Yesterday, I attended a talk about Samkyha (a type of Hinduism) at my local Theosophical Society lodge.  I’m on friendly terms with the man who gave it, and we tend to have different views about consciousness (though we have a lot in common in other ways).  One of our biggest points of contention is that I don’t believe in Witness Consciousness, which was the main topic of his talk.  As it was a public talk, I didn’t bring it up because I didn’t want to bore the crowd with a technical debate that not all would understand and probably even less would find interesting.  But for IPMS, the idea of the Witness seems especially important.  It was discussed on the Gaia forum in the “cognitive loop” thread; a few members seem to believe in it, but others don’t.  Maybe we ought to go into it in more detail here in our new (possibly temporary) home?

In last year’s Journal of Consciousness Studies, there’s a piece by Buddhist scholar Miri Albahari titled “Witness Consciousness: Its Definition, Appearance and Reality“.  In the essay Albahari describes Witness Consciousness in a similar way to how some did in that thread on the old website, that of an objectless consciousness, a sort of awareness that stands behind everything we experience, perceiving but making no judgements.  Specifically, he defines it as “mode-neutral awareness with intrinsic phenomenal character”.  I’ll try to unpack that.  By “mode-neutral awareness” Albahari means an awareness that does not depend on any particular sense or experience – it is neutral with regard to specific sensory modalities, i.e. it lies behind vision, hearing, etc.  And by “intrinsic phenomenal character” he means that, despite being an objectless awareness, there seems to be something there, a sort of “background hum” (Albahari is paraphrasing David Chalmers here).  He likens it to light, which cannot be seen directly but makes its presence known by illuminating other things.

Albahari apparently realises that, if witness consciousness does nothing (i.e. is completely non-conceptual, non-cognitive or non-judgemental), then we have no reason to suppose it exists.  That is why he proposes the idea of intrinsic phenomenal character.  Unfortunately, this addition changes Witness Consciousness from a sort of pure awareness that passively perceives everything, to something that is active – only active in a very subtle way, but enough that we can at least say it exists.

Is this analysis a good move on Albahari’s part, or is it a betrayal of the original idea?

In my opinion, it represents an embarrassing climb-down, an attempt to salvage a dodgy metaphysical idea.  There is no pure awareness, or non-conceptual Witness Consciousness – the very idea crumbles before even the most basic analysis (which can be demonstrated easily enough, if anyone wants it).  Perhaps instead of jumping through hoops and doing bizarre logical acrobatics in an attempt to save it, we should just jettison the idea of the Witness as a no-longer-tenable belief?

I don’t think we need to completely do away with the idea of a mystical consciousness, but we need to see consciousness as “embodied” (for lack of a better term) in the world, as the world, not as something separate that passively witnesses nature/manifestation which then has to be explained away as illusory (which my friend did in his talk – spirit “falls” into the illusion of matter, or something like that).



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Hi Theurj,

I hope I’m not boring or annoying you with all these posts. If so, let me know and I’ll tone it down.

Anyway, later in the same GHM thread, Balder asks you (my italics), “Would the CogSciPragos accept the physical world, then, as a metaphysical given, in your view?” To which you reply (again, my italics), “It depends on what you mean by “metaphysically” given. If that means do the CogSciPragos think we can experience the physical world in its “purity” or completely objectively then no, not in that sense.” Then a few posts later, with another quote from Philosophy in the Flesh (my underline):

The direct realism of the Greeks can thus be characterized as having three aspects: 1. The Realist Aspect: The assumption that the material world exists and an account of how we can function successfully within it; 2. The Directness Aspect: The lack of any mind-body gap; 3. The Absoluteness Aspect: The view of the world as a unique, absolutely objective structure of which we can have absolutely correct, objective knowledge.
...

Embodied realism accepts 1 and 2 but denies that we have any access to 3.

... these views are “realist” by virtue of their acceptance of 1.

What does “physical” mean? If we insist that the world is physical, what are we claiming? If we deny the existence of the non-physical, what turf are we defending? What exactly distinguishes the physical from the non-physical? In one of the old Gaia threads someone posted a link to The Body Problem. In that essay, the author argues that we have no good definition, but perhaps we should take Wittgenstein’s advice: don’t think of the meaning, look for the use. I’ve noticed that, in general, people refer to the world as physical to mean two things, firstly that it’s really there (a realist claim, as in your PF quote). I see this in relation to Berkeley’s subjective idealism, where upon realising that he denies the world is physical, people often say, “Wait, is he saying that the world doesn’t exist?!” But Berkeley said that objects do continue to exist outside human minds by virtue of the fact that they are ideas in the mind of God. So, whether, say, tables exist as physical objects or mental objects in the mind of God is a metaphysical dispute – the “given” phenomenology of seeing the table says nothing about its ontological status.

Secondly, physical implies causal power – physical objects can push things around, unlike non-physical stuff, which is implicitly considered causally impotent. In this view, consciousness without physical matter is a bit like a boneless fish. This seems awfully Cartesian to me; I wonder if it lies behind the common rejection of psi research? I don’t think this second, implicit meaning applies to you, but I’ll ask anyway: when you referred to the physical world, what did you mean exactly? What does the prefix “physical” add to “world”?
Hello Ed, Infimitas,

well I am not bored yet ;-) I still enjoy your discussion. Some thoughts:

Balder said:
“Would the CogSciPragos accept the physical world, then, as a metaphysical given, in your view?”

That's a good question. I remember reading Zizek about this, and he said something like 'being a atheist means that you don't believe in God, and without God, the world ultimately does not exist either'. So then the answer to the above question would be NO, except I'm not sure what CogSciPragos is.

Infimitas said:
Secondly, physical implies causal power – physical objects can push things around, unlike non-physical stuff, which is implicitly considered causally impotent.

ahahaha that makes me laugh. Theres nothing more potent than the physical world, except the next wave from the Virtual Realms urging to manifest into it. Or something like that. ahahah.

later,
I found an online version of Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff & Johnson (2003) at this link. If I understand your question accurately I think the book will answer it in Chapters 25 – 29. Let me know.
Another possibly relevant answer might be found in the original Mead thread not residing in Google docs. My post of 1/16/09 @10:57am says:

“But the CogSciPragos in PF are not merely materialists or physicalists. In the Chapter Realism and Truth, Section Noneliminative Physicalism (111-14), they talk about the various levels of complexity, from the most basic to the most advanced. They criticize scientific materialists for using only the lowest physical level as the cause or explanation for everything that follows. NP, in Wilber's terminology, accepts different enactments at each level with their own, unique paradigms. And that causation doesn't just flow from the bottom up but also from the top down.

“They are also not mere materialists in the sense that there was a completely objective world that existed prior to the emergence of a subjective mind. Granted there was a time of physical existence before the human mind but even then there was an interior along with an exterior, since they've never been split in the first place. So even an electron behaves in ways that are responsive to and enactive with its environment, its inside and outside, even though that's not technically a “mind.” The inner-outer, individual-social are integrated even for the very first particles of existence. So “causation” is not only from the bottom up or the outside-in, now or then, here or there.”

Btw, CogSciPragos is my shorthand for those cognitive scientists that carry on the pragmatist tradition of Mead, Pierce and James etc., like Lakoff & Johnson, Maturana and Varela etc. Note that they are "integral" in that their paradigm accounts for inside-outside, one-many from all levels and quadrants (and zones).
And this from Metaphors We Live By:

“An experientialist approach also allows us to bridge the gap between the objectivist and subjectivist myths about impartiality and the possibility of being fair and objective. The two choices offered by the myths are absolute objectivity, on the one hand, and purely subjective intuition, on the other. We have seen that truth is relative to under-standing, which means that there is no absolute standpoint from which to obtain absolute objective truths about the world. This does not mean that there are no truths; it means only that truth is relative to our conceptual system, which is grounded in, and constantly tested by, our experiences and those of other members of our culture in our daily inter-actions with other people and with our physical and cultural environments” (139).
Hi Theurj,

Synchronisity... perhaps. I was reading about Metaphors the other day and thought I’d like to read it, then you find an online version. I’m a bit overwhelmed with things to read or listen to atm though, so it might take me a few days to get through those chapters you recommend.

On to the point, you said:

... there was a time of physical existence before the human mind but even then there was an interior along with an exterior, since they've never been split in the first place.

Property dualism? Maybe in that view interior and exterior have not been split apart from each other, but the distinction still exists. What would happen if you did away with the physical/exterior though? Could you imagine a world made of non-physical stuff only, or does that seem inconsistent? I’m just wondering why you need to postulate these two domains? I used to subscribe to a form of property dualism myself, but now I consider the distinction illusory rather than literal – only perspective/experience exists.

Btw, there’s a nice interview between Susan Blackmore and Varela that deals with these subjects. Like me, Blackmore tries to expose the metaphysical assumptions people have with regards to consciousness, but Varela does a good job of avoiding all the traps. I’ll post it if I find an online version.

It’s getting late, so I’ll say more about emergence tomorrow.
theurj said:
For example, recall this from Sara Ross in the "status of states" thread*:

"That might mean attention should go to specific states and analyze what’s happening in them. For example, how about the state of meditation, the ‘witnessing’ kind where the person watches their thoughts go by? It, too, is a formal operations activity, not “transcendent” at all unless someone wants to project “transcendence” on it (and we’d need to unpack what that word is supposed to mean). Let me explain. Back to Descartes. Formal operations is the first order of complexity (I am avoiding “stage” because until I would give the technical/theoretical meaning of it, best to use other terms) at which persons can reflect on their thought at all. Piaget called it “reflective abstraction.” Watching our thoughts go by in a certain form of meditation is not structurally different than realizing during the day that we are thinking to ourselves. Either way, we can observe our thoughts. We “dress” meditation with spiritual overtones, but forgive me for asking, why, pray tell, do we?"

*Note many of the threads at Gaia IPS like this one are being saved for transfer to somewhere somewhen.

This is a very common misunderstanding of meditation. Because we can "observe" some thoughts through other thoughts, meditation is conflated with this kind of thinking, and we get theuri's conclusion that it's a function of the rational mind, Sara Ross's insistence that it isn't transcendental, Wilber's lumping it with phenomenological approaches, and on and on. If only it were that simple and that easy.

Meditation is observation involving something beyond, yes, transcendent to, thoughts. It is created by the process, paradoxically, of struggling with thoughts, of trying to stop them. Stopping them is how we observe them. This is the witness consciousness. It isn't necessary to conclude that it's disembodied, only that if it is embodied, it's in something greater than an individual's mind/brain.
Hi Chris,

Thanks for wading in on this tricky subject.

Meditation is observation involving something beyond ... thoughts.

I'm afraid I dont follow you. A "something beyond thoughts"? I'm a panpsychist (of a sort) so often have to suffer dismissive comnments about how I'm "going up in a baloon" with my crazy ideas, to paraphrase William James; but the idea that meditation involves something transcdent is a bit too much for me. Partly I agree with Sara's approach that we need to see "witnessinng" in a psychological light. Also, I worry that pushing meditation into a "something transcendent" leads to a dualistic split between the immanent world (mind/brain, body, society, etc.) and some sort of transcendent spirit/consciousnes -- even if they relate to and depend on each other, the distinction is still there (similar to my concerns about property dualism).

Btw Theurj,

I found that interview, but its too big to post. Any recomendations as to where I could store it online and link to it? Or perhaps I can just email it to you.
"Property dualism? Maybe in that view interior and exterior have not been split apart from each other, but the distinction still exists. What would happen if you did away with the physical/exterior though? Could you imagine a world made of non-physical stuff only, or does that seem inconsistent? I’m just wondering why you need to postulate these two domains? I used to subscribe to a form of property dualism myself, but now I consider the distinction illusory rather than literal – only perspective/experience exists."

No, I cannot imagine doing away with the physical exterior. And I've tried to indicate that interior/exterior is a useful distinction only, not an inherent property dualism. I.e., experiential perspectives.

Check out Google documents. It's free to join and you can store your documents there and link to them here.
infimitas said:
Hi Chris,

Thanks for wading in on this tricky subject.

Meditation is observation involving something beyond ... thoughts.

I'm afraid I dont follow you. A "something beyond thoughts"? I'm a panpsychist (of a sort) so often have to suffer dismissive comnments about how I'm "going up in a baloon" with my crazy ideas, to paraphrase William James; but the idea that meditation involves something transcdent is a bit too much for me. Partly I agree with Sara's approach that we need to see "witnessinng" in a psychological light. Also, I worry that pushing meditation into a "something transcendent" leads to a dualistic split between the immanent world (mind/brain, body, society, etc.) and some sort of transcendent spirit/consciousnes -- even if they relate to and depend on each other, the distinction is still there (similar to my concerns about property dualism).

Btw Theurj,

I found that interview, but its too big to post. Any recomendations as to where I could store it online and link to it? Or perhaps I can just email it to you.

I'm afraid I dont follow you. A "something beyond thoughts"? I'm a panpsychist (of a sort) so often have to suffer dismissive comnments about how I'm "going up in a baloon" with my crazy ideas, to paraphrase William James; but the idea that meditation involves something transcdent is a bit too much for me. Partly I agree with Sara's approach that we need to see "witnessinng" in a psychological light. Also, I worry that pushing meditation into a "something transcendent" leads to a dualistic split between the immanent world (mind/brain, body, society, etc.) and some sort of transcendent spirit/consciousnes -- even if they relate to and depend on each other, the distinction is still there (similar to my concerns about property dualism).

I prefer panpsychism, too. If you can understand that mind is transcendent to the individual neurons that compose it, you should be able to comprehend the possibility that something in turn is transcendent to mind. If you don’t see a dualism between brain/mind and individual cells, no need to see it between brain/mind and something beyond it. It’s the same kind of relationship.

Personally, I think panpsychism strongly implies a dualism, property dualism at the least. There are physical entities, then there is experience or consciousness associated with them. This is how I understand property dualism, a view I like as the least of all evils. But if you think you can understand panpsychism in a way that avoids dualism, the concept of something transcendent to the mind does not have to provide you with any additional problems. Transcendence, at least as I understand it, is a kind of relationship that can exist between purely physical entities as well as between levels of consciousness. A cell is transcendent to its atoms and molecules, an organism is transcendent to its cells. Nothing dualistic about those relationships that I can see. It’s very different from the relationship between consciousness and physical forms postulated by panpsychism, at least be the form of property dualism I prefer.

Seeing witnessing in a psychological light depends on what you mean by psychological. Is there a psychological aspect to meditation? Of course. But there is also an aspect beyond what is conventionally at least the limits of psychology, thoughts and feelings. Perhaps Sara intends to expand these limits, but this was not obvious to me in the passage about her in the post.
Hi Theurj,

Here's that interview. I havn't checked it against the original (it's from Conversations on Consciousness), but from a quick glance it seems okay.

... I cannot imagine doing away with the physical exterior. And I've tried to indicate that interior/exterior is a useful distinction only, not an inherent property dualism. I.e., experiential perspectives.

Ah, so you’re not a property dualist after all. That’s good. I think we are in general agreement in our rejection of a literal distinction between interior and exterior, but differ in our interpretation of what’s left – I tend to prefer experiential/panpsychist language, whereas you prefer physicalistic language. If we’re not careful though, this can seem like a useless metaphsyical debate, e.g. we see a table and it doesn’t change anything whether we call it “physical” or “mental”.

Usually at this point I might just say I’m a monist who is agnostic about the ontological details. One thing is still raising warning flags for me though. You claimed that the distinction between interior and exterior is a useful distinction, but just how useful is it really? For complicated organisms, such as humans, proper functioning requires a sort of hierarchical self-model, e.g. our “mind” perceives the table without knowing how it does it. The organism’s self-model only contains the relevant information about the experience. It doesn’t need to know that it has rod and cone cells in its retina, a visual cortex region, etc. – it just thinks that it sees with its eyes, and that’s enough. The same is true to a lesser extent with less-complicated organisms such as cats and dogs. Regardless of whether or not these animals have self-consciousness, they obviously have a perspective that is “subjective” to them.

What about electrons though? These things are not structurally complicated or complex enough to warrant having self-models (nor are they capable of having them). A complete scientific theory of elementary physics (to the extent that we can have one) would seem to exhaust the describable qualities of electrons. But if, as you say, there are no inherent experiential perspectives, seperate from the physical, then what’s left for the “interior” description of the electron?

It seems that, if we accept physivalism, there is only a physical/exterior dimension to the world, and that the conscious/interior dimension is an illusion (albeit a sometimes-useful distinction) that only “emerges” with the relevant amount of physical and social evolutionary complexity. But earlier you said the useful interior/exterior dimension goes all the way down: "... there was a time of physical existence before the human mind but even then there was an interior along with an exterior, since they've never been split in the first place." If they've never been apart, we should be able to have a psychology of electrons. What could that be though? Wilber's proto-consciousness?

Can't we just get rid of this interior-exterior dichotomy altogether? It seems to create more problems than it solves.
I am not a professional philosopher, just an average schumck trying to make sense-meaning of my world. So I really don't know enough of the technical jargon to consider myself an adherent of any catagory of philosphy. In my struggle to make sense I flit from theory to theory and try on perspectives like clothing to see how they fit my current worldview. In that process I will make inconsistent statements, as you point out. That just means I am inconsistent, not that any particular theory I'm discussing is necessarly so. Though one thing I'm learning recently from L&J is that logical consistency is part of the "false" reasoning inherent in much of contemporary philosophy!

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