Reality and self

I came across the following the other day in an article by Humberto Maturana.

I claim that the most central question that humanity faces today is the question of reality. And I claim that this is so, regardless of whether we are aware of it or not, because every thing that we do as modern human beings, either as individuals, as social entities, or as members of some non-social human community, entails an explicit or implicit answer to this question as a foundation for the rational arguments that we use to justify our actions. Even nature, as we bring it forth in the course of our lives as human beings, depends on our explicit or implicit answer to this question. Indeed, I claim that the explicit or implicit answer that each one of us gives to the question of reality determines how he or she lives his or her life, as well as his or her acceptance or rejection of other human beings in the network of social and non-social systems that he or she integrates. 

[Maturana, Humberto R. 1988, Reality: The Search for Objectivity or the Quest for a Compelling Argument, The Irish Journal of Psychology  Volume 9 , no.1]

I agree with this. Maturana goes on to say, ‘that this question can be properly answered only if observing and cognition are explained as biological phenomena generated through the operation of the observer as a living human being.’  I do not agree with this. There is a ferocious epistemological question here. How do we know, and what do we know, and can we be certain about either? I don’t know the answer to this but I have a lot of sympathy for Descartes’ assertion that we have to trust that God would not deceive us. That is not much use for someone who does not believe in God but for me at this moment it is all that I have got; that, and the assertion by many, many others that they have experienced the ultimately Real.

I believe that the Reality that is God transcends the empirical world of our experience. This reality is also immanent. Whether reality is seen to be pen-en-henic or pan-en-theistic probably depends on the tradition from which one approaches it – Eastern or Western. There is a problem however. As Francisco Varela puts it, ‘Reality, as we know it, is not separable from we, that know it; we, as knowers are not independent of the reality we know’ [Varela & Goguen, 1978, p. 320] Is what we know, therefore, only the empirical reality of sensory experience? Or, is it possible to know the Ultimately Real? Since God is immanent I believe we can come to know him, that he dwells within the real me – or, to put it in a less egocentric way, that I am in Him.

It is this ‘dwelling within the real me’ that I want to come to grips with. All I know is the phenomenal me and what the phenomenal me experiences. The phenomenal me is the self which is dominant at the moment of speaking. It is becoming increasingly clear to me that the conscious self is a constantly changing chimera. As I said before, each memory sequence, or time-slice, has its appropriate self. All these selves share common characteristics, some more, some less, but each is nonetheless distinct. This becomes very clear when meditating. When the concentration on the breath becomes intense enough the observer is distanced from the memories, the thought-trains and the inner dialogues that continually arise. These are seen in perspective and each has a self which is not the observer. When the concentration is particularly intense the self that is the observer disappears and there is simply breathing. The self, me, is relational. It is always engaged in a dialogue – inner, outer, both. Hence there is always a hiatus between the speaker and the listener, even when they are the same person. That space, or aidagara, allows change. The reflecting back of the experience permits discrimination, categorisation and judgement. This in turn contributes to the initiation of a response that evokes a new experience. This is the dialectic of the phenomenal self. It moulds and is moulded by its dialogue with experience.

Since writing this I have come across the following in D’Aquili and Newberg:

We suggest that the mind/brain is set up in such a way that there is one primary working circuit, or, when incorporated into a psychological perspective, a primary ego circuit. This circuit comprises our sensory input areas, our input analysis areas, and our output processing areas…The most complex part of the circuit is probably the input analysis since this includes memory of past experience, emotional input, cultural norms, logic and any other parts of the mind/brain that we bring to our analysis of sensory input… [I]t is also the primary circuit that is involved in the development of consciousness. For us to generate consciousness we must somehow project ourselves outward, which we may do by through our behaviours, our language, or even internally by ‘talking to ourselves’. This final way is important since it is an internal projection of our self within our own mind/brain. This output is then perceived by our senses as a new input, which in turn is analysed and identified as self. The more this self is projected outwards the more we are able to perceive its existence. All of this projecting and perceiving occurs within the confines of the primary circuit. Specifically, the mind/brain is aware that it is projecting something. If this projection correlates with the input, then we state that the input must have come from us and we identify the input as originally generated by our self. This self is distinguished from the rest of the outside world because we do not identify all input as coming from our self… There seems to be a self-resonance that is required for the development of consciousness. As the cycle continues, things such as memory, past emotions and behaviours all become incorporated into what we perceive to be our self.[D’Aquili E. and Newberg A. B. 1999, The Mystical Mind, Fortress Press, Min
neapolis p. 62ff]

There are what D’Aquili and Newberg call secondary circuits, some of which may underlie only one thought. ‘Others might underlie a huge array of emotions, of thoughts and behaviours. These secondary circuits are usually not immediately available to the primary circuit.’ What they do not say, but it is perhaps implicit in his description of the mechanism, is that this self is not some fixed and permanent entity like a soul. Not only is it constantly changing in response to the fluid experience of a changing environment but different situations, different relationships, evoke different selves. The description of the projection of self to self above implies a certain distance between the projection and the perception. In practice this distance does not normally exist. The experience of introspection is subjective. Even the inner dialogues are subject to subject. The transition, therefore, from the subjective experience of Self-a to the subjective experience of Self-b is not perceptible except in retrospect. Even then it is not the transition which is remembered but the contrast between the memory of Self-a and the memory of Self-b. These are usually seen not as different selves but as different modes of the same self.

However, in meditation the centre of awareness is focused on, in my case, the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. The subject is the experience of breathing. On the periphery of awareness are the inner dialogues, voices, images, emotions and hypnogogic dreams. They come and go according to the intensity of the focus of awareness on the breathing. They are intensely attractive and the slightest weakening of the focus is enough to draw the attention away and one is immediately the subject of the dialogue, or a fantasy. This leads me to wonder whether there is a fundamental undifferentiated subject, the experiencer. The self is relational, i.e. it only exists as one pole of a reciprocal relationship. The original undifferentiated subject of experience is moulded and shaped in the dynamic reciprocity of the experience of the other. This then colours all future experience. If we accept Mead’s analysis of ‘I’ and ‘me’ each succeeding self is the child of the previous one, inheriting a predisposition for a particular worldview and attitude towards the other – whether personal or impersonal.  It is not normally possible to get back to the original undifferentiated subject. Even in meditation it is achieved only after long and intense concentration and then fleetingly. In order to do it one has to withdraw from all contact with others, actual and imaginary, and from the inner dialogue with self. Once there one has a baseline. The self is seen to be conditional and relative.  The emotions, which can sometimes achieve an absolute dominance, are seen in perspective. Apart from glimpses of the void this is as far as I have got. 

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