An Integral Postmetaphysical Definition of States

Inspired in part by Mark Edwards' dissertation, in which he calls for clearer definition of key Integral terms, I would like to open a discussion on this important Integral term.  In his work, Wilber obviously frequently uses the term, states, and discusses several types of states, but (to my knowledge) he does not give a clear, formal definition of this important concept.  Because it is such a key component of AQAL, and also is held by Integralists to be such an important aspect of spiritual realization, I think it would be worthwhile to really look at what we mean by it, and possibly see if we can together craft a satisfactory "Integral postmetaphysical" definition.  I ask specifically for an "Integral postmetaphysical" definition, rather than the definition, because obviously the term will be defined differently in different contexts, and at different stages.

What do you think?  If you're interested, let's give this a try.

To start, here are a few (relevant) definitions from

1. the condition of a person or thing, as with respect to circumstances or attributes: a state of health.
2. the condition of matter with respect to structure, form, constitution, phase, or the like: water in a gaseous state.
5. a particular condition of mind or feeling: to be in an excited state.
6. an abnormally tense, nervous, or perturbed condition: He's been in a state since hearing about his brother's death.

You can see right off that several "zones" are represented in these definitions.  An Integral definition, or series of definitions, would include even more zone-perspectives, and IMP may suggest ways these various types of "states" can be correlated.  But simple differentiation of zone-specific definitions will also be important, since I believe the failure to do this probably contributes not infrequently to conflicts and misunderstandings in Integral discussions.

As we discussed in an earlier series of threads (The Status of States), Wilber's use of certain states (particularly causal and nondual) seems still to involve certain metaphysical commitments, which we critiqued at length.  But I don't recall that we really arrived at any workable, formal definition of states, or understanding of what is involved in "state training" and "state stabilization" in spiritual development or "realization," so I'd like to return to this question here, if you're interested.


One systems-theoretic, naturalistic definition of states has been attempted by Charles Tart:


"Now I shall formally define a discrete state of consciousness (d-SoC) for a given individual (and I emphasize for a given individual) as a unique configuration or system of psychological structures or subsystems. The structures or subsystems show some quantitative and minor qualitative variation in the way in which they process information or cope or have experiences, but the structures or subsystems and their energetic pattern of interactions comprise a 'system'. The operations of the components, the psychological structures,interact with each other and stabilize each other's functioning by means of feedback control such that the system, the discrete state of consciousness, maintains its overall patterning of functioning within a varying environment. That is, the parts of the system that comprise a discrete state of consciousness may vary over various ranges if we look at individual components, but the overall, general configuration, the overall pattern of the system remains recognizably the same. As an analogy, you can drive your car faster or slower, with a varying number of passengers in it, or change the color of the seat covers, but it retains its identity as the system we know as an automobile. So one may have variations in consciousness, such as being more or less activated, more or less aware of the environment, etc. that represent quantitative changes in certain subsystems or structures of the system, but they do not change the overall, recognizable configuration of the system as being that of our ordinary [waking] state of consciousness, or, for that matter, of any particular discrete state of consciousness. The way to understand a discrete state of consciousness, then, is not only to investigate the structure of the parts in a more and more molecular way, but also to be aware of the way in which the parts interact and the 'gestalt' system-properties of the configuration that arise that may not be predictable from a knowledge of the parts alone." (Tart, THE BASIC NATURE OF ALTERED STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS: A SYSTEMS APPROACH)


One question that I bring to this (among many) is whether we can define states postmetaphysically, but in a way that still respects and accounts for the "profundity" and power of certain state realizations -- that still can serve, in a sense, as a horizon of aspiration, without the metaphysical trappings.


I'm exploring a few thoughts in relation to this question and will post more on that soon.  In the meantime, I just wanted to post this initial question and get the feedback of other members here, if you're interested.

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A few points on Damasio above related to the previous meditation article on ipseity and awareness. Note that consciousness is not the same as basic mind awareness. The former requires a 'self' and the latter is bereft of one. Core consciousness pre-dates the narrative self and is focused in the present only. It seems this is the 'bare awareness' from the meditation article, which requires ipseity (self), and is not the same as the unconscious 'mind' process (awake awareness) that Damasio distinguishes.This is congruent with my earlier speculations that it requires an 'ego' to meditate, which goes down into the 'mind.' I didn't have Damasio's more refined definitions then, so the ego to which I referred might be more like the core consciousness than the narrative self?

And perhaps most significantly, at least in relation to the discussion of 'free will' here, is that consciousness trains the unconscious via skill learning, moral behavior being but one example. We have some control over our unconscious processes; we are not a complete slave to them. We can and must re-program them to some degree if we are to be human. I realize some of us would prefer to remain unconscious automatons concerned with survival of the fittest, thereby relieving us of any social responsibility, aka regressive Republicans. Good thing the rest of us take advantage of our prefrontal cortex and neuroscientifically grounded sense of 'self' consciousness lest we return to the jungle.

In the thread above I've also made the connection that the Witness of meditation fame is indeed the ego. Granted I have to re-frame the ego with more specificity in light of Damasio. In this regard the following is from p. 18 of Self Comes to Mind:

"Countless creatures for millions of years have had active minds happening in their brains, but only after those brains developed a protagonist capable of bearing witness did consciousness begin, in the strict sense, and only after those brains developed language did it become widely known that minds did exist. The witness is something extra that reveals the presence of implicit brain events we call mental."

Or as they say in the integral Navy: "I-I, Captain."

Also of note is that the proto-self is housed in the brainstem and is literally the body-mind, which communicates via image (schemas?) and primordial feelings connected to "sheer existence" (20-2).

Interesting.  Consonant with phenomenological descriptions of Vedanta teachers, for instance, such as Jean Klein, who teach that the "geometric shift" that takes place in awareness during meditative training also involves dropping into the "back of the head."  This is right before the move to the "final door," which is in the heart center.  Since we do have grey matter in the heart area of the body, I'm curious if we'll be able to track that at some point.

In section 2.3.1 of the meditation paper it seems to indicate that the practice in general is through the core self, not the narrative self. They in fact use Damasio as a source for these parts of the self. Section 2.3.2 says that consciousness is the result of integration of various brain areas and is not relegated to any particular area, except the proto-self, according to Damasio. Section 2.3.3 notes that at least some forms of meditation are geared to the core self (ipseity) under the narrative self. Hence it gets close to our autonomous functions of life regulation and stabilize them in a more homeostatic balance, including emotional equanimity. This of course provides a more stable and healthy base for the narrative self, so that it is less twisted with neurosis etc.

I found this interesting article, which basically summarizes everything I've discussed recently. A few excerpts:

"Antonio Damasio (1995) distinguishes three kinds of self that constitute consciousness. At the neural level, there is the non-conscious proto-self. This represents the pattern of neural impulses that, from moment to moment, regulate the body-mind organism in reaction to external objects that perturb homeostasis.

"The core-self is the next level up, the lowest form of awareness that observes the proto-self in the process of being modified by an external object. This produces a basic reflexive sensation e.g. 'I can feel myself becoming irritated by something'. The idea of the core-self draws upon the concept of the transcendental 'I' by the German idealist Fichte (1796/2000), where consciousness is not a pre-existing phenomenon reacting to external obstacles, but rather the phenomenological subject arises in the very interaction between outside objects and the internal activity that deals with this disturbance. The core-self is this very activity (Zizek, 2006).

"Damasio’s third level of consciousness is the autobiographical-self. This is a more elaborated level of consciousness, relying on memories and past experiences, formulating imagined, anticipated futures; essentially our internal story-teller, rendering the first-order experiences of the core-self into personal narratives. This allows for a richer form of consciousness, featuring complex subjective emotions and beliefs.

"The existence of the proto- and core-selves has arguably been demonstrated in Libet’s early experiments using EEGto predict participants’ decisions before they reached subjective awareness (Libet et al., 1979). These experiments portray the core-self as a passive observer, becoming aware of the proto-self after the fact, and could appear to undermine free will, a foundational assumption of phenomenology. Libet himself actually defended free will throughout his life (1999), claiming that it exhibits itself in the ability of the core-self to veto the impulses of the proto-self. The core-self is thus characterised by intentionality, able to exert a degree of control over lower level impulses.

"Two principal forms of Buddhist meditation of interest to researchers are Open Presence (OP) and Focused Attention (FA).... [The latter] from a neurophenomenological perspective...could represent a parsimonious exercise in bolstering the intentional core-self, exerting willful veto power over the incoming impulses of the proto-self.

"Open Presence....refers back to the notion of stripping away the autobiographical 'interested' self to reveal the 'essence', the core-self, which does not engage with the oncoming thoughts and feelings. Its only minimal interest is in observing and describing what it 'sees' (Damasio, 1995), i.e. the proto-self. Hence as practitioners develop their skill in OP, their aim is to cultivate an awareness of the invariant nature of experience (Lutz et al., 2007).

"With regards to the intentional nature of consciousness, an early EEG study found that practicing FA may lead to a partial 'deautomatisation' of the mental processes that interpret perceptual stimuli (Kasamatsu & Hirai, 1966), like turning off our internal auto-pilot and switching to manual control, to use a garish analogy. This would imply that meditation trains the practitioner to have increased control of the core-self where not only is awareness of proto-self activity increased, but the power to inhibit the impulses of the proto-self is strengthened."

Also of interest from the last article is how in the beginning it compares what I've excerpted above with Descartes' dualism, the mind being an immaterial 'ghost in the machine.' At the end he comes full circle, noting this same dualism is inherent to not only Husserl's transcendent consciousness but also to traditional Buddhist notions of transcendent awareness.

This has been of course one of my own criticisms with various brands of shentong above and in other threads. I explained it as as aspect of the rational ego, the autobiographical  self or formal operations in MHC-speak. That's where the Cartesean split occurs, so that when we unwind in meditation to the core self, that first reflective 'I,' we misinterpret it as some form of world-transcendent, metaphysical entity.

Hence the next step beyond the autobiographical self, the centaur, takes us into postmetaphysics, once again grounding these natural states with neuroscience, validating the states but refuting the transcendent interpretations. And as I've said above and elsewhere, we can get more complex in our 'operations,' but until we re-embody and anchor those in our core and proto-selves via meditation or some similar methodology it's all just more complex, yet less integrated, psycho-babble still caught in Cartesian dualism. The real/false reason thread is a good place for review.

That is, the postmodern, postformal operatives got the interpretation right* but lacked the proto- and core self integration. While the traditional meditators integrated the prior selves, yet were still stuck in formal interpretations.

* Except for the researchers into stages like the MHC. As I argued in real/false reason, there is a big difference between those that manifest postformality and those that study it. The latter seem to me to be stuck in the dualism, even the model itself, and the thread provides ample evidence to that effect.

Re-reading the real/false reason thread again for the upteenth time I am continually impressed with this theurj fellow. That is some really good research and analytic/synthetic (de/re) commentary. Damn he's good! Near the end of the thread from p. 9 he received the following:

"Another connection occurring to me (as gift from my Muse) is that these image schemas, as well as Edwards' different lenses, taken singly can represent the various theoretical ideologies. We've already seen how a focus on the container schema can lead to an ideology of objectivist hierarchical complexity. And using Bonnie's talk above, how a focus on a cyclic image schema might lead to what Gebser called the mythic structure (or ideology)."

Which of course is related to Balder's current project on doing the same with parts of speech, which are directly related to image schemata. More from Balder on this in the future.

Yeah, he impresses me, too.

I was not fishing for a compliment but thank you. As is obvious, I am perfectly capable of self-adulation as well as self-flagellation. I tend to keep the latter to myself, as it gets rather ugly at times.

"I want your ugly, I want your disease, I want your love." Lady Gaga

Excerpts from "Experimental and theoretical approaches to conscious processing"

See this post for the link. Quote:

Theoretical Modeling of Conscious Access

The above experiments provide a convergent database of observations. In the present section, we examine which theoretical principles may account for these findings. We briefly survey the major theories of conscious processing, with the goal to try to isolate a core set of principles that are common to most theories and begin to make sense of existing observations. We then describe in more detail a specific theory, the Global Neuronal Workspace (GNW), whose simulations coarsely capture the contrasting physiological states underlying nonconscious versus conscious processing.

Convergence toward a Set of Core Concepts for Conscious Access

Although consciousness research includes wildly speculative proposals (Eccles, 1994; Jaynes, 1976; Penrose, 1990), research of the past decades has led to an increasing degree of convergence toward a set of concepts considered essential in most theories (for review, see Seth, 2007). Four such concepts can be isolated.

A supervision system.

In the words of William James, ‘‘consciousness’’ appears as ‘‘an organ added for the sake of steering a nervous system grown too complex to regulate itself’’ (James, 1890, chapter 5). Posner (Posner and Rothbart, 1998; Posner and Snyder, 1975) and Shallice (Shallice, 1972, 1988; Norman and Shallice, 1980) first proposed that information is conscious when it is represented in an ‘‘executive attention’’ or ‘‘supervisory attentional’’ system that controls the activities of lower-level sensory-motor routines and is associated with prefrontal cortex (Figure 6). In other words, a chain of sensory, semantic, and motor processors can unfold without our awareness, as reviewed in the previous section, but conscious perception seems needed for the flexible control of their execution, such as their onset, termination, inhibition, repetition, or serial chaining.

A serial processing system.

Descartes (1648) first observed that ‘‘ideas impede each other.’’ Broadbent (1958) theorized conscious perception as involving access to a limited-capacity channel where processing is serial, one object at a time. The attentional blink and psychological refractory period effects indeed confirm that conscious processing of a first stimulus renders us temporarily unable to consciously perceive other stimuli presently shortly thereafter. Several psychological models now incorporate the idea that initial perceptual processing is parallel and nonconscious and that conscious access is serial and occurs at the level of a later central bottleneck (Pashler, 1994) or second processing stage of working memory consolidation (Chun and Potter, 1995).

A coherent assembly formed by re-entrant or top-down loops.

In the context of the maintenance of invariant representations of the body/world through reafference (von Holst and Mittelstaedt, 1950), Edelman (1987) proposed re-entry as an essential component of the creation of a unified percept: the bidirectional exchange of signals across parallel cortical maps coding for different aspects of the same object. More recently, the dynamic core hypothesis (Tononi and Edelman, 1998) proposes that information encoded by a group of neurons is conscious only if it achieves not only differentiation (i.e., the isolation of one specific content out of a vast repertoire of potential internal representations) but also integration (i.e., the formation of a single, coherent, and unified representation, where the whole carries more information than each part alone). A notable feature of the dynamic core hypothesis is the proposal of a quantitative mathematical measure of information integration called F, high values of which are achieved only through a hierarchical recurrent connectivity and would be necessary and sufficient to sustain conscious experience: ‘‘consciousness is integrated information’’ (Tononi, 2008). This measure has been shown to be operative for some conscious/nonconscious distinctions such as anesthesia (e.g., Lee et al., 2009b; Schrouff et al., 2011), but it is computationally complicated and, as a result, has not yet been broadly applied to most of the minimal empirical contrasts reviewed above.

In related proposals, Crick and Koch (1995, 2003, 2005) suggested that conscious access involves forming a stable global neural coalition. They initially introduced reverberating gamma band oscillations around 40 Hz as a crucial component, then proposed an essential role of connections to prefrontal cortex. Lamme and colleagues (Lamme and Roelfsema, 2000; Super et al., 2001) produced data strongly suggesting that feed forward or bottom-up processing alone is not sufficient for conscious access and that top-down or feedback signals forming recurrent loops are essential to conscious visual perception. Llinas and colleagues (Llina´s et al., 1998; Llina´s and Pare, 1991) have also argued that consciousness is fundamentally a thalamocortical closed-loop property in which the ability of cells to be intrinsically active plays a central role.

A global workspace for information sharing.

The theater metaphor (Taine, 1870) compares consciousness to a narrow scene that allows a single actor to diffuse his message. This view has been criticized because, at face value, it implies a conscious homunculus watching the scene, thus leading to infinite regress (Dennett, 1991). However, capitalizing on the earlier concept of a blackboard system in artificial intelligence (a common data structure shared and updated by many specialized modules), Baars (1989) proposed a homunculus-free psychological model where the current conscious content is represented within a distinct mental space called global workspace, with the capacity to broadcast this information to a set of other processors (Figure 6). Anatomically, Baars speculated that the neural bases of his global workspace might comprise the ‘‘ascending reticular formation of the brain stem and midbrain, the outer shell of the thalamus and the set of neurons projecting upward diffusely from the thalamus to the cerebral cortex.’’

We introduced the Global Neuronal Workspace (GNW) model as an alternative cortical mechanism capable of integrating the supervision, limited-capacity, and re-entry properties (Changeux and Dehaene, 2008; Dehaene and Changeux, 2005; Dehaene et al., 1998a, 2003b, 2006; Dehaene and Naccache, 2001). Our proposal is that a subset of cortical pyramidal cells with long-range excitatory axons, particularly dense in prefrontal, cingulate, and parietal regions, together with the relevant thalamocortical loops, form a horizontal ‘‘neuronal workspace’’ interconnecting the multiple specialized, automatic, and nonconscious processors (Figure 6). A conscious content is assumed to be encoded by the sustained activity of a fraction of GNW neurons, the rest being inhibited. Through their numerous reciprocal connections, GNW neurons amplify and maintain a specific neural representation. The long-distance axons of GNW neurons then broadcast it to many other processors brain-wide. Global broadcasting allows information to be more efficiently processed (because it is no longer confined to a subset of nonconscious circuits but can be flexibly shared by many cortical processors) and to be verbally reported (because these processors include those involved in formulating verbal messages). Nonconscious stimuli can be quickly and efficiently processed along automatized or preinstructed processing routes before quickly decaying within a few seconds. By contrast, conscious stimuli would be distinguished by their lack of ‘‘encapsulation’’ in specialized processes and their flexible circulation to various processes of verbal report, evaluation, memory, planning, and intentional action, many seconds after their disappearance (Baars, 1989; Dehaene and Naccache, 2001). Dehaene and Naccache (2001) postulate that ‘‘this global availability of information (.) is what we subjectively experience as a conscious state.’’

More generally, these simulations provide a partial neural implementation of the psychophysical framework according to which conscious access corresponds to a ‘‘decision’’ based on the accumulation of stimulus-based evidence, prior knowledge, and biases (Dehaene, 2008; for specific implementations, see Lau, 2008, and the mathematical appendix in Del Cul et al., 2009).

Modeling Spontaneous Activity and Serial Goal-Driven Processing

An original feature of the GNW model, absent from many other formal neural network models, is the occurence of highly structured spontaneous activity (Dehaene and Changeux, 2005). Even in the absence of external inputs, the simulated GNW neurons are assumed to fire spontaneously, in a top-down manner, starting from the highest hierarchical levels of the simulation and propagating downward to form globally synchronized ignited states. (209-212)

Conclusion and Future Research Directions

The present review was deliberately limited to conscious access. Several authors argue, however, for additional, higher-order concepts of consciousness. For Damasio and Meyer (2009), core consciousness of incoming sensory information requires integrating it with a sense of self (the specific subjective point of view of the perceiving organism) to form a representation of how the organism is modified by the information; extended consciousness occurs when this representation is additionally related to the memorized past and anticipated future (see also Edelman, 1989). For Rosenthal (2004), a higher-order thought, coding for the very fact that the organism is currently representing a piece of information, is needed for that information to be conscious. Indeed, metacognition, or the ability to reflect upon thoughts and draw judgements upon them, is often proposed as a crucial ingredient of consciousness (Cleeremans et al., 2007; Lau, 2008) (although see Kanai et al., 2010, for evidence that metacognitive judgements can occur without conscious perception). In humans, as opposed to other animals, consciousness may also involve the construction of a verbal narrative of the reasons for our behavior (Gazzaniga et al., 1977). Although this narrative can be fictitious (Wegner, 2003), it would be indispensable to interindividual communication (Bahrami et al., 2010; Frith, 2007).

Metacognition and self-representation have only recently begun to be studied behaviorally with paradigms simple enough to extend to nonhuman species (Kiani and Shadlen, 2009; Terrace and Son, 2009) and to be related to specific brain measurements, notably anterior prefrontal cortex (Fleming et al., 2010). Thus, our view is that these concepts, although essential, have not yet received a sufficient empirical and neurophysiological definition to figure in this review. Following Crick and Koch (1990), we focused solely here on the simpler and well-studied question of what neurophysiological mechanisms differentiate conscious access to some information from nonconscious processing of the same information. Additional work will be needed to explore, in the future, these important aspects of higher-order consciousness. (218-19).

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What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? How might the insights of modernity and post-modernity impact and inform humanity's ancient wisdom traditions? How are we to enact, together, new spiritual visions – independently, or within our respective traditions – that can respond adequately to the challenges of our times?

This group is for anyone interested in exploring these questions and tracing out the horizons of an integral post-metaphysical spirituality.

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