Edge of the Depths

“In Science there are no ‘depths’; there is surface everywhere.”
~ Rodolf Carnap

I was reading Richard S. Hallam’s Virtual Selves, Real Persons. I’ve enjoyed it, but I find a point of disagreement or maybe merely doubt and questioning. He emphasizes persons as being real, in that they are somehow pre-existing and separate. He distinguishes the person from selves, although this distinction isn’t necessarily relevant to my thoughts here.

I’m not sure to what degree our views diverge, as I find much of the text to be insightful and a wonderful overview. However, to demonstrate my misgivings, the author only mentions David Hume’s bundle theory a couple of times on a few pages (in a several hundred page book), a rather slight discussion for such a key perspective. He does give a bit more space to Julian Jaynes’ bicameral theory, but even Jaynes is isolated to one fairly small section and not fully integrated into the author’s larger analysis.

The commonality between Humes and Jaynes is that they perceived conscious identity as being more nebulous — no there there. In my own experience, that feels more right to me. As one dives down into the psyche, the waters become quite murky, so dark that one can’t even see one’s hands in front of one’s face, much less know what one might be attempting to grasp. Notions of separateness, at a great enough depth, fades away — one finds oneself floating in darkness with no certain sense of distance or direction. I don’t know how to explain this, if one hasn’t experienced altered states of mind, from extended meditation to psychedelic trips.

This is far from a new line of thought for me, but it kept jumping out at me as I read Hallam’s book. His writing is scholarly to a high degree and, for me, that is never a criticism. The downside is that a scholarly perspective alone can’t be taken into the depths. Jaynes solved this dilemma by maintaining a dual focus, intellectual argument balanced with a sense of wonder — speaking of our search for certainty, he said that, “Beyond that, there is only awe.

I keep coming back to that. For all I appreciate of Hallam’s book, I never once experienced awe. Then again, he probably wasn’t attempting to communicate awe. So, it’s not exactly that I judge this as a failing, even if it can feel like an inadequacy from the perspective of human experience or at least my experience. In the throes of awe, we are humbled into an existential state of ignorance. A term like ‘separation’ becomes yet another word. To take consciousness directly and fully is to lose any sense of separateness for, then, there is consciousness alone — not my consciousness and your consciousness, just consciousness.

I could and have made more intellectual arguments about consciousness and how strange it can be. It’s not clear to me, as it is clear to some, that there is any universal experience of consciousness (human or otherwise). There seems to be a wide variety of states of mind found across diverse societies and species. Consider animism that seems so alien to the modern sensibility. What does ‘separation’ mean in an animate world that doesn’t assume the individual as the starting point of human existence?

I don’t need to rationally analyze any of this. Rationality as easily turns into rationalization, justifying what we think we already know. All I can say is that, intuitively, Hume’s bundle theory makes more sense of what I know directly within my own mind, whatever that may say about the minds of others. That viewpoint can’t be scientifically proven for the experience behind it is inscrutable, not an object to be weighed and measured, even as brain scans remain fascinating. Consciousness can’t be found by pulling apart Hume’s bundle anymore than a frog’s soul can be found by dissecting its beating heart — consciousness having a similar metaphysical status as the soul. Something like the bundle theory either makes sense or not. Consciousness is a mystery, no matter how unsatisfying that may seem. Science can take us to the edge of the depths, but that is where it stops. To step off that edge requires something else entirely.

Actually, stepping off rarely happens since few, if any, ever choose to sink into the depths. One slips and falls and the depths envelop one. Severe depression was my initiation experience, the weight dragging me down. There are many possible entry points to this otherness. When that happens, thoughts on consciousness stop being intellectual speculation and thought experiment. One knows consciousness as well as one will ever know it when one drowns in it. If one thrashes their way back to the surface, then and only then can one offer meaningful insight but more likely one is lost in silence, water still choking in one’s throat.

This is why Julian Jaynes, for all of his brilliance and insight, reached the end of his life filled with frustration at what felt like a failure to communicate. As his historical argument went, individuals don’t change their mindsets so much as the social system that maintains a particular mindset is changed, which in the case of bicameralism meant the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations. Until our society faces a similar crises and is collectively thrown into the depths, separation will remain the dominant mode of experience and understanding. As for what might replace it, that is anyone’s guess.

Here we stand, our footing not entirely secure, at the edge of the depths.

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