It All Depends on What We Attend To
Last month I mentioned a turning point in my own consciousness of the world and the world when I mistook a leaf for a frog. But in that split-second moment I had really seen a frog. I imagine we all have experiences like this from time to time, and think nothing more of it. But at the time I was reading the polymath Gregory Bateson, and the following passage hit home because of that experience.
When somebody steps on my toe, what I experience is, not his stepping on my toe, but my image of his stepping on my toe reconstructed from neural reports reaching my brain somewhat after his foot has landed on mine. Experience of the exterior is always mediated by particular sense organs and neural pathways. To that extent, objects are my creation and my experience of them is subjective, not objective.
It is not a trivial assertion to note that very few persons, at least in our occidental culture, doubt the objectivity of such sense data as pain or their visual images of the external world. Our civilization is deeply based on this illusion. (Bateson 1980:39)
I think as moderns interested in Wisdom it is vital we have some understanding of this illusory nature of our civilization, and how we got to here. Some have gone further than the illusory. The famous astrophysicist Arthur Eddington, the first translator of Einstein into English, wrote,
We all share the strange delusion that a lump of matter is something whose general nature is easily comprehensible whereas the nature of the human spirit is unfathomable. (17)
People generally are not aware that our direct actual experience is mental not material, both of ourselves and the world. Eddington put it this way.
In comparing the certainty of things spiritual and things temporal, let us not forget this—Mind is the first and most direct thing in our experience; all else is remote inference. (18)
This takes us to the heart of our dilemma in the modern tension between knowledge and wisdom. The neuro-philosopher Philip Goff put it this way.
The quantitative conception of science bequeathed to us by Galileo has been extraordinarily successful. By focusing exclusively on what can be captured in mathematics, scientists have been able to construct mathematical models of nature with ever greater predictive power. These models have enabled us to manipulate the natural world in undreamed of ways, resulting in extraordinary technology. We are now living through a period of history in which people are so blown away by the success of physical science, so moved by the wonders of technology, that they feel strongly inclined to think that the mathematical models of physics capture the whole of reality. (172)
But the mathematical models of physics don’t capture the whole of reality, far from it. The reality of consciousness is much more. As a culture we are convinced of the reality of the external physical world that we manipulate with our technology and science and think we understand, while increasingly denying our own experience of an inner life, of our own consciousness which is so much more than the abstracted physical world bequeathed to us by modern science. I mean the world of the imagination, of intuition, of values, of love and a sense of purpose. What can add insult to injury is that modern mathematical science, real science as some would say, tells us nothing of the intrinsic nature of our world. It deals only with symbols. Newton was the first to admit he had no idea what gravity really was in itself. The mathematics worked. So why worry said our culture. And this attitude has prevailed right down to the Standard Model of quantum mechanics, a world of physical symbols. Models are still important to science but symbols more so, particularly at the edge between the physical and the mental that the quantum world is. Eddington again.
..if today you ask a physicist what he has finally made out the æther or the electron to be, the answer will not be a description in terms of billiard balls or fly-wheels or anything concrete; he will point instead to a number of symbols and a set of mathematical equations which they satisfy. What do the symbols stand for? The mysterious reply is given that physics is indifferent to that; it has no means of probing beneath the symbolism. To understand the phenomena of the physical world it is necessary to know the equations which the symbols obey but not the nature of that which is being symbolised. (15)
But we can experience the intrinsic nature of our own consciousness. It is the thing of which we are most certain. My experience is me. And from it I infer a world that is real to me, and as much as I may value the inferences of science, my world is bigger than the physical, a world that can’t be explored by scientific symbols but by metaphor, silence, poetry, art, paradox and values, by the personal. I can value the scientific symbols as well and believe there is something behind them that is intrinsically real that I can come to know personally in some way beyond the mathematical symbols. This personal knowing is a different form of knowing. It is the world of wisdom, of psyche, of spirit. Eddington as a scientist could see this, but I don’t think he fully realised the metaphorical nature of this world of immediate knowing. It is the world of relationship. It is where even the unspeakable can have meaning. It is where contradictions can be held together in a sense of unity, and paradox make sense. This is an entirely different logic from the world of science and mathematics.
That environment of space and time and matter, of light and colour and concrete things, which seems so vividly real to us is probed deeply by every device of physical science and at the bottom we reach symbols. Its substance has melted into shadow. None the less it remains a real world if there is a background to the symbols—an unknown quantity which the mathematical symbol x stands for. We think we are not wholly cut off from this background. It is to this background that our own personality and consciousness belong, and those spiritual aspects of our nature not to be described by any symbolism or at least not by symbolism of the numerical kind to which mathematical physics has hitherto restricted itself. (19)
This ‘background’ to which ‘our own personality and consciousness belong’ was once deeply participated in by human beings, and the remnants of this can be found in indigenous cultures. Hence their critical importance to our times, if we could only stop to enquire and listen and learn. It was the world the Romantics wanted to hold onto as the values of the Enlightenment began to to take hold of our European cultures and the seductiveness of a mechanical world view began to swamp us. It is the ignoring and denial of this personal ‘background’, that Eddington speaks of, that is the ultimate tragedy behind the climate crisis and all that we face as a world community; and institutional religion is implicated as much as technology and institutional science in this. We are heading into a time of profound unwisdom methinks. Is it too late to turn the climate around; is it too late to turn our self understanding around? This is where I think Iain McGilchrist and others are so important. They are gathering the biggest questions of life into one potential coherence I think, a universal mirror into which we might look to try and understand what needs to happen to save us.
McGilchrist would say that it all depends on what we attend to. I first began to realise this with the heart many years ago when I read a book by Garry Richardson, Love As Conscious Action: Towards the New Society. In his exploration of consciousness he began by describing the experiences of three different people walking together through a virgin, fertile forest. One was a wealthy timber merchant, another was an ecologist, and the third a poet. One sized up the forest in terms of available timber and dollars and cents; the next in terms of the forest’s prolific life and complex interconnections that should be preserved at all costs; and the third ‘that behind the forest, off the path …. there is a brooding air of mystery, as if of waiting watchful sentience: a stillness, a holding of the breath’ (2) From an objective and probably self-interested analysis to a mindfulness of ‘presence’, a ‘beholding’. It all depended on what they ‘attended to’.
So it is for all of us. Our consciousness, our world in which we live as persons, will depend on what we attend to. In fact we help to create the world we consciously experience through what we attend to and what we do not attend to. There are common elements in this for all of us, both in what is ‘presented’ to us in our perceptions, but also in what we ‘represent’ to ourselves in our concepts and thinking. ‘Collective representations’ are ideas, images, feelings that we all share that are part of our life together within any social unit, be it family or nation or any other grouping.
Some ‘collective representations’ are empirical. In some way or other they enter our perceptual world, they are ‘presented’ to us, as well as being only in our minds as ‘representations’. Some start life as theoretical ideas that are believed collectively nonetheless; and then some empirical evidence comes through. The ‘God particle’, the Higg’s Bosun, is a classic example; where as Dark Matter and Dark Energy are still theoretical but given the sway of science are virtually ‘collective representations’. Increasingly they are thought about as real but as yet there is no empirical evidence at all. Doctrines and dogmas become ‘collective representations’, and that is how they can hold sway over a whole people. So can ‘false news’. It all depends on what authorities promulgate these ideas and concepts and help to sustain them collectively. And then we have our own experiences and our own unconscious life that inform and help to create our individual consciousness, and if Jung is right, and I think he is, this has both a personal dimension and a collective one.
Then to add to all this, Iain McGilchrist puts forward compelling evidence that the two hemispheres of our brains themselves attend in different and unsymmetrical ways. We are going to look at this more closely next month.
So the Wisdom Circle this month is about the importance of attention and attending in helping to determine the nature of our worlds in which we live, our consciousness, "the state of being aware of and responsive to one's surroundings." This is fundamental in accessing Wisdom and not only Knowledge.