Spirit and Matter
According to Ken Wilber (Integral Spirituality, p.163), “scientific materialists” such as Daniel Dennett see only “the outside” of phenomena, when in reality every thing in the Kosmos has both an interior and an exterior, inextricably connected, and if one ignores the interior, one is missing a vital aspect of reality. In particular, he is referring to the human mind, which is the interior aspect of the physical brain. The materialists insist that this view borders on duality—the idea that the mind is a separate thing, existing outside of the laws of physics.
Of course, everyone experiences the mind, even if they have never seen a brain, so to insist that the mind is something is obvious. The materialists say that the mind is simply a function of the brain, much as electrical current is a function of a generating machine. Turn off the switch and it ceases to exist. Wondrous though it may be when it is alive—complex beyond our ability to comprehend—it has no existence apart from the brain. Wilber turns this around, saying that material is not the basic stuff of the universe—Spirit is. The material world is a manifestation of Spirit, as proposed by philosophers since Plato, and elucidated in historian Arthur Lovejoy’s monumental compilation of the major spiritual traditions in his book The Great Chain of Being.
Neither of these points of view directly addresses the question “What is consciousness?” Wilber does, to a point, at least insisting that the phenomenon of consciousness is real and must be dealt with. Materialists such as Douglas Hofstadter explain it as a very complex pattern of ultimately mindless physical processes. He uses the analogy of a large quantity of steel balls, slightly magnetized, organizing themselves into patterns. Physical events, obeying physical laws, needing no “outside” control or influence. Wilber, rather indirectly, sidesteps this issue and addresses the phenomenal effect—consciousness itself.
We experience consciousness from the inside, and cannot see the patterning directly. Psychologists and developmental scientists, stuck with interpreting the reports and behavior of individuals without being able to experience directly what is happening in the mind, agree that minds do exist and can be studied. They observe and analyze the patterns. And it’s true: some aspects of the physical activity of the brain (through, for example, fMRI brain scans) have come to be incorporated into the research, even though such activity gives us much less useable information, so far, than does personal observation and interaction with subjects.
So there are not only interior and exterior aspects (mind and brain) of what we call the mind, there is an interior experience and an exterior experience (involving interpretation) of mental activity, and exterior and interior methods (e.g., brain scans and their interpretation) of observing the physical phenomenon. Each of these, Wilber says, is a legitimate field of inquiry—real science.
Dennett, coming from a materialist worldview, sees human activity as the result of combinations of evolutionary events (physical) and cultural influences. Evolution can be attributed to genes. Genes have long been described as seeming to have purpose independently of their hosts. This is an illusion, according to the scientists; genes have no purpose, nor any consciousness themselves. They simply reproduce themselves if they give an advantage to their host organisms. The organisms flourish—and so do the genes. Otherwise, they die out. There is no consciousness at that level.
Cultural influences also sometimes come to have what seems to be purposeful behavior, independent of the humans who manifest them. This is the concept of meme—cultural replicators, behaving much as genes replicate in the physical realm, almost as though they reproduce independently from their vehicles (people). A song is an example of a meme—someone sings it, and someone else hears it, and at some point sings it themselves. Imitation is the means by which the reproduction takes place.
At some point, organisms have acquired awareness beyond their immediate environment, and at some further point have acquired consciousness—awareness of themselves in relation to their environment. This ability eventually becomes social, and collectives develop culture—ways of interaction among individuals that perpetuate themselves, almost. (Behavior is always individual, even when there are group influences in play.) Memes are these cultural events that appear independent of the individuals. Language is another meme (or rather, a collection of memes). So is the tradition of women to wear lipstick, or skirts. Wilber discounts the concept of memes, but explains the phenomena in other terms.
The crucial difference between Ken Wilber’s integrative theories and those of the cognitive scientists is that he ties everything together. The cognitive scientists and other materialistic scientists study the mind only to the point where other people can observe mental activity. Beyond that, science cannot go—they think.
There is a lot left out at that point. What I experience
in my own thinking and imagining and feeling is real to me—even more real than
the findings of research done by others. I want to know why and how these
Donald Skiff, August 9, 2007