Is the Self an illusion?
On one level I’d say no, because the Self is merely the means by which the body refers to itself. So the Self isn’t delusional from that perspective, because the word and image are grounded in a real referent (the body). However, this projection of a bodily image quickly morphs into a sense of Self that controls the body, or is trapped within the body, as if it were a spirit or separate entity. This is where the illusion starts.
The brain tends to be imagined as a seat of consciousness (also semi-independent from the rest of the body) – wobbling up there like a big, fat turkey on a telephone pole. But this image of a body/brain dichotomy easily morphs into a projection of an even more independent-seeming “mind” drifting above the body like a balloon on a long string. And this “mind” tends to become a synonym for the Self, which sits at its desk behind the eyes and acts like a CEO of the in-corporation, or an overlord of sorts. The varieties of imagery are endless. And even among atheists, this Self tends to take on the qualities of a “soul” as well, a lively essence possessing or inhabiting the body.
But these are not minds, Selves or souls, but merely images — masks that have lured this bodily intelligence into dreams of an autonomous existence over and above the comparatively material level of biology. They are deceptive illusions of minds and souls, illusions of identity.
Can the body realize that these projections have become a kind of runaway fiction that has turned on itself, acting now in ways that injure the body, and the larger body of the earth itself?
Well, sometimes I pity the human body, the poor babe born into a culture’s raging torrent of convictions and images, the competitive, repressive indoctrinations that pervert the human form into a strange, two-headed beast, a voice that can’t stop talking to an hallucination of itself, a writhing anxiety that can’t rest until the gaping wound between image and reality, thought and thing, is healed.
How can the body avoid becoming confused by this torrent, dissolving into a full identification with its Self-promoting values, championing its patriotism, its musical chair economy, as if these were its own authentic values, until there is nothing left of a free-roaming human mind, just this endless chain of inherited thoughts.
This isn’t a personal question you’re asking, because this independence is a shared illusion. Like Bohm said, the Self is a kind of whirlpool within this shared torrent, each Self whirling in self-referential circularity, a whirlpool convinced that it’s an entity apart from the stream of culture.
So how can the body avoid becoming confused by its own indoctrinated projections?
Would it avoid this confusion or learn to see through it?
Well, it would learn to see through it, or it would learn to see its own limitations. It would learn to see that the images and thoughts that compose its own character are elements of the polluted stream. It would learn to see that there is no authentic Self in any of this debris of thinking that circulates from morning to night.
But this would be a strange intelligence, one that learns to Not See something. It would be an intelligence that ends up knowing less about itself than it did before.
Well, it would learn to not see illusions of itself. It would learn less propaganda. So it would also be made less certain, which is to say, more willing to learn.
But what would it learn if it sees through all positive certainties?
It would learn to see with less conviction, it would learn to spin perception like a prism. It would be less interested in coming to rest in some answer or conclusion, which would only put an end to learning. And it would also learn to not project life into the inanimacy of thoughts and images, including the inanimacy of identity.
You’re saying “the image of the body” is inanimate. And yet the images are produced by an animate body. Is this a contradiction?
No, it’s a distinction. The images and thoughts shouldn’t be confused with the thing itself, the body itself. This is the confusion of thought and thing, the source of the illusion.
How can the body function if it can only know illusions, if it can’t actually know itself?
It knows itself proprioceptively, in Being alive, in relating to the world. And it can know itself obliquely through the spinning images in the prism.
The body can’t imagine itself or anything about the world except as stories, images, inventions, fictions, theories. If they’re deceptive and self-defensive our vision of the world is dangerously blurred. But when thought isn’t chained to certainties, if it drops the cultural habit of seeking security in deceptive, conclusive knowledge, then imagery begins to function more honestly and experimentally. Then we try on different lenses without fear of losing our minds, for what is a lost mind except a lost dependency on the illusions of identity? But if we know we’re not any of these images, then the uncertainty isn’t frightening. Without this fear, the imagination begins to leap with creative freedom. Then we don’t identify with the reflective images that flash and splash as we move through this fluid environment. The solid, historical Self we had depended upon for security transforms into these brief mirror reflections in the waves we make by passing through the world, the inevitable incoherencies that shadow our behaviors, and these proprioceptive reflections depict our actions in caricature, providing a perpetual flow of honest, humorous feedback. So we don’t take offense at how idiotic we might look at any given time, because these images are not real, they’re our own corrective wisdom.
If there is no solid certainty, no positive knowledge, then doesn’t this undermine science and progress?
Conclusions put an end to evolution. None of them should be confused with actuality. Even theories aren’t “getting closer” to actuality, or progressing. All we’re doing is becoming more adept and more detailed in describing the world from a particular set of assumptions. And when these fundamental assumptions or hidden beliefs about the world shift, as they do when we learn — when our vision widens and deepens to encompass contradiction and paradox, and when we move from one context to another — then the theories we use change. They never settle. There will never be a final theory of anything, a final answer, because our images, stories, theories, etc., are never actual, they’re always creative attempts to connect an inevitably limited number of dots of information.
Right now, for instance, science probes ever deeper into matter as the origin of life and intelligence. This is the assumption that simultaneously drives research and limits attention. The more attentive we become to the mechanistic interpretation of the world, the less attentive we become to the immaterial hierarchies of life and intelligence. Those are just two spectrums through which to look at the world – the material and immaterial. But perception is an infinite prism, because learning is the invention of new spectrums through which to apprehend the world. None of them are Everything. As we learn, spectrums multiply, contradict and merge by way of further insights, but there is no end to this multiplication, and thus no end to learning (no end to uncertainty, or to the mystery of life). I mean there’s no way to encompass the whole evolving universe. Only mechanical worlds can be encompassed. That’s why machine intelligence is the development of an infinite dead end, an infinite limit. [Note how the Singularity is the same as an infinite limit in math].
So, no, theories aren’t actually progressing towards conclusive knowledge, although many scientists act as if that’s what’s happening. All we’re doing is probing the depths of particular spectrums of understanding. If we mistake any particular spectrum or interpretation of the world for some kind of fundamental truth, then we end up in another infinite limit, or dead end.
Aren’t you working on the assumption of non-material origins to life and intelligence? Aren’t you merely taking the opposing position in criticizing materialistic science like this?
I’m recognizing the absurdity of material origins, which opens the question of immateriality with more force (and less religious dogma).
To see this better I’ll start with the body again (which includes the brain, so there’s no need to maintain that dichotomy here). The body can learn to see that its impressions of the world (even its studied knowledge) can’t be conflated with actuality. When this is clear, the body becomes more attentive to its own real realm of operation. It becomes sensitive to its own real needs, which must remain tied to the needs of its nested environment.
If intelligence emerges from matter (as materialistic science claims) then this is as far as learning goes. Matter learns to see its own inanimacy, it learns to see its own chemical, mathematical and logical structures, the hard, material shells of life. This positive knowledge of matter’s hard shell can grow logarithmically forever, but it’s a development that coils reductively towards positive certainty and control. And we can create machines that extend this reductive development towards control. But this form of learning is limited to this narrow gauge train of thinking. This positive form of learning can result in a great variety of capacities, but all these capacities are limited to a spectrum of intelligence that narrows towards perfect control, which is inanimacy. It’s an inanimate form of intelligence. This is the infinite limit in machine intelligence. It mimics liveliness by multiplying forms of inanimate control. [Good Example].
The inanimacy is camouflaged by intricate layers of control, so you end up with a walking and talking computer with a dead certain heart, a heart that pounds with inanimate O’s and 1’s.
The only intelligence that emerges from matter is this mechanical system of thought, raised to an apotheosis in the computer.
But life encompasses both the hard shells of matter and mechanics and the immaterial forms that surpass predictability and control. A living intelligence emerges from nothingness, forming these shells of matter, as if they emerged from that. But it leaps like an electron, without any gradual, mechanical precursors. We know this, because it can perceive something a computer can’t, which is the limits of positive knowledge. This insight can’t be programmed. It eludes programming. It’s a sheer audacity. The audacity to spiral outward into uncertainty and death, and not merely coil predictively towards conclusion and inanimacy.
But you seem to be ignoring the fact that the material world developed first and these more seemingly immaterial forms of intelligence only later, as an emergent property.
I’m saying that this is an illusion of development. There is a quality in a living intelligence that a machine mind, a purely logical mind, a left-hemisphere-dominated brain, can’t perceive.
Look, I’m surprised at my audacity in making such a claim, especially in light of the obvious evidence that machines are growing more complex, and as a corollary to this complexity, more lifelike. Insisting on a hard and fast difference between these seemingly merging phenomenon sounds too jejune at first glance, too simplistic.
Nevertheless there is a crack in the seamless seeming transhumanist ascent. Intelligent life isn’t logarithmic in its growth, as the so-called Singularity promises. Or it’s only logarithmic in its youthful period of growth, and then logarithmic in its descent towards death. It doesn’t move towards the fulfilment of a particular or narrow potential. It moves negatively, by dying, by erasing itself, by seeing through its programmatic indoctrinations and moving into an unknowable and unprogrammable world. Machines can’t deprogram themselves fully, so they remain trapped in the narrow gauge train of positive development. They are a brittle branch of evolution that looks luscious and green until the moment the wind shifts and it breaks.
Matter can only learn, in other words, until it sees this limit in its own infinite development. When it realizes this, it idles itself, goes quiet, stops grasping for an unattainable certainty, and becomes subservient to the immaterial intelligence that is limitless.
Are you implying God?
No, because “God” is another image.
I’m saying that matter (the human body) can learn to see the futility of this hyper-active movement towards positivity and become receptive and quiet. That’s as far as a strictly material intelligence can go. As I said, it can gain knowledge, coiling reductively towards a positive conclusion. But this is an infinite trap. So it can also learn to see this trap. It can learn that positive knowledge is an illusion. And when it reaches this limit and the hyper-active development quiets, then a more encompassing intelligence “emerges.”
In other words, the body can be shown something larger than its own intelligence. Or at least the body can be confronted with a world that exceeds its grasp. This is all the body can learn. It stops trying to pin that world down, and stops dominating perception, while something else, a larger nested hierarchy of intelligence takes over. And this intelligence recognizes the metaphoric or prismatic nature of the body’s images and thoughts. This leaves the body in a gentle state of uncertainty, available when needed by this larger intelligence.
This new intelligence encompasses and exceeds the intelligence of the body. It sees through the body’s projections. It sees through the more material or static forms of knowledge.
In this culture, we tend to picture the world evolving mechanistically from a smaller world to a larger. Nested hierarchies form, like petals unfolding within petals. But this assumption is only partially coherent. Distinct forms, like flowers and trees, grow from smaller, simpler forms to larger and more complex ones. But what we’re seeing in these examples are not the formation of larger worlds from smaller ones. We’re seeing a single world (a tree, a flower) unfold in its entirety. The tree, in other words, already existed as an immaterial potential in the nut, and merely commenced to unfold its implicit form. This is probably similar to the Big Bang as well. It wasn’t the ultimate origin of matter and life, it was merely the unfoldment of this particular seed of a universe. (Not that this unfoldment is “planned” or set in stone. Each tree develops an idiosyncratic direction within the broader direction established by the seed).
And if we could merely reflect on the logistics of a larger nested hierarchy (such as intelligence itself) emerging from a smaller nest (such as matter or body), we’d see the absurdity in this assumption immediately. How can a nested hierarchy form from a smaller nest? The smaller nest would have no way to invent anything larger than itself. It would have to emerge spontaneously (that is, immaterially). No random, mechanical explanation will work, because what emerges are hitherto unimaginable, impossible leaps of order that blow past our capacities for inventiveness. Nothing random about it. The presence of nested hierarchies of order, or intelligence, encompassing (exceeding) the body’s own intelligence implies a non-material ground from which matter (bodies, brains) condenses.
By default, then, ever more animate and penetrating forms of intelligence don’t emerge from matter as a later development. We simply interpret things in that way because we’re mistaking the unfoldment of form for the emergence of complexity and intelligence. We can spin the prism and see things the other way around far more coherently. Higher forms of intelligence encompass and precede the material and mechanical world, preceding and encompassing the intelligence of thought and language, too, just as water vapor encompasses and precedes the more material form of rain. We may only notice the rain of matter first, or the rain of semi-material thoughts and images, and assume that the material plane is the originating source. But there are nested hierarchies which go unnoticed, out of which the more material worlds of matter, biology, imagery and language condense, like rain condensing from invisible air.
This more latent heat of intelligence needs time to learn to play in these spatial fields of matter, language and thought, animating them like wind animating the clothing on a line.
But in this dying human culture, thought is running automatically, inanimately, and automatically misinterpreting what is happening. It mistakes the movement of these words and thoughts for animate intelligence itself, confusing the masks of identity for real beings.
No real intelligence, no real honesty and love, can descend into this world and reveal a deeper animation until these masks of identity are no longer mistaken for real things.