A Conversation on Consciousness

Copyright (c) 2010 by Kenny Felder

A student read some of my essays, and emailed me about them. She asked me to keep her comments confidential, so I am not including them, except to say that she is a remarkably thoughtful person. But I responded at one point with this question:

Since we are looking at thought, let's start with the relationship of "I" to the thoughts. Can you pick one of the following options as the one that sounds most correct, or (if not) substitute your own that sounds better?

  1. "I" and "my thoughts" are two different ways of expressing the same thing: "I AM my thoughts" in other words.

  2. "I" am not my thoughts, but "I" create/generate/manufacture my thoughts—just as an author is not the same as his writings, but he does create them.

  3. "I" don't actually generate my thoughts, but "I" do get to decide what they will be about—not like an author, but perhaps more like an editor.

  4. "I" don't actually generate or control my thoughts, but "I" get to see them go by—in the book analogy, I am just a passive reader of the book.

  5. "I" and "my thoughts" don't have anything to do with each other at all—my thoughts are like a book that I don't even get to read.
I'm not trying to pin you to anything, but I am saying that we can use the thoughts to start to explore the "I" and I think this little experiment is a reasonable place to start.

Enter a woman I knew when we were both in college. Her name is Keli Y, and she also emailed me about my essays, and I sent her the same question I had sent the student. The rest of this essay is the dialogue that ensued.

From: Keli Y

I do experience myself as being my thoughts (but I am including feelings with these, and other stuff that I perceive as originating from me) on an everyday level, even though when you walk me through some reflection about it I agree that it is more complicated than that! But since you talk about the experiencing being key, why doesn't the non-reflective experience of being in charge of my thoughts count?

But maybe it is just an assumption, not really an "experience" in the way you mean—an assumption about how I experience thought, which changes when I think hard (ha) about it. Don't most average people share that assumption though, and thus feel guilty and so forth about their thoughts, as if they originated from themselves and they are responsible?

From: Kenny Felder

Why doesn't the non-reflective experience of being in charge of my thoughts count?

Count? Count as what? If you say, "I generally believe that I am my thoughts," then of course you are making a true statement: Keli generally believes that she is her thoughts. But that doesn't mean that you actually are your thoughts; simply that you have a belief-state.

Don't most average people share that assumption, and thus feel guilty and so forth about their thoughts, as if they originated from themselves and they are responsible?

That is such a great question, and in order to answer it, I'm going to have to ramble for a while.

One very wise man named Bob Cergol gave me an analogy several years ago, around Halloween. He said, imagine that you are the light that emanates from a candle. The candle was lit inside a pumpkin, so for your entire existence, you have shone out to the world through the eyes, nose, and mouth of a pumpkin. Your glow has that shape, and it always has. So you never realize that you are a light that emanates from a candle; you think you're a pumpkin.

Spiritual teachers use the word "identification" for this process. We are beings of pure consciousness, but consciousness "identifies" itself with all kinds of things. People identify themselves with their possessions: think of a guy who keeps his car immaculately polished, not because he is thinking through the ramifications ("this polished car will help me get chicks"), but just because he wants to BE "the guy with the hot set of wheels." Think of people with stamp collections or big-screen TVs or finely manicured lawns. Think of one guy who drives an SUV and another guy who drives a Prius. Think of a teenaged girl shopping for clothing. In each case, think about how these people are not trying to change their life circumstances; they're really trying to define who they ARE by these things.

One step deeper than identifying with your possessions is identifying with your body. "I AM" a beautiful girl who turns heads whenever I walk down the street. "I AM" a 250-lb 22-year-old guy who can dominate a football game. "I AM" a cripple who cannot walk. Watch children especially, and how much their age, size, and physical abilities define who they think they are. Imagine how hard it is for each of these example people to reframe that body as a "circumstance that I have to deal with" instead of an identity. Imagine how differently we would view it if we woke up every morning with the same personality and memories but in a brand new body.

So, one step deeper than that is what you were talking about: identifying with your thoughts and feelings. "I AM" a brilliant neurosurgeon. "I AM" an environmentalist, a feminist, a lover of madrigals. You can imagine hearing someone say "I just happen to have been born into a body that sneezes whenever there is pollen in the air," but can you imagine hearing someone say "I just happen to have been born into a brain that shivers with pleasure whenever I hear a madrigal?" Or even less likely, "I just happen to have been born into a brain that thinks abortion is murder?" If a person thought that, he might still feel compelled to act on his belief, but he would not confuse the fact "I believe this" with the idea "this is truth."

Of course, it's easy for me to say that about the anti-abortion person; it's just as easy for me to say that about the pro-abortion person; but it's much harder for me to say that when it gets to Kenny-things, like "I happen to have been born into a brain that thinks spiritual matters are worth pursuing!"

All of that is a very long-winded way of saying yes, Keli, I think we do all make the mistake of thinking of our thoughts as ourselves. And we feel noble when we have good and compassionate thoughts, and clever when we have smart thoughts, and guilty when we have impure thoughts, and lessened when our thoughts turn out to have been less clever than we thought they were, and so on. But right now, I am sending my thoughts as 0s and 1s across space and time to try to make you have some thoughts, and it's still all just thoughts. It becomes a bit more than that, perhaps, when you start to meditate. Sit for 15 minutes and try to watch your thoughts. Don't judge them, don't try to stop or control them, but try not to get carried away with them. "Now I'm thinking about watching my thoughts." "Now I'm thinking I wish my 15 minutes were up." "Now I'm thinking I'm hungry." See them come and go, circling around common themes that bring up emotional responses, and so on. When you practice this, you move one step closer toward whatever is behind the thoughts.

From: Keli Y

First reaction—okay, I see this process as the way to reach into the realm of consciousness rather than only identifying with our circumstances as particular humans. But how do we know this is somehow a reality beyond the fabulous workings of our brains? This is where I am getting stuck, or rather, simply am at now.

I remember a very strong experience in a simple meditation with Marty and others when I was 19, which came very unexpectedly. I suddenly felt thrown into an awareness of being one with all and "God" and time—the exact type of experience mystics discuss, right? It made me shake and breathe funny. This one little experience has given me some kind of grounding that I keep coming back to—that experience is keeping me more curious than I would otherwise be, I think. But couldn't it be that this is an experience our brains allow us under special circumstances (such as meditation), which is somehow just (although it is not "just" if it is so cool) tapping into a physical reality—like being able to perceive our interconnected neurons, atoms, chemical systems, and so forth?

Different but related point: Somehow I am nervous about the need to disconnect too much with our physical embodiment or "reality" as physical creatures—I don't find it intuitively attractive to dispassionately observe my life or life in general too much, although I see the advantages of not getting caught up in as much drama. I am not sure of this leap to something very different, even though I experienced it a little, I think.

From: Kenny Felder

Second point first—try to articulate more clearly what you're afraid of. Is it losing the connection to your husband, children, etc? Because that would be something I definitely would not want in my life.

First point: First, I had no idea you had had such an amazing experience! I hope you will mention it to Marty at some point, because I think he could use that affirmation of the value of what he does.

Could it have been just a by-product of your brain? Well, on a certain level, yes it could. Science, art, love, philosophy, all these are just by-products of our brain, right? Actually a lot of work has been done showing the neural correlates of spiritual states; on a certain level, I think that is a perfectly valid explanation.

On a deeper level I don't, and that's what my consciousness essay tries to articulate, and I realize it's very gropey and unclear about it. Your brain processes information: visual, auditory, and many other kinds. But how could some combination of neurological and chemical states possibly lead to the experience you had, or to any experience? I'm not saying "this experience is profoundly amazingly spiritual, and that experience is mundane"; the most profoundly amazingly spiritual thing is having any experience of any kind at any time. Can a computer process information? You bet. Could a computer generate all kinds of amazing visual and auditory "hallucinations?" No problem. But would a computer actually see or hear any of them? Not even a little, tiny bit.

Again, I don't know how much sense that makes to anybody but me: it seems completely crystal clear to me. But I'm not trying to "prove" anything to you. If anything, I just want to convince you to meditate and read and explore on your own, and be of whatever help I can in that process. So I'll tell you what I always tell my math students. That voice in your head that rings with skepticism—that says "this doesn't really make sense to me"—honor that voice. Don't take my word or anyone's word for anything: you have to own it. In math, that means you have to reason it out. In spiritual works, it means you have to experience it for yourself. When you see for yourself that there are thoughts, and experiences, and emotions, and sensory impressions, and then there is something completely different from all of those—something that is closer to the real "I"—once that becomes completely and transparently obvious to you, then you too can grope for words to express it! You may find a way to do with your energy and creativity what I can't do so well with my logic and clarity.

From: Keli Y

I will have to set aside what I am anxious about. I actually think it's related to my work on language and gesture, which has worked toward integration of the body and mind in communicative contexts. But I do not work on this at a true philosophical level (yet?), so I haven't thought through whether this is really a problem for my work or not.

I had to follow your link to The Mind's I and some of the other books by those authors, and read the 10 or so first pages of them that Amazon would let me look at, and then read at length on Wikipedia about Searle and his Chinese Room and so on, all the while cross-referencing your essay, before I could reply here.

I guess intuitively I agree with what I understand of Searle (knowing what syntax and semantics are helps!), and the question about whether the "mind" can arise from the brain (as he believes it does, right?) is specifically the question I was asking about in my last email. Yes, I do see a clear difference between a program that manipulates syntax and a mind that "understands" meaning and is categorically different somehow. But where does it originate from? Do I have to "go mystic" to explain it (or be happy not explaining it)? Have you read Cosmic Consciousness by Richard Bucke? It was one of the books I picked up a couple weeks ago in the used bookstore. He theorizes that not only our human consciousness but the next stage of experiencing cosmic unity is an actual evolutionary process! The experience he describes having which led him to this book is very similar to the one I felt with Marty, it seems. Huxley's Doors of Perception is another book I want to get. He also apparently describes having these experiences of a higher consciousness through drugs, yet also I think he still relates it to our brains' workings, which are not perceived when not in altered states because this "data" is suppressed. So why don't Searle and Bucke and Huxley just give in and say "okay, it's beyond physical explanations—it's 'God'!"? Why do all these thoughtful people hang on to some grounding in the real world for explaining it?

What I mean is, your essay absolutely shows me that consciousness is different than the operations of the brain proper, but I still don't grasp why it can't have "sprung" from the brain in some way we don't understand yet (the unexplained origins of Searle's "causal powers"). This is the leap of faith part you are making, right? I'm just CURIOUS about this! I don't mean that I think it is an illusion, as you say, just because it might originate from the physical. On the contrary, somehow.

Okay, I'm getting fuzzy now. Your mom wrote in my systems notebook eons ago "It's just that you see so much that it starts to look fuzzy". I'm hoping she's right.

From: Kenny Felder

I didn't mean to say "set aside what you're worried about." I'm curious to hear about how this relates to your work. It does sound close enough that you probably won't want to keep them in separate boxes: "On Saturday I try to disidentify with my mind, and on Friday I try to integrate mind and body."

I haven't read Bucke, although a lot of people seem to be talking about mystical experiences as the next step in evolution. Leary was saying something very much like that in the 60s. I have absolutely no opinion except to say that if it is true, it is quite different from evolution as it is currently conceived, ie random mutation combined with natural selection.

Where I do have very strong opinions, of course, is on the issue of the mind arising from the brain. Even there, though, I have to be a bit careful. See, my opinions in this area seem obviously right to me, and I can't imagine why anyone wouldn't see the obvious truth of them. But in reality, a lot of people who are a lot smarter than I am, disagree with me: among them Hofstadter and Dennett (the editors of The Mind's I) and Searle (Chinese Room). I have a lot of respect for all three of those guys, and yet their ultimate positions seem manifestly absurd to me. So I'm going to be sharing my strong opinions with you, but if you wind up disagreeing, you're in really good company!

Searle is a particularly interesting example. As I understand his argument, he believes that the Chinese Room conclusively demonstrates that algorithms cannot lead to consciousness. But he takes it as axiomatic—as too obvious to even argue—that the brain does in fact lead to consciousness, because, well, what else could? So he therefore believes that something in the sloshy, non-algorithmic Chemistry of the brain leads to consciousness. I read one article in which he suggested that some day we would determine, through scientific experiment, that consciousness results from a 40 Hz vibration of such-and-such an organ in the brain. He didn't mean that quite literally, he just meant that we would find some particular neural phenomenon that is always present when consciousness is present, and always absent when consciousness is absent, and then we would declare that thing to be the seat of consciousness. My fantasy question for Searle, if I ever met him, would be: would we then declare that this phenomenon is consciousness, or that it is the cause of consciousness? Either way, it seems to me, things get knotty for him.

Curiously, the one writer who does acknowledge that paradox is Stephen Pinker, with whom I suspect you are familiar. Now, Pinker does not proceed from there to any kind of mysticism. But he does see that consciousness is an atomic phenomenon, not reducible to any smaller parts that can be analyzed or dissected. He pulls off (with considerable finesse) the trick of announcing that consciousness is completely beyond the power of our mind to understand, without ever once heading in a spiritual direction of any kind.

What can I say that I haven't already said? To me, the idea that consciousness arises from Physics or Chemistry in any way is manifestly absurd. To me, the existence of consciousness in any form is proof enough that there are more things on heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio. To me, it is tremendously inspiring to realize that spiritual teachers have always pointed to consciousness as the starting point, and their writings make a lot more sense to me than all the philosophers put together. That's how the landscape looks from Kennyville, and I don't know if that does one bit of good in helping you figure out how it looks from Kelitown.

You had an experience with Marty, a long time ago, and it was a powerful experience. But in the end, it was just an experience, and therefore subject to all the intellectualization and questioning that the brain does. The goal—and this is not a goal that I have achieved in the ultimate way, but it is a goal that all the traditions point towards—is to get back to the experiencer itself. Once you get there, all the rest is just words.

From: Keli Y

wow. Well, I had to think about all that. I did not meditate on it, though! You keep pointing me back to that direction, but I am resisting it, I think because I want to believe in it more before I do it, otherwise I'm not sure it would be genuine. Probably this resistance is what is getting me in trouble, because it is just my words and thoughts getting in my way, if what you are trying to share with me is the "truth." But I just can't understand that last leap that you do when you say "To me, the idea that consciousness arises from Physics or Chemistry in any way is manifestly absurd. To me, the existence of consciousness in any form is proof enough that there are more things on heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio." WHY is it absurd? How is it proof enough for you? Aren't you describing a leap of faith? I looked up the Time article that I think you were referring to by Pinker: www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1580394-6,00.html. See, I find what he is writing to be perfectly reasonable—that yes, we have no idea about the "Hard Problem," but maybe it is a physical process that is just beyond our brains to ever "get" (or, maybe someday we will through the "Easy Problem" somehow). It still seems amazingly fabulous that we have this very special ability as humans—maybe amazing enough that it feels like ecstasy or transcendence when we tap into certain aspects of it under certain conditions. Can't mystical experiences about oneness still simply be insight into the physical truth of interconnectedness on an atomic level? I'm probably just repeating something like the Tao of Physics, here. But couldn't this "reality" be completely amazing and awe-inspiring enough, without having to invoke a higher purpose or special meaning to ourselves? I know, now you are probably sighing.

You probably don't have more words to give me about this. Do you feel like the person who is traveling the same path over and over? Is that a kind of meditation in itself, like walking a labyrinth? It is certainly a service to engage in dialogues like this.

At the end of all this, I probably will try to meditate a little, though it seems very different to do it with the intention of being closer to a transcendent meaning or not. But the point is not to have any intentions at all, but just to notice, I know. How hard to get away from my thoughts. It's like I want to "know" before I can put the knowing aside and proceed.

From: Kenny Felder

I had never seen that Pinker article you pointed me to. Wow! I don't always agree with him, but I always find him fascinating, articulate, and just a delightful writer. He's just about the only person that I will read something he wrote without knowing anything else about it except that he wrote it. The thing I was referring to before was a much shorter bit in his book How the Mind Works, in which he lays out basically the same argument: our brains can't figure out consciousness because, well, they just can't. And that doesn't indicate anything mysterious or magical, it just indicates a limitation of our brains.

So Pinker and I start from much the same place. We both start by seeing that consciousness is, in his word, "indubitable": it is absurd to deny its existence, as Dennett does. And for the most part, Pinker also agrees with my own belief that you can't build up consciousness from brain chemistry. (You asked me: "WHY is it absurd?" That's a hard question for me to answer, precisely because it seems so obvious to me, although I think my essay that you read contains most of my best attempts to explain it. But one way to think of it is this. Suppose someone analyzed the brain and created a long, beautiful logical sequence that when this neuron is activated in this way, it causes a chemical change over there, which in turns activates this other nerve, which... etc etc etc...if the very last step in that sequence is a conscious experience, what could the NEXT-to-last step possibly be?) Am I making a "leap of faith?" I really don't feel like I am. (I have another essay, atheism.html, in which I discuss faith, and why it is not particularly a part of my own belief system.) If anything, it seems to me that Pinker has an inexplicable faith that there must be some logical, scientific explanation for consciousness, even if we can never find it.

Can't mystical experiences about oneness still simply be insight into the physical truth of interconnectedness on an atomic level?

I've heard a lot of mystics claim that it is exactly that. If so, what an amazing thing, to have some kind of direct connection to such an abstract intellectual notion! But if we want to dismiss the value of the experience, I think we do better to write it off as a neural-chemical fluke. Because if it is in fact some intuitive insight into atomic reality, then the next question becomes, what facility in the human mind allows for such direct insight into something we cannot see? And then we're back into the mystical.

But couldn't this "reality" be completely amazing and awe-inspiring enough, without having to invoke a higher purpose or special meaning to ourselves?

If, by this "reality," you mean a reality in which all truth is ultimately scientific truth, then it isn't "enough" for me. But again, I have to stress, you certainly don't have to agree with me! Plenty of people much smarter than I, once again, say exactly that: the world of nature is so full of beauty and wonder that we don't need to add any mumbo-jumbo to it. Dante's nine-circled hell and purgatory and paradise all seemed pretty impressive at the time, but they're nothing compared to the myriads of solar systems in the myriads of galaxies that we see with our telescopes and deduce with our minds.

Which is true, as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough for me. I find the scientific world empty of the things I want most, which are purpose and certainty. In terms of purpose, we always say things like "It's better to be good to people than to hurt them," or even "It's better to know the truth than to live with superstition," but if science is the only basis for truth, then those statements are utterly meaningless: they can never be scientifically proven, right? In terms of certainty, science bases everything on logic (which we can't prove works) and the evidence of our senses (which in fact we know lie to us all the time), so nothing in science is ever certain beyond "that's the best we have so far."

So where does all that leave me? Certainly, I don't meditate because I have any certainty that it will lead to ultimate truth of any kind, although I am quite convinced that it has led me to a better understanding of who I am than I had before I started. But I meditate because, if I can't find real truth that way, then it just seems hopeless that I can find it in any way whatsoever.

What you're doing now is, I think, absolutely the right way to start for any intellectual. You're reading, writing, thinking. I don't think it will get you to the answers you're looking for, but it will give you a better vocabulary for discussing the questions, and with luck, it will give you more than that: it will give you some ideas of places that seem worth looking. If we want to get in shape, we might well start by reading a bunch of books on the subject, talking to some in-shape people, and doing a lot of hard thinking. But at some point, we have to do something that feels intuitively wrong. My body wants this hamburger, but I will eat that salad instead. My body wants a nap, but I will swim laps instead. It doesn't feel right, it doesn't seem right, but hey, a lot of people say it works, so I will have the humility to give it a try—or the desperation to say hey, I weigh 300 pounds, I have to try something!

From: Keli Y

I just read your mystic essay, and then the first version. The first version especially spoke to me very clearly—it seems so similar to what I am going through! Although maybe I am more willing to not know it, more unsure of finding the answer in searching for the mystical experience. I had that (mild?) mystical experience, but like Augie's example about the flaming book and bird, it feels easy now to imagine other physical explanations for it too (but like you, I just don't want the experience to be unmeaningful, somehow! Is that contradictory?).

But if we want to dismiss the value of the experience, I think we do better to write it off as a neural-chemical fluke. Because if it is in fact some intuitive insight into atomic reality, then the next question becomes, what facility in the human mind allows for such direct insight into something we cannot see? And then we're back into the mystical.

Or, we are back to to maybe we just can't conceive of HOW it happens with our limited minds, right? And I am also not sure about the "fluke" part—at least not in a negative sense. Couldn't there be a possible function for the development of consciousness, so that evolution did favor flukes in that direction? This is what my linguist colleague says—he assumes that we evolved to be able to coordinate our attention through language, including being able to talk about the past and future ("displacement"). It sounds possible to me.

I see what you mean about not being able to find certainty in science, and maybe not purpose either (in a transcendent sense, at least). I would like to have it too, and I do understand that I'm NOT going to find it by reading up more on science and philosophy! I guess I would rather live with uncertainty than to look for certainty on a spiritual path, because it would mean having faith in it that I don't have. But that doesn't mean I can't start meditating and enjoying the clear benefits of that, and be open to what that might also bring me. But I'm not interested in being part of a community who thinks they have found the answer. It doesn't leave room for genuine questioning any more, or does it? Talking with you is so nice because you are still genuinely questioning, although not so indeterminately as me. Your analogy to getting in shape was very funny. It makes sense if you believe there is a difference between thinking about it and actually doing something about it as a "practice"... but that is exactly the question for me!

From: Kenny Felder

I have some specific replies to specific things you said, but I want to start with the bigger picture of where I think you are coming from, and if it turns out I'm completely wrong, just tell me so and I won't be offended. But it seems to me that you really want to believe in some higher / transcendent reality, but precisely because you want to believe in it, you feel committed to a stanch skepticism. You don't want to be one of those people who starts to believe in things just because they sound nice, or comforting. So you adopt the stance, "I will question this to the bitter end, and hope it can prove itself to me despite all my questioning, because only then will I know it's really true."

Does that ring true? I think that pretty much would have described me for a long time, and I'm not sure when it changed, but I would have to describe my own stance now in very different terms.

I think one very important thing you said is "I would rather live with uncertainty than to look for certainty on a spiritual path, because it would mean having faith in it that I don't have." I do not equate the spiritual path with "faith," at least not the way that term is usually defined. I might even define the spiritual path as a quest for real certainty. When I say "I have consciousness" I believe that is a statement of certainty, not of faith. I want my spiritual beliefs to be just as grounded as that.

Regarding your linguist colleague, I have to say that consciousness, as I define it, is not the ability to "coordinate our attention through language." In fact, just to skip ahead, whatever useful evolutionary ability he specifies, I'm going to say, that isn't consciousness at all. He will then think I'm being perverse, or trying too hard to cling to a vacuous notion, but you've been thinking about this enough to see what I mean, I think.

Finally, when you say, "It makes sense if you believe there is a difference between thinking about it and actually doing something about it as a 'practice'... but that is exactly the question for me!" Like so many questions, that one begs itself. Are you going to answer that question by thinking about it, or by trying the "practices?" Hmm, that's a head-scratcher, I'd better think about that some more before I start...

From: Keli Y

You are absolutely right about how I have been approaching this: "I will question this to the bitter end, and hope it can prove itself to me despite all my questioning, because only then will I know it's really true."

That is the first thing that made me laugh. And it also points out how silly it is, in that of course "all my questioning" is not ever going to be enough to "know" anything is true, at least the questioning along the scientific route. If that line of questioning is going to yield answers, it's going to take awhile, and it ain't going to be me that figures it out!!

So now, it my current state of rapidly changing states, I have calmed down in my whirlwind searching. I think I now have a general lay of the land on some of these questions within the non-mystical world at least, and I can slow down and start filling in gaps. This book I told you about (Conversations on Consciousness) is really just great for me right now. If you do not know it, I'd love to get it for you. Susan Blackmore is funny and insightful and "gets real" in her questions to all these folks she interviews, and brings out their viewpoints in a straightforward way, and also gets some personal information, e.g. about any spiritual beliefs or practices, or how their work has changed them.

There are a lot of these interveiwees that really do think that we are going to figure it out through science someday (hardly any go for the quantum route, by the way, as you don't). They mostly seem to agree that it won't be an obvious answer, but they think there will be an answer. Some of them point to problems that many years ago were considered to be unsolvable or inherently spiritual, such as the "life spirit" that gave inert matter its living quality. And now we've figured it out. e.g. Francis Crick is one of the ones who talked about that. When I read all of that, I start thinking, well, yes, there is no doubt there is consciousness there, and that it is not at all clear how it will be explained, but maybe I shouldn't assume it can't be just because the qualia seem so unexplainable.

So in a way, I am starting to think maybe it could be possible that the answers may really come along through science (I'm leaning toward such absurdities, despite your efforts!). I think I feel actually reassured by some of them who seem to be nice compassionate people who even meditate! One does not have to be a cold, mechanistic evil scientist to be materialist! Although honestly, a few of them come off a little like that in the interviews, like Pat and Paul Churchland (the name is ironic).

And, oddly, I also feel more open to meditation, without putting any weight into it as "faith." I see what you mean on that point. It does not have to be about faith at all.

I still don't know in the end, though, about the higher purpose or meaning. I don't feel, as you do, that I should be figuring out what I should be doing. I don't have that particular question. I do think I should be a good person, so the moral aspect of humanity is important, but it seems to be just a pragmatic response in me so that social life is pleasant.

But I keep coming back to that experience with Marty. I don't want to think it was just a random illusion that the brain produces when relaxed somehow. I might be satisfied, though, with it being an aspect of my consciousness that can be "explained" physically at some point, though I hope it is an interesting story. I start to feel skeptical again when a higher divinity or transcendence beyond our bodies is brought into the picture, however.

I have a feeling I'm not close to done on this yet....

So, do you think you/we have a higher purpose or meaning? Do you think the consciousness we have (that you think is not physically derived) is transcendent?

From: Kenny Felder

So, do you think you/we have a higher purpose or meaning?

I don't know. I really, really, really don't know. I think I talked about this in one of the essays you read: it comes down to my own version of Pascal's Wager. If there is no real purpose or meaning to my life, then, by definition, it doesn't matter what I do. It doesn't matter if I try to find a purpose or meaning (that really isn't there), or pursue scientific truth (that really doesn't matter), or try to make people happy, or try to stack as many things on top of other things as possible. If it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter. Conversely, if there is real purpose, or the potential for real purpose, then that is the only thing that matters, and I really need to find it.

Do you think the consciousness we have (that you think is not physically derived) is transcendent?

I suppose "not physically derived" could be someone's definition of transcendent. But I do hope for more than that. I think it is closer to the definition of "who I am" than anything else I have found, and therefore, a step in the direction of that higher purpose I was talking about before. I also think it is the one point about which I have absolute certainty, and since certainty, not faith, is my goal, it is a good starting place in that too.

From: Keli Y

I am wondering why not some kind of pragmatic middle ground in your version of Pascal's Wager. Even if there is no higher purpose or meaning, certainly being a moral person or seeking knowledge or whatever still can have meaning within your life and the lives around you and after you, can't it (I can't speak for the stacking blocks activity). Certainly it is clear that meaning happens in our daily lives if it has positive effects around us, right? I guess the idea that I would have to either not care about anything or conversely, find the right thing I should do, sounds like the terrifying thing to me. Maybe because I fear the former, of course, yet have faint hope of figuring out the latter.

But actually, I wouldn't be going through these thoughts myself if a pragmatic approach were fully satisfying to me. But can I ever hope to find certainty? If YOU found it, you know, I couldn't keep talking to you! :)

Croyez ceux qui cherchent la verite, doutez de ceux qui la trouvent.—Andre Gide

From: Kenny Felder

I'm very proud of myself! I managed to get through the Andre Gide quote—it took me a minute—and finally I realized I had heard it before, unattributed and in English, but I get what he's saying.

Foreign language was never my long suit.

In terms of "meaning in our daily life," on a practical level, that is just what I live for. I try to be a good Dad, and a good teacher, and so on. But philosophically, it all comes down to some version of Frank Burns' maxim that "It's nice to be nice to the nice," and I don't find that satisfying at all. If man is just a collection of neurons and chemicals that react in complex ways to evolutionarily programmed impulses, then where is the "meaning" we're supposed to be able to create? To use a slightly concrete example, suppose you have a chess program on a computer. It analyzes each position, makes the best move according to its algorithms, and even (some chess programs do this) modifies its own algorithms if it loses, hence "learns from its mistakes." By any meaningful definition I can come up with, it is trying to win. Does that mean that, if it does win, it has imbued its own victory with meaning? If you help it win, have you done a good deed? And if your answer to those questions is "no," what is the difference between the chess-playing computer and a person who is "trying" to survive, propagate, and end the day with a feeling of "I made a difference?"

From: Keli Y

The clear difference to me is that we are aware (conscious) we are doing it, and the chess program is not. It is a "zombie," in philosophical terms, right?

So we come back to consciousness creating meaning, at least on a pragmatic level. If eventually chess programs could be conscious, at that point their efforts would have meaning, I think. They would no longer be "just" chess programs, actually.

But this to me does not seem to be exactly the same question as the issue of a "higher meaning" or purpose, such as that we are all destined to be enlightened and one with God. If I know my child is conscious, my efforts to "be nice" to him are deeply meaningful (I guess I have to extend consciousness here to the animal kingdom too, so this is extending what I have been thinking about in terms of consciousness), but I still can (maybe) reconcile this with the possibility that it is all possibly material (did I hedge that enough?). I wonder if simply being really really present as good people in our lives is what is enlightenment, and the rest is an ego trip? If I am honest with myself, I find it harder to imagine being the best person I can be than to devote myself to looking for meaning, so I wonder a little about my motives.

From: Kenny Felder

I've gotten a little lost here, and I think it's my fault.

You're obviously right that, when I personally compare a person to a computer, the difference I find is just the difference of consciousness. But on a moral level, what I was really trying to dispute was the idea that meaning is something we "create"—our purpose in life is to feel good, or to make others feel good, or our purpose in life is whatever we say is our purpose and that makes it a purpose. I'm still holding out hope for better.

From: Keli Y

No, I understand that is what you were saying. And I too am deeply interested in whether there is something better to hope for. But I think I was realizing that I could probably do more to see the meaning that I DO have access to now. You are probably way beyond me on that point. And I don't think of it as being "whatever we say is our purpose," because creating goodness does seem to not be entirely a relative thing. There are some basic baselines, right?

From: Kenny Felder

God, I hope so.

 Kenny Felder's Essays and Commentaries

 Join the conversation!