Dialectical Spiritualism: the Synthetic Elegance of Pantheism — Chapter 1: Matter and Mind

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DIALECTICAL SPIRITUALISM: THE SYNTHETIC ELEGANCE OF PANTHEISM

Introduction / Postulates / Chapter 1

CHAPTER 1–Matter and Mind

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” — Carl Sagan

Now, let’s explore what this all means in terms of the non-duality of matter and mind.  Matter and Spirit will be examined later.

Matter designates the “isness” of a phenomenon: its form and its measurable qualities in a static state. The periodic table of elements is its supreme image. (Please note that I am not undertaking the fool’s errand of trying to define precisely what matter is, which even ardent materialists have not been able to do. For the purposes of this exploration, it is sufficient to grasp the nominal significance of matter as that which exhibits finite and measurable proportions. This may include energy, force, and spacetime, as well as qualities like mass and volume.)  

The material isness of a phenomenon is independent of observation and thought, with an objective physical presence suggesting some degree of constancy. This presence is linear in nature, and by that I mean that it is entirely dependent upon isolation to a specific point in linear spacetime, because at another time its form and measurable qualities will be different. What is the physical reality of a tree, for instance, before the seed from which it came was produced by another tree, or after it has fallen and decomposed into the ground?  So if I am describing the material reality of the poplar tree I see across a parking lot right now, I must be clear that I am seeing it in this moment and not 100 years ago, or even four months ago when it had no leaves.

Strange as it may seem at first, without that isolation to a particular moment, there is no reason to attribute physical qualities to any particular point in space. Isness would indeed not exist. The “stuff” of the universe would not be stuff as we know it. Quality itself would be more capricious than a quark, more ephemeral than a dream.

In other words, in order for matter to have any useful meaning, it requires the ability to create a freeze frame moment in a dynamic, constantly flowing process of change. There will be more to say about what constitutes that ability, but rest assured, it does not require a self-conscious observer. We will not be trading materialism in for its equally flawed counterpart, idealism.

When those frames contain a consistent form and set of measurable qualities (not identical, but consistent), we can say that a material phenomenon occupies spacetime in that location and for that duration. While the old axiom of Heraclitus remains true —“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”– there is, for a time, an object constancy to the riparian flow and its human visitor that suggests their materiality, even if the flow must be chopped into a constant series of frames to derive isness. (Think of a line chart showing the flood stage measurements of a river over several days, or hours of a day, at a certain point. Each reading is a unique state of the singular isness of the river, which does not disappear between readings, and despite the fact that every water molecule measured yesterday, or five minutes ago, is now somewhere else. The human body changes more slowly, and a mountain even more so, but the principle is the same.)   

In the classic philosophical puzzle “If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”, matter is the part that few people ever question: the tree in the woods [1]. Unlike the sound, which is an experience of the physical exchange between the players in the falling event and a subjective hearer, the tree is assumed to be a tree unto itself, objectively real and constant while it exists. The material world, after all, seems to have existed long before there were subjective beings with nervous systems capable of observing it, and common sense says we do not create the material world by experiencing it. When we speak of matter, we are attempting to pinpoint qualities that exist outside the perception of a pinpointer, so it is understandable how a sense of the matter-mind duality arose.

Perception of the material isness of a thing is a different story —and that does matter, pun very much intended. Because by definition, matter must be measurable, and measurement requires observation. To know the material reality of something, we must relate to it as one physical entity to another. Forget about whether the unobserved falling tree makes a sound; it is fair to ask if and how we know it ever made a tree, unless we verified that by observation before or after the event.

The important point to take from this is not that isness is non-existent, which is a common misconception of mysticism and non-dual philosophy. The point is that isness is never what it is in isolation. Whether or not it is observed by a self-conscious observer, a tree in the woods is not a tree except in relation to the woods. Any objective thing is a part of a larger environment, and in order to deduce the isness of that particular part, we must utilize a relational process that bridges our subjective experience with its objective qualities. We’ll look closer at that bridge as we discuss the mind.

A material object or being, therefore, can be likened to a movie as it sits motionless: a long series of still images on celluloid film wrapped around a reel.  The materialist speaks of cause and effect as connected but distinct events, as one still image of the film builds upon the context of what preceded it and creates a context for what follows.

But the movie doesn’t tell a story unless those images are set in motion in front of a bright light at the rate of fifteen frames per second and projected onto a screen. The “motion picture” is a continuous flow of images that we see as one unfolding intelligible event like the flowing of a river (or, if you are patient enough, the growth and decay of a human body, or the formation and erosion of a mountain). The static “isness” of each frame of the film becomes indistinguishable from the dynamic “suchness” of its relationship to all other frames in telling the story.

Furthermore, the whole story itself only has significance within a much larger “metastory” that includes everything about its cultural context, the broader lives of its characters that don’t get full representation in the story, the context of those tangential stories etc. While the movie tells a limited story that moves in one linear direction, the metastory is omnidirectional and limitless. This is how one finite life story becomes inexorably connected to all others. This is where mind comes into the picture.

Mind designates the “suchness” of a thing: its function and its interconnectedness with its environment.  Indra’s Net is its supreme image (imagine a periodic table in which each box also contains all other boxes).

As opposed to the linear, corporate isness of matter, mind is an interwoven web of cyclical connections that are fully relational, meaning that it exists solely in the exchange of information between entities. As you sit on a riverbank and watch the water flow by, the event we call mind is the interactive process between your nervous system and the river. As you walk along a mountain trail, mind is the interactive process between your body and a host of other elements, including the ground beneath your feet, the air you are displacing and breathing in, etc.

These elements do not have to be self-conscious in order to participate in the interactive process of consciousness (or if preferred, so as not to confuse with self-conscious awareness, “mental activity”). They just need to have properties that interact with the properties of other elements and form a kind of proto-awareness of each other through this relational dance. As such, all things that have physicality also have a degree of mentality, the dance that is its unique expression as a dancer.

(This two-part series at Not Two about the necessity of a panpsychist element to pantheism explains this in far greater detail than I can in this space.)

Your mind (let us continue to talk in terms of private ownership for another moment) is like a multidimensional motion picture of the relational dance between your particular organism and its total environment. What is fascinating about the finite individual mind of a sentient organism is that it operates within a relational context that is ultimately infinite, without the boundaries implicated by physical things or even by physicality itself. Therefore, your total environment is not merely that which touches your body at any given time, and not merely the entire physical universe — it is also the infinite ground of potential existence. It must include literally any relationship it can conceive.

The vast majority of these relationships are ideational, not sensible, which means they are only potential and not actual (the difference will be illustrated later). Of the rest, you can only hold direct awareness of a relatively small amount, such that a majority of even your sensible connections with your environment are “subconscious” — or rather, the process of mental activity occurring outside the range of your attention.

Now, to speak properly of mind, let us not forget that we must consider it a property of the connection between the observer and the observed, between the thinker and the thought. And so, like water moving in a whirlpool pattern within a river that is not separate from the water flowing all around it, the interconnecting movies of our individual minds, in effect, don’t truly end where they appear to end. (Remember the omnidirectional metastory that surrounds and subsumes the linear story told by one finite mind.) The radical idea this infers is that “my” mind overlaps with all others, at least potentially, and at very least, certainly shares a common source with all others, just as the universe is one field of physicality comprised of interconnected atoms. On closer inspection, we will see that what I call “my mind” is just the portion of Pure Mind that I am able to process and hold at any moment, a thimble full of Ocean.

If that seems strange to you, it is simply because philosophical materialism has convinced us that all mental activity derives from (as opposed to coarising with) the physical, and is limited to the nervous systems of sentient creatures. That might be a more persuasive argument if the mind were limited to stimulus-response reactions like the reptilian brain.

But we are ideational beings, capable of pulling new ideas “out of thin air,” which is a euphemism for the boundless non-physical cloud of potential. Unlike sensible relationships which requires proximity, ideational relationships are not bound to space-time locations. Two people in the same room can watch the same showing of a movie, for instance, in a way that someone on the other side of the earth cannot. But there is no reason that all three people cannot share the same idea about the movie though the sensible experiences of viewing it happened 12,000 miles apart on different days, because in a very real sense, it is the movie that is initiating the thought process to a diverse, widespread audience. The movie itself, of course, is a compendium of images and ideas representing the mental activity of the director, scriptwriter, actors, and many other people –a floodplain of suchness come together as the river of isness that is one linear story, generating new ideas wherever it flows like water through a hydroelectric turbine.

To truly follow any mental activity to its source is to uncover the strands of a structure that, like Indra’s Net, lead in all directions at once. This structure is not something apart from the atomistic universe; it is this exact physical space, but perceived with something like an existential sideways glance, as a limitless relational matrix containing the connectivity of all atoms. Things that seem at first glance to be baffling “quantum entanglement” kind of non-local mental phenomena can be easily explained by understanding that the human thinker is not truly the prime originator of all of his thoughts [2].

All forms of ideation, including the processes that enable us to perceive matter, originate in this matrix (which, interestingly, along with matter, is etymologically connected to “mater,” the Latin word for “mother”), which corresponds with what I am calling Pure Mind.  The macrocosmic idea to make an apple pie from scratch, in the way suggested by Sagan, and Grandma’s microcosmic idea to make one on July 22, 2018, are both products the single process of Pure Mind.  Thus it can be said that mind is holistic in nature as opposed to linear, and speaks of cause and effect as a unity, a single “causeffect”.

It is through this relational process that we as sentient beings are able to deduce the individual frames of a cause-and-effect sequence and the existence of matter. But there is no “chicken or egg” quandary, because the isness of matter and the suchness of mind coarise. The dancer was not a dancer before it started dancing. But equally so, without the dancer, the dance was imaginary, purely potential without expression.

FOOTNOTES

[1] To be fair, I think “What tree?” is a perfectly reasonable answer to this question, not because I believe the tree doesn’t exist without a self-conscious observer on hand, but to illustrate the impossibility of truly removing the observer from an ideational construct.

[2] To be able to receive and process ideation and convert it to conscious thought, in a way that seems like a “leap” compared to the direct process of converting sensible information into thought, is roughly what is meant by “intuition.”)

DIALECTICAL SPIRITUALISM: THE SYNTHETIC ELEGANCE OF PANTHEISM

Introduction / Postulates / Chapter 1

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