episodes, etc.  So each alter has some autonoesis operating in a selective manner.  A person with dissociative identity disorder actually does seem able to look inside and find a self (actually more than one, the contrast perhaps making the apprehension possible) contrary to Hume’s assertion. My dissertation showed that one person’s child alter did indeed use childlike language and that as she grew up as a part of therapy to help the different alters integrate back into one, her language advanced along developmental lines.

I have written in the past about people with dementia and how resilient their musical memories are (see post 8/27/14).  Therapy using ipods with playlists of songs from their youth helps them remember more clearly.  They remember the music and often they can remember other episodes, other people and even sometimes, who they themselves are.  Think about autonoesis here.  The remembered music is a kind of abstracted episode or retained through an important emotional connection; they may not remember who they are but they remember the tune, often tinged with personal experience.  They remember other stories and people, e.g., even their children sometimes, as a direct function of autonoesis.  And they may remember their own identity, the “I” in autonoesis.  If unfamiliar, check out an incredible documentary about Glen Campbell who suffered from severe dementia in his last years but continued to perform even though he could remember little of his life, had difficulty remembering his children, hardly knew his own name, but he could still play the guitar (procedural memory) and sing the songs (semantic memory, I guess) with emotion.

Consider as well how novelists seem to be able to use autonoesis to create characters. Good writers say that characters, once formed, can take on a life of their own and even contribute to the creation of the story.  This is maybe not autonoesis involving episodic autobiographical memory but rather is drawing upon semantic memory and imaginative construction in an autonoetic manner.  Still, reading Catcher in the Ryeor David Copperfieldor Notes from the Underground, which all start with first person narratives, you know that one large part of the novelist’s skill is using autonoesis to create character and story.

Regular readers here know that Susanne Langer posited that art, i.e., presentational symbols, is created from the artist’s experience.  The art symbol conveys import abstracted from the person’s life that is too complex to be rendered in the linear discursive symbolic expression of language.  Art, even novels that use words, conveys this import through some complex, abstracted form of myriad elements, whether these are visual, auditory, movement, verbal, constructive, etc.  Given that, I think any artist must use their autonoetic sense to wander the landscape of their life and map out that essential terrain that will represent the inspired apprehension of some features of vital experience.  The artist’s self would seem, then, an essential tool of their craft.

Maybe, as Varela, Thompson and Rosch assert along with David Hume and deep Buddhist traditions, the self is an illusion.  I am sure that at one level the self is a construct that facilitates awareness and analysis of one’s being in context.  I am curious, though, about a mystic sense wherein we find the discrimination between subjective and objective lacking, e.g., we are one with the world, and find that the self is an illusion of our engagement in samsara.  After reading The Embodied MindI have delved into some Eastern texts, e.g., The Yoga Sutra among others, and begun listening to a Great Courses lecture series by Dr. Grant Hardy, “The Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition”.  (A great series, by the bye—his knowledge and enthusiasm are delightful).  Our Western intellectual tradition is a good one. One of humanity’s virtues is that we have more than one good intellectual tradition and I am finding, like many other Westerners before me, that the Eastern tradition is both very different and very valuable in what it offers both in knowledge and wisdom.  So, let us travel on to new roads and learn more about our humanity.