Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Can there be Esoteric Knowledge?

Parallel to the standard 'exoteric' view of the state (whether of the established church, or of established science), there have long been other esoteric views about mind, spirituality and religion, that have been somewhat different, even radically different. Most of us feel that we are party to one or more of these esoteric perspectives, and, of those, most will also feel a considerable tension between these rare beliefs and those of our universities, industries and government. Furthermore, there are many apparent discrepancies between different esoteric schemes.

Our challenge is unify the inner and the outer, to find our integrity again. We have to creatively resolve, especially within ourselves, the tension between the disparate elements. Standard views will have to be considerably extended, and the esoteric themes will have to be developed into considerably more detail.

Fortunately, we have at least a few illustrious predecessors who give us indications of the way this could possibly be done, by telling us how they resolved these tensions. Here,  I begin with Emanuel Swedenborg.

From different religious and esoteric traditions, we hear general concepts such as that

  • ‘Humans are created in the image of God’, and
  • ‘As above, so below’,

but is there sufficient detail here? It is clear that if we are to develop a new science from these views, then we need considerably more detail about one or more of ‘God’, ‘above’ and/or ‘below’.

For example, if our principal view of the Divine as ‘an unknowable unity’, then it is not clear how to carry on to make a science. Conversely, if we view God as having arbitrary omnipotence, then ‘anything is possible’, and again a rational science is difficult to imagine. Alternatively, we can speculate endlessly, with enormous variation, to form rational schemes which describe the essential features of our physical world combined with some new spiritual features. To induce specific, workable and useful knowledge, I believe that we need some guidance from someone who already knows. Otherwise we are guessing in the dark.

Thus, again we are obliged to consider the knowledge and wisdom of some of our predecessors. We may consider this either as inspiration or revelation, but, whatever the source and whatever the means, we have to decide of ourselves which to consider. In this blog I am trying to develop and apply the knowledge presented by Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg is particularly useful because of his position as ‘rational visionary’ within the Western Christian tradition. Not that he leaves this tradition unchanged, but that, more clearly than does Plotinus for example, he explains in much detail the visionary and mystical contents of many of the outer forms of Christianity.

Are the ideas of theistic science common knowledge? Or are they esoteric? Are they part of ‘science of consciousness’? In the past, only those with esoteric interests have found these ideas. They are commonly only found by going beyond ‘literal meanings’ of religious, to various esoteric texts. But what we want should not be esoteric, but common knowledge! They should be part of everyone’s knowledge who is interested. Just as science is today: so they should be part of science, namely the science of consciousness.

Furthermore, they should not be esoteric because we are somehow ashamed of the new theories. We should be able to tell them to our neighbors without belittling them or their everyday efforts to be friendly, faithful, loving and useful.

We may intuitively agree with the above principles. But Swedenborg gives reasons for them all. Let us follow these reasons, and develop a theistic science to see what must be in the ‘science of consciousness’ for these principles to hold.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

HOW Mental Purposes can be Powerful in the World

We want to believe that purpose is powerful in human lives and probably in nature, but many of us also believe in a science which knows nothing about purposes, and which leaves little elbow room for purposes to have any effect!  We want to believe that purposes are powerful, but we do not really see how this can be so. What is really going on when purposes influence the world? What is the truth here?

We have deep problems as we try to form our sciences. We believe and intend that purposes are effective, but we do not really know how to connect this insight with our theoretical and empirical knowledge in the sciences. We may have a good idea how purpose makes its mark in the religious, social and psychological realms, but as yet we have no good idea how purpose can be effective in biology and physics. These two sciences are concerned with detail, and our details so far are missing. Here I seek first to justify this summary of our current predicament, and then to convey a new vision of how purposes may be powerful, and become real causes, in both the human and the natural worlds.

What does not exist cannot have any power. So, if a purpose is to have power, it must exist, or it must be related to a causal aspect of what does exist. Otherwise it would be a powerless epiphenomenon. Let us consider the preliminary possibility that only natural things exist, so that powerful purposes might be discoverable as aspects of natural causes.

Does nature itself act with a purpose? To form a precise question, consider nature according to accepted physical laws. Some physical laws portray something like ‘purpose’. There are laws of conservation of energy, laws of thermodynamics, and variational principles. All these laws appear to describe the reasons for the actual operation of nature.  Physicists say that ‘entropy must never decrease’, and that ‘nature seeks the least action’, because of laws like these. However, physicists have looked at the above laws, such as the variational principle, and emphasize that it is not the case that nature explores possibilities like humans do when thinking. In all cases, to ask for the power of purpose according to the physical sciences is a tall order, since physics knows little or nothing of those purposes we hold dear.

In another approach, many people believe that modern physics leaves small gaps through which purposes may yet creep in, by means of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and the indeterminism of quantum physics. Physicists from Eugene Wigner1 to Henry Stapp2 have suggested that mind can influence nature at the point of measurement, by means of choosing some preferred outcome. Others, such as John Polkinghorne3, suggest that indeterminism inherent in chaotic systems allows a similar process.

However, while quantum physics may be indeterministic about the detailed outcomes for some classes of microscopic events, namely decoherent measurements, it is not completely arbitrary. Rather, it makes very precise predictions for the probabilities of those outcomes, and, furthermore, the time evolution of these probabilities is completely deterministic. Purposes might allegedly choose when decohering measurements occur (as Stapp suggests), or perhaps change the probabilities of different outcomes. In the first case, the scope of influence is extremely limited, and hardly plausible as a means of expressing powerful purposes. In the second case, purposes would change the probability rules of quantum physics, in just the same way that they would have to change Newton's laws of motion if they were to influence classical systems. The long-term conservation of energy and momentum remains just as constraining as before. Modern quantum physics by itself, therefore, leaves only miniscule and insufficient gaps through which purposes may be effective.

So let us for a while suspend science’s natural cautiousness and its ‘methodological naturalism’, and consider the possibility of a new ‘science of purposes’: a new programme of research that includes and builds on modern science, though without its monist prejudices. We should not be timid or ashamed about this, or feel that we lose the ground we stand on. Perhaps scientists might worry that ‘anything goes’ if we do not stick with the foundations we know, so we will need an extended view with definite structural principles, and these should include (something like) current physics as a limiting case. We seek an account that allows purposes to be causes, while agreeing with the structures, events and processes that make up physics, chemistry, biochemistry and biology. There may possibly be disagreement only about the underlying causes.

This is of course, to start with, an intellectual exercise, but such an exercise has its uses. Many of us have seen evidence for powerful purposes: in ourselves, and elsewhere. But evidence for what, exactly? We need a detailed theory here, one that could be verified or refuted like other scientific theories, and fail or prevail. A theory would link disparate pieces of evidence together, and then we think we begin to properly understand. Parapsychology, for example, has stagnated from the lack of such a theory. A new theory would make predictions. In fact, many experiments only suggest themselves after a theory is under scrutiny. What is shameful is that we do not yet have even a possible such theory. This portrays a serious lack of imagination on the part of us theorists!  Let me tell you, therefore, what my vision suggests for such a theory. Then let us, like good scientists, judge by the results.

 This new account is based on several principles taken to be universal, some of which exist already in today’s science. Since I must be brief, consider the following points:
  1. Particular objects in the world exist, and all are composed of some substance in some form. Pure forms without substance cannot exist, whether they be information, mathematics or functions.
  2. All existing things have irreducible causal powers: probabilistic dispositions or propensities are an essential part of the nature of everything existing.
  3. For simplicity, take the substance of a thing not as something unknowable, but as the underlying disposition or propensity from which, according local structures, all its other dispositions and causal properties may be derived.
  4. Every microscopic operation consists of generative ‘discrete degrees’ (read à as ‘gives’):
     propensity itself à propensity in a distributed form à event.
  5. Each stage or degree is like a ‘part,’ and exists in its own manner.
The above principles are arguably the foundation of a realist interpretation of quantum physics, as discussed further below. The essential dispositions of an elementary particle are the propensities characterised by the charges, masses and other quantum numbers that determine its capacities and probabilities for interaction. Now for what is new:
  1. Each stage of a generative triple is itself composed of parts with this three-fold structure. Thus we have a recursive structure of embedded details like a fractal. The next level of detail, for example, would be an ennead of nine sub-degrees.
  2. Physics and nature as we know them are not the whole picture, but are in fact ‘merely’ the ‘event stage’ of a bigger picture operating with the same structural principles.
  3. The ‘big picture’ has a triple that is more commonly known as:
    ‘soul’ (propensity itself) à ‘mind’ (propensity in a form) à ‘body’ (visible events).
  4. At this global level, the ‘propensity’ should, if you are happy with this terminology, be more accurately termed ‘spirit’ or ‘love’, and only the ‘body’ stage regarded as ‘natural’ and visible to physics.
Perhaps scientists imagine that there is no need for this kind of scheme, but we are already suffering from a lack of precisely such universal ideas from philosophy. This so far is a relatively simple vision that, like a fractal, points to expanding vistas of complexity on closer examination. Unlike a fractal, this scheme points to expanding ranges of quality within. Let us see some details.

All stages are individually objects composed of some propensity (substance) in some form. This applies to ‘soul’ and ‘mind’ as well as to the natural world. Each is a really existing object (by principle 5) with causal powers (by principles 1 and 2), at one of the following stages:
  • The soul itself (by principle 6) has itself three ‘heavenly’ sub-degrees:
    ‘spiritual love’ à ‘wisdom’ à ‘faithfulness in action’.
  • The mind itself (similarly) has three ‘mental’ sub-degrees:
    ‘interior mind’ à ‘scientific discursive mind’ à sensorimotor mind.
    • Each of these has three parts, very probably as Jean Piaget4 and Erik Eriksson5 have begun to describe in their stages of cognitive and affective development.
  • The natural body itself has three ‘physical’ sub-degrees:
    pre-geometric processes à virtual processes à actual processes.
    • ‘Pre-geometric processes’ have themselves three parts:
      but as yet only speculation, in for example loop theories of quantum gravity.
    • ‘Virtual processes’ have themselves three parts:
      Lagrangian variational à virtual fields à coherent virtual events.
    • ‘Actual processes’ have themselves three parts:
      Energy operator (Hamiltonian) à wave function à decoherent actual events.
The above is a structure of recursively embedded discrete degrees that could be expanded upon in much more detail. Consider some degrees as examples.

The final triple for ‘actual processes’ shows the operation of the Schrödinger equation and decoherence, the most basic dynamism of quantum physics. Physical energy is active, so is represented as a mathematical operator which generates the space and time distribution of the wave function as constrained by initial conditions. This distributed wave function, after some finite time, produces actual events as the selection of one outcome among many ‘decoherent alternatives,’ as constrained by previous selections. The precise nature of these selection events is so far only known in rather extreme cases involving medium and large objects, so there is new physics to be discovered here. 

The overall structure of the ‘physical degree’ is currently much debated among physicists. There is general agreement that the energy and wave functions appearing in the ‘actual process’ degree are not simple, because kinetic energy from mass and potential energy from interactions are both dynamically generated by the virtual processes of quantum field theories. However, there is no good agreement about the most fundamental stage of what gives rise to these virtual processes, and, especially, what gives rise to the space-time background for virtual events. I mention loop quantum gravity, as one attempt to explain how space-time areas and volumes might be produced. There are many speculations about quantum gravity, and how space-time might be dynamically generated, but there is little agreement even about what such a theory should look like. I hope that my present scheme would enable some general principles to be elucidated that might guide theory formation, and enable eventually a realistic interpretation to be found.

The triple for ‘mental sub-degrees’ shows the steps by which deep motivational principles in the interior mind – purposes – lead to action. These purposes come to fruition by means of discursive investigation of ideas, plans and alternatives in the more exterior ‘scientific discursive mind’, as constrained by existing intellectual abilities. The actions by the sensorimotor mind select one outcome among many, as constrained by bodily conditions. Moreover, psychologists who have investigated perceptive and executive processes within the sensorimotor stage realise that these are far from simple. What we see, for example, is very much influenced by our expectations and desires, as well as being constrained, of course, by what is in front of our eyes. They would agree that there are subsidiary degrees of expectation, presentation of alternatives and resolution even during ‘simple’ sensations.
In order to encompass the above examples of operation in both physics and psychology, let me postulate the following dynamical principle to apply universally at all levels.  The basic principle could be called ‘conditional generative causation’, according to which:
  1. Changed propensities in each degree are generated by prior propensities that act according to what is already actual in both the current and subsequent degrees.
Each degree is therefore activated by ‘influx’ from prior stages, while the present range of actualities constrains what influx is possible, and also how propensities change at those prior degrees. The new science of purposes sees, therefore, a whole multi-level structure linked everywhere together asymmetrically: by influx from ‘above’, and by constraints from ‘below’. The propensities (loves) of the very first degree are constant. The final degree of actual selections in nature has no potentialities for changes to itself, so it is the cumulative ‘bottom line’ that is fixed and permanent as history, and therefore acts as kind of ultimate container to all previous degrees.

Note that there are detailed constituent events in both of any pair of prior and produced degrees. Because of all these microscopic events, there will be successive influx from the prior degree reciprocating with sequential constraints by the produced degree, and this alternation will repeat itself longest if the patterns of the constituent events are most similar in the two degrees, and they do not get out of step. By a sort of survival of the fittest, this in the long term gives rise tocorrespondences of function between adjacent degrees. We may conversely say that the functions in distinct degrees sustain each other in a kind of resonance when they are most similar in the patterns of their constituent events. Our minds and brains sustain each other by influx and constraint, for example, when psychological and neural processes are most nearly isomorphic to each other in their functional description. There is much detail here to be learned by derivation and observation, not just in mind-brain functioning but throughout living organisms. Discrete degrees are not of a continuous substance with each other, but, we see, have functional relations that make them ‘contiguously intertwined’ at all stages, and at all levels of detail at each stage.

How, in this vision, do we link with the physical degrees, and how do purposes work in the apparent face of physical laws? Here, they do not squeeze through any gaps in our explanations, but work through the normal processes by means of which physical propensities are all originally generated from prior loves. They follow this flow of influx, modifying it as allowed by the constraints of what is already fixed at each stage.

For physics, this means that the ‘deepest principles’, such as the Lagrangian subject to variations, and presumably the even deeper theories of quantum gravity, will have certain parameters that depend on prior discrete degrees in the rational and sensory minds.  This is a new result in our science of purposes. Does it break physical laws? First note that, on the realist position here of objects being composed of all their propensities, physical laws are identical with the description of how these propensities in fact operate. Quantum electrodynamics, for example, describes how electrons of certain masses and charges interact with each other and with photons. We need another law to say how the propensities may themselves vary, or not vary. The details are part of the general theory, still to be found, of pre-geometric processes. Do we know for sure that the electron charge is constant? Physicists have in fact imagined slow variations of this (the fine structure constant), but are we allowed to speculate about local more rapid variations on neurological time scales? The meaning of the laws of conservation of energy and momentum would have to be reconsidered in such a situation. Presumably, physicists would conclude that the system in question could not be considered sufficiently isolated.

A good new theory must allow a natural world that is not an illusion, nor just the product of human minds. It should also be consonant with our best accounts of psychology and theology. The power of purpose is not omnipotent, as in some New Age stories, for in fact there is often resistance to the elaboration of purposes. A good theory must explain the phenomenon of ‘contrary tendencies’: of limitations as well as of empowerments, and of bitterness as well as love.

Purposes, in this vision, are produced by particular forms of love – particular affections – as these generate the next stage of thought, and begin to be worked out in particular forms or ideas in the mind.  We would thus distinguish the loves of good things from the purpose or intention that works towards achieving them.

Purposes therefore become powerful by working through, and modifying, the normal routes by which loves and thoughts work through all of the pre-geometric and virtual stages towards actual effects. Depending on what has already actually happened in ourselves and in nature, purposes generate thoughts and plans, and then also physical potentialities for the desired actual outcomes. Sometimes historical actualities facilitate purposes by providing the materials for the accomplishment of the end. At other times, they may slightly (or sharply) limit the range of possible actions, and thwart the working out of prior purposes. Such frustrating situations must be worked around, or limited cooperation sought, since history cannot be abolished. That is the deepest challenge for those being led by good purposes.
A theistic theory may possibly be based on the above scheme. This would take all of the above, but now, as activated by an ‘influx of propensities’ from the Divine Source in a manner similar to the way that discrete degrees sustain each other. This would also explain how to sustain inanimate nature apart from living creatures. The whole soul/mind/nature ‘created structure’ would not be self-sustaining, but all its processes and sub-processes would come themselves to have eventually a functional form that is an image and likeness of the details of the Source. The Divine would presumably be a unity that has infinite and perfect details. It (He) would again not be of a continuous substance with creation, but of a distinct discrete degree that is yet intertwined and ultimately sustaining at all stages of every particular finite object, “rewarding each one according to his ways and according to the fruit of his deeds”6. He “sends rain on the just and on the unjust”7, and we only vary in our reception depending on how our historical actions give present constraints. This may be already known to many of us – the challenge is to enable connections with the rest of our knowledge about nature as well as about people.

 Maybe it is too soon for these kinds of ideas to be accepted in science, since not all the simpler options have been examined and found wanting.  My aim here, therefore, is to demonstrate in a sort of existence proof that it is possible to have a scientific theory of mind and purposes which is coherent with good physics and good psychology, while also being spiritually plausible. This is not a mathematical theory, but is more an elucidation of what general ideas could replace those of ‘particle’, ‘wave’ and ‘field’ to describe the substances by means of which we interpret our equations, and what kinds of structural and dynamical relations the new substances should have.

Where do we have to search in history for a vision along these lines? Antonio Damasio8 recently found fruitful similarities with the works of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) for his vision of unified mind and body. I do not need to go back that far, as I find the essentials of the above ideas already in the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). With Swedenborg9, the ideas are firmly embedded in a radical reworking of Christian theology, philosophy and psychology, and we need now at least similar concepts to help form new scientific theories.

The ideas discussed here should not just remain in books long ago published, in our imaginations, or in short essays of today, but must be expanded and examined for explanatory and predictive power, to enable the development of a new science of purposes. Empirical testing then becomes practicable. Then, and only then, will we have demonstrated how purpose in a vision has power in a life, to struggle against (and with) the limitations of what already exists and who we already are. Then, to the benefit of all society, we will know for sure how purposes in our lives have power within both our human and our natural worlds.

 For more detail, see my book introduced at
  1. E. Wigner, “Remarks on the Mind-Body Question,” pp. 284-302 in The Scientist Speculates, I.J. Good (ed) Basic Books, 1962.
  2. H. Stapp, Mind, Matter and Quantum Mechanics, Springer-Verlag, 1993.
  3. J. Polkinghorne,  “Chaos Theory and Divine Action,” In Religion and Science: History, Method, Dialogue, ed. W. M. Richardson and W. J. Wildman, Routledge, 1996
  4. J. Piaget. The Language and Thought of the Child, Harcourt, Brace & World. 1926;
    J. Piaget, Play, Dreams, and Imitation in Childhood, Norton, 1962.
  5. E. Erikson. Childhood and Society, Norton, 1963.
  6. Jeremiah 32:19
  7. Matthew 5:45
  8. A. Damasio, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, Harvest Books, 2003.
  9. E. Swedenborg, Divine Love and Wisdom, 1763: Swedenborg Foundation, 2003

Friday, March 9, 2012

How Cohen's Nondualism is almost Theism

We continue to look at some statements of traditional nondualism that still appear in Cohen's presentation, and consider how they may be yet ever-so-slightly changed so as to be consistent with theism, while keeping a spiritual impact in form very similar to his original intention. This concludes the discussion started here and continued here.

That's when there is no longer any distinction between the inherent perfection of the Self Absolute and that response that is its expression in the world of time and space [p. 17] According to theism, everything good in the world of time and space is in fact belonging to God: it appears as if it is our own when we perform good act, but we must never claim ownership for ourselves and to become 'as God' (Gen 3:5).

To the question ''The ego can claim enlightenment for itself?'', Cohen replies ''Yes, and unfortunately it often does. But if the individual's motivation is pure, if there is a foundation of deep and profound humility, then the realization will not be corrupted by the desire for personal gain, and that's very rare indeed.'' [p. 21] It is clear that nondualism itself has nothing in its logic to stop 'atman = Atman = Brahman' to be reversed as 'Brahman = Atman = atman', and the Infinite claimed for oneself. Cohen's response points to lack of personal gain, but this response begins to make sense in a theistic framework where there is a distinction between Divine and personal objectives.

Cohen describes an early experience as ''that all of life is One that the whole universe and everything that exists within it, seen and unseen, known and unknown, is one conscious, glorious, intelligent Being that is self-aware. Its nature is Love but it is a love that is so overwhelming in its intensity that even to experience the faintest hint of it is almost unbearable for the human body. I saw in that moment that there is no such thing as death, that life has no beginning and no end.'' [p. 31-32] This wonderful experience is correct in almost every detail to the theist, only one identification needs to be remade. This, that really it is 'the life of the whole universe and everything that exists within it ... is one Being that is self-aware'. Since the Divine Life everywhere permeates and sustains the whole universe, one may be forgiven for missing the distinction between what is Divine (essentially infinite & overwhelming) and what is created (essentially finite & underwhelming).

Cohen sees our representation of the Divine as like a mirror [p. 45] which should be spotless. In theism, the manner of representation of the Infinite in the finite creature is more complicated than as a mirror, and in fact takes a whole biological body with all its myriad structures and functions to represent God properly. Discussion of this, however, is beyond the scope of this essay.

Our True Self is always paying attention in a way that we are usually not conscious of. And when we discover this Self - this mysterious depth that is already awake - we find that which is miraculous. We discover who we truly are. It's the Self that we cannot see with the mind, but when we experience it directly we will understand what it means to be enlightened. And when we liberate this Self that mysteriously sees and knows what we cannot see or know with our conscious mind, we will begin to respond to life in ways that, left to our own devices, we never could. [p. 76] Cohen is here using the phrase 'True Self' to refer to what theists call the internal spiritual mind. Most of us only come to this state after death, but then Cohen's description is remarkably accurate in describing a new 'heavenly proprium' (as Swedenborg calls it) that cannot be seen by our existing natural minds.

Cohen talks of the revelation of ''true conscience'', which is the unexpected manifestation of intense compassion. True conscience emerges from that very same mysterious part of our own self; it expresses a kind of care that the personality could never understand. It's the true heart, which is not the heart that we normally identify with the personality. [p. 77] Again we see Cohen expressing views that could not have come from traditional nondualism, but which clearly come from a person (or God) who works in a theistic framework. As he says beautifully, ''The degree to which we are able to liberate ourselves from self-concern will be the degree to which we are able to recognize that our true nature as human beings is love.'' He is only mistaken in thinking ''It happens automatically. This is one of the miracles of human life.'' It is well known that the God of theism mostly operates behind the scenes.

In the impersonal view, which is the enlightened perspective, the ego and the entire personal world that it creates is not seen as being real. That world is revealed to be empty of meaning, value, and purpose, ultimately serving only to perpetuate the existence of a separate self that doesn't really exist. [p. 104]Cohen speaks from the nondualist tradition, but this is immediately contradicted by the next page, which has a purely theistic observation: When that impersonal Self Absolute begins to emerge in consciousness as a living presence, the ''personal," instead of being the impenetrable fortress that the separate ego abides in, becomes a permeable vessel through which the impersonal Self Absolute seeps into this world. [p. 105] It is the idea of theism that the internal spiritual self can be modelled as a vessel that receives the Divine sustaining influx. This useful idea of a 'permeable vessel' is a development of strict nondualism toward the ideas of theism.

Cohen agrees that ''there's really nothing personal in either the absolute or the relative dimension of our experience,'' [p. 105] and insists that the ''enlightened perspective always points us to that which is singular, empty of anything personal, and free from any and all motivation that comes from ego.'' [p. 105] This reveals a failure to recognise the true nature of person as constituted by love and wisdom, a constitution that in theism applies primarily to God as the Lord, and then derivatively to us as persons sustained by influx. There is no 'ego compulsion' in the Lord, and when we conform ourselves to his life there need be hardly any in us either.

Cohen seeks ''That place of absolute singularity [which] is where true freedom and enlightened understanding are found. That is where the relative and the Absolute, the personal and the impersonal, merge and become one. In that mysterious place, they become one unbroken universal unfolding that is free from the bondage of duality.'' [p. 107]  Here, lacking the conceptual means to discriminate Source and creation, or between personal loves and Infinite Loves, Cohen has to resort to paradoxical assertions to make his point.

Cohen ends with the contradiction mentioned earlier, that ''This apparent paradox - that everything is already perfect and everything must change - is the complete picture of what enlightenment is all about.'' [p. 115] He says that paradoxes for the unenlightened mind may still be in his system, because ''the mind exists in and as duality itself, and therefore, by definition, cannot see beyond it to that place where no duality exists'' [p. 116]. Swedenborg as a theist agrees that a full understanding of the genuine truth concerning spirit and nature awaits the enlightenment at comes from the eventual awakening of our inner spiritual mind, but would insist that partial or 'apparent truths' may still enter our understanding even now, and may usefully portray spiritual reality without any essential contradictions. This allows some kind of rational understanding of spirituality, even if it is still incomplete. Sometimes, theistic portrayal may be more indirect, using representations in the structure of Sacred Scriptures, in order to allow a more external understanding.

We see from this examination of Cohen's book ''Living Enlightenment'' that the actual practice and understanding of 'nondual discipleship' requires ideas that go beyond traditional Advaita Vedanta. Many of these ideas turn out to be very similar to those advocated for example by Emanuel Swedenborg in his rational account of how theism should be understood. In that case, there is no need to hid behind paradoxes.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The 'nondualism' of Andrew Cohen

In the previous post, I raised the question of how nondualism can function as an ontology and a religion. Now I want to examine how a modern nondualist practitioner Andrew Cohen addresses these issues, and consider his relation to theism.

An a recent Facebook post, Cohen writes:
In the way that I use the term, God is the energy and intelligence that created the universe and is driving the process forward in every moment. And that energy and intelligence cares desperately about change and innovation and the release of potentials that have not existed before. So it is constantly looking for portals through which it can enter into the world and consciously engage with creating its next step. As conscious human beings who have been blessed with self-awareness and free agency, we are those portals. Each and every one of us is potentially a portal for the energy and intelligence that created the universe. You have a human body and a human personality, but from a certain perspective these are merely sheathes through which the cosmic creativity can shine. From the vantage point of the creative process, your human form, your personality, with all the particulars of your own history, your personal relationships, and your life circumstances, is a vessel for an infinite process that is trying to go somewhere. How conscious are you of this? How conscious is any one of us that in this very moment the cosmic process that produced us is now dependent on us to take its next step?
What is interesting to me is how Cohen may have started with non-dualism, but is moving towards theism. All the talk of ' your human form, your personality, with all the particulars of your own history, your personal relationships, and your life circumstances, is a vessel for an infinite process that is trying to go somewhere.' suggests very much the picture of theism, wherein we life by means of a life that only comes from God. Admittedly, he is careful to say "from a certain perspective".

Living Enlightenment

The recent book 'Living Enlightenment' by Andrew Cohen attempts to make it clear to the lay person what it means to be following the nondualist philosophy, and addresses many of the problems generally found with this view. While Cohen starts from a nondualist framework, and wants to keep that name and agree with writers such as Ken Wilbur, it has been recognized that he has some differences with traditional nondualism. Thus, Cohen develops the philosophy in ways which we need to examine in more detail, but still sometimes he resorts to asserting what are clear contradictions, such as [p. 115] ''everything is perfect and everything must change''. His initial response is that this is only a contradiction 'to the unenlightened mind', and he seems happy to remain in such a paradox. Since one of the virtues of theism compared with nondualism is that it does not attempt to include paradoxes, but rather seeks deeper understanding through more redefined discrimination, the issues which lead to these paradoxes and apparent paradoxes also deserve particular attention.

Let us look at some of the practical advice that a modern nondualist such as Cohen teaches, and consider each of them also from the theistic viewpoint. In the order in which they appear in the book, they are: 

Our personality will spontaneously become a vehicle for the manifestation of that One Self in time. The individual self will become infused with the presence of a powerful and transcendent singularity and will become a dynamic living expression of that which is absolute in this world. [p. 9] Here, as will be discussed more below, it is clear the individual person does not disappear in practical nondualism, but becomes a manifestation infused with the presence of God (the One Self) in a way that is recognisably theistic. The theist may quibble with 'spontaneously' since all the detailed stages necessary known to be necessary, may change 'manifestation' to 'creation', and may remember that the 'absolute in this world' is the immanent presence of God whose nature is Absolute and not 'in this world'. 

On the most fundamental, existential level, your questions will be answered because when your heart breaks, you experience an inconceivable, mind-transcending love that reveals a breathtaking mystery that abides beyond time [p. 16] Cohen is clearly talking about his and others experience of the Infinite Absolute Love. But this is in the God of theism, as there is little in original presentation of Advaita Vedanta that even points to Love at all. It is the alternative bhakti traditions which talk of love, and allowed to have residual dualisms, since it is acknowledged that love must always be love of others, never love of oneself (as theism also reminds us). 

As long as we are blindly attached to and unconsciously enslaved by any idea that is the expression of the fears and desires of the individual or collective ego, which is the mind of the world that we're living in, it will be impossible to live a truly liberated human life. [p. 26] The theistic advocate could not agree more, and may only differ in the means to correct this situation. 

The purification of the vehicle - purification of the fundamental motives, conscious and unconscious, in the personality. Only then will we be truly fit to represent the glory of God without wanting even a small fraction of it for ourselves. [p. 42] This 'purification of fundamental motives' summarises rather precisely our task within theism. The Theistic God is a God of Love, and he relates to us by means of our loves: it is there in particular where we must purify ourselves. And talk of 'representing the glory of God' is again pure theism, since this is the the result of being successfully conformed to receive Love and Wisdom: we become 'an image and likeness of God', a representation. 

As strange as it sounds, when some people experience enlightened consciousness, it's not uncommon for them to conclude that now, because they are free, what they do doesn't matter. Some have even said things like: ''What the personality says and what the body does is of no significance whatsoever - it's all an illusion anyway. The only thing that is real is the Self Absolute.'' [p. 42] Here, Cohen address the 'moral issue' of nondualism mentioned earlier. His answer is in part: ''the spiritual dimension of life only becomes apparent through ... profound human transformation. That unborn, unseen reality must become manifest as you and I, so that this world that we're living in will literally be transformed by it. And the only way that can happen is if you and I become a living expression of that mystery and glory, that One without a second, in this world. One without a second means undivided. When there's only One without a second, then only one thing will be expressed, and that is Love.''. This is a good theistic presentation, if 'expression' is again 'representation' rather than identity (as it may have been read by nondualists), and if 'undivided' applied to God does not forbid His sustaining of creation. Still, the essential feature for Cohen, as for religious theists, is that ''[most of] spiritual practice is about the purification of our motivation in relationship to the human experience. That means we make the noble effort to face and come to terms with the destructive nature of our petty self-concern''. Cohen continues ''... in light of our true identity as One without a second'', but theists merely change this to '... in light of our true identity as sustained by the One without a second'.

Cohen says ''The goal is to get to that point where the personality naturally and spontaneously expresses a perfect and seamless consistency of pure motivation. That means nothing is hidden, there are no secrets, and nothing is personal.'' [p. 42] and later ''with a ruthless integrity we must scrutinize our own motives and make the honest effort to find out what our relationship to life is really based on'' [p. 47] which again summarise the spiritual tasks of the theist in the reformation and regeneration of the lives by means of some self-examination. This is provided 'personal' here is taken to refer to ego concerns (selfish loves), rather than even the very existence of a person. 

The descent of Grace is not sufficient by itself, Cohen explains, because the conscious experience of divine presence usually grants us only a temporary respite from the ego's endless needs and concerns. That kind of experience, as inspiring as it may be, is just not enough to set us free. [p. 59] This again is the theistic view; that grace may remind us of our tasks ahead by giving us a foretaste, but that the real task consists of living a life full of faith and love. 

As long as there is a human being who is walking and talking, there is always going to be someone in there who is making the choices. ... As long as there is a human being who is walking and talking, there is always going to be someone in there who is making the choices. [p. 63] Here, Cohen puts his finger on an essential aspect of theism: that the Divine sustenance leaves us yet free to make our own choices and decisions. We are all given (at least) rationality and freedom to think and choose as if by ourselves. It is these decisions which make us human, according to both Cohen and theism, and therefore the regeneration of this humanity must begin by taking responsibility for our choices. 

Cohen distinguishes though and action: ''the door to liberation is found when you discover that the mere presence of thought has no power whatsoever unless you believe that it does. '' [p. 71] In theism, this statement becomes true if we say '... unless you think from any intention ', which is to bring the thought into the will. (In Cohen's book there is not a fully fledged account of will and understanding.) In theism, one of the spiritual practices is to view (but not adopt) the multitude of thoughts that continually bubble into our minds. We should examine them all, and only allow good thoughts into our intention (the others we have to tell to get lost!) Cohen summarises part of this by saying ''The right relationship with thought is one in which we identify only with those thoughts that are in line with our desire to be free.'' [p. 72]. In fact, we can apply this to the thoughts that are in line with any desire for what is good. 

Cohen comes down hard on the Ego: ''Ego is the one and only obstacle to enlightenment. Ego is pride. Ego is arrogant self-importance. Ego is the deeply mechanical and profoundly compulsive need to always see the personal self as being separate from others, separate from the world, separate from the whole universe. Ego is a love-denying obsession with separation, narcissism, and self-concern.'' [p. 81] Furthermore, he says that ''it is only when we take the enormous risk of not looking into it, of leaving the ego completely alone, that we will finally be able to see it for what it really is.'' [p. 84] Here, Cohen is apparently paradoxical, since earlier (p. 42) he talks of purifying our fundamental motives, and if these are 'conscious and unconscious' then clearly some of them are connected to the ego. Cohen admits that his admonition to 'leave the Ego completely alone' stems in part from 'the kind of teacher that I am' [p. 85], and indeed the theistic viewpoint is that the reformation and regeneration of the human person is a process of many steps that begins by using ego loves (such as curiosity, ambition and the love of knowledge) that may ultimately be discarded. Cohen speaks from the nondualist tradition when he speaks of 'instantaneous enlightenment', yet even in his own life it is clear that this was not permanently won overnight.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Comparing Nondualism with Theism (I)

Nondualism has attracted renewed interest in the West in recent decades, through the introduction of esoteric Hindu & Buddhist religious philosophies, and with the support of writers such as Ken Wilber and leaders such as Andrew Cohen. Traditional nondualism, in its purest form, is generally taken to be that of Shankara, and Georg Feuerstein summarizes the advaita realization as follows: ''The manifold universe is, in truth, a Single Reality. There is only one Great Being, which the sages call Brahman, in which all the countless forms of existence reside. That Great Being is utter Consciousness, and It is the very Essence, or Self (Atman) of all beings."

These teachings are themselves to contribute to enlightenment, a spiritual transformation in which the individual is profoundly changed, to have some kind of liberation from 'the bondage of conditioned existence'. These transformations may be sudden or progressive, and those to whom it happens typically want to share their fortune with others to lead in them in the same direction, with the aim, inter alia, of easing them of their ignorance and troubles.

The Moral Problem with Nondualism

The well-known 'moral objection' to nondualism is that it does not tell the unenlightened (or enlightened, for that matter) how to live. Classically, the world is recognized as being either completely unreal, or only partially real, and the nondual teaching does not in any way address the ethical or moral dimension of human life. Tradition in Hinduism deals with this issue by restricting the individuals to whom the absolute teachings were revealed to those who have already fulfilled demanding moral and ethical qualifications for discipleship. And even more than that, Shankara himself states that the qualifications for discipleship also demanded an extraordinary degree of detachment from and transcendence of worldly desires.

Now, however, nondualism is available to everyone who can browse bookshops, libraries and websites. Not a few these days are attracted to nondualism precisely because of the disconnection between spirituality and morality, as they see thereby the possibility of some kind of salvation for everyone (including themselves) irrespective of their own moral life. However, a modern sensibility has been brought to bear on the subject, one that has been influenced by Christianity, with the result that nondualism as taught today has developed in interesting and subtle ways. The purpose of this essay is to examine those changes, and compare them with what might be expected from a theistic perspective.

Before proceeding, I remind you of the relevant essentials of what it means for a view to be theistic. Theism is the view that there is an Infinite Absolute that is the source, sustainer and redeemer of creation. In particular this Source is Love and Wisdom themselves, and just as these are the essence of human spirituality, in the Source they are the essence of a Divine Human nature, who is the Lord God of the whole universe. Rational creatures living on planets are created to be distinct of the Source, but are sustained and saved in their lives by conforming themselves to receive the Love and Wisdom from the Absolute, not just on Earth but everywhere necessary, in order to perform good uses from love by means of wisdom. Such an account is derived in most part from Emanuel Swedenborg's "Divine Love and Wisdom", where it is intended to be a account that is both rational and empirical, and which can be understood eventually without paradoxes.

Is the Life of a Nondualist Paradoxical?

Avoiding paradoxes where possible is a good thing for two reasons. Most fundamentally, it is desirable because, from a contradiction, it is strictly possible to logically derive any thesis whatsoever. The only way to avoid that is to have further qualifying conditions; so why not make the situation clear from the beginning? The second reason is that the promulgation of ideas is much easier when they do not appear to have visible inconsistencies.

The next post will examine how a modern nondualist practitioner Andrew Cohen addresses these issues.