Why it matters to me
As I partly explained in the previous post, my education as a psychologist was rooted in a discipline whose mainstream had chosen for almost a century to ignore subjective consciousness, probably the most important spectrum of human experience, in favour of what could be more easily quantified and externally observed. Most psychologists solved, and continue to solve, the mind-brain-reality problem by turning their backs both on the mind in any sense that is not reducible to brain activity and on any reality that appears to challenge the idea that there is nothing but matter. The poem I have just posted – Letter to a Friend in Winter – gives a sense of the issues I was wrestling with on the eve of my first encounter with the Bahá’í Faith in the spring of 1982: the same can also be said of the next poem I will be posting.
Deciding to become a Bahá’í pulled me up short, as I described in the first post of this series. I had not realised that we do not have to choose between material and spiritual models of mind and reality. There is in fact a third way. It involves opening the mind to all the evidence on both sides of the divide and developing a more adequate simulation of reality. And that’s precisely the challenge that Myers had taken up in the 19th Century. It’s time I did him the respect of beginning to grapple, albeit through an intermediary, with his position on this instead of looking only to modern writers for help. I have bought his key text – Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (the title was given posthumously and gives too narrow a sense of the book, apparently) – ready for the next stage, but feel I need to limber up in this way before tackling him head on.
If we start from the core point it will be easiest. To quote Ellen Kelly in the Kellys’ monumental book Irreducible Mind (page 64):
In keeping with his “tertium quid” approach, [Myers] believes that the challenge to science does not end but begins precisely when one comes up against two contradictory findings, positions, or theories, and that breakthroughs occur when one continues to work with conflicting data and ideas until a new picture emerges that can put conflicts and paradoxes in a new light or a larger perspective.
She quotes from the man himself in terms of his sense of the divide between spirit and matter (page 70):
“The line between the ‘material’ and the ‘immaterial,’ as these words are commonly used, means little more than the line between the phenomena which our senses or instruments can detect or register and the phenomena which they can not.”
Is the mind only our brain?
The mind-brain data throws up a tough problem, though. Most of us come to think that if you damage the brain you damage the mind because all the evidence we hear about points that way. We are not generally presented with any other model or any of the evidence that might call conventional wisdom into question, at least not by the elder statesmen of the scientific community. There are such models though (page 73):
The first step towards translating the mind-body problem into an empirical problem, therefore, is to recognise that there is more than one way to interpret mind-brain correlation. A few individuals have suggested that the brain may not produce consciousness, as the vast majority of 19th and 20th century scientists assumed; the brain may instead filter, or shape, consciousness. In that case consciousness maybe only partly dependent on the brain, and it might therefore conceivably survive the death of the body.
Others are of course now following where he marked out the ground but we have had to wait a long time for people like van Lommel to show up in his book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience with all the perplexities and puzzles of modern physics to draw upon (page 177):
It is now becoming increasingly clear that brain activity in itself cannot explain consciousness. . . . . Composed of “unconscious building blocks,” the brain is certainly capable of facilitating consciousness. But does the brain actually “produce” our consciousness?
The imagery Lommel uses in his introduction is slightly different from that of Myers, as we will see – “The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness” – but the point is essentially the same. Whereas we now can draw upon all the complexities of Quantum Theory to help us define exactly what might be going on behind the screen of consciousness, and Lommel certainly does that, Myers had no such advantage. Nonetheless, he creates a rich and subtle picture of what consciousness might be comprised. He starts with the most basic levels (page 73):
. . . . our normal waking consciousness (called by Myers the supraliminal consciousness) reflects simply those relatively few psychological elements and processes that have been selected from that more extensive consciousness (called by Myers the Subliminal Self) in adaptation to the demands of our present environment: and . . . the biological organism, instead of producing consciousness, is the adaptive mechanism that limits and shapes ordinary waking consciousness out of this larger, mostly latent, Self.
So what is consciousness?
But in keeping with his ‘tertium quid’ approach, Myers believed (page 74) that “The reconcilement of the two opposing systems [the spiritual and material] in a profounder synthesis” is possible. According to Kelly (page 75) he drew on many traditions:
The rapidly multiplying observations of experimental psychology, neurology, psychopathology, and hypnotism clearly showed that the human mind is far more extensive than ordinarily thought, since much psychological functioning remains outside the range of our conscious mental life . . . .
He defined exactly what he meant (page 76):
. . . . something is ‘conscious’ if it is capable of entering waking awareness, given the appropriate conditions or the discovery of an ‘appropriate artifice’ or experimental method to elicit it . . . . Given this new, expanded conception of what is ‘conscious,’ Myers therefore considered such terms as “‘Unconscious’ or even ‘Subconscious’ . . . [to be] directly misleading” and he proposed instead the words ‘supraliminal, and ‘subliminal’ to distinguish between streams of consciousness that are and are not, respectively, identifiable with ordinary awareness. (page 76)
Kelly agrees that these two uses of the threshold concept can cause confusion. Myers is after all not only concerned with what rises into consciousness from beneath a lower threshold and but also what falls into it from above through a higher one. ‘Supraliminal’ would serve well for that second meaning had he not chosen to restrict its meaning in much of his work to what reaches consciousness from below.
This problem is illustrated by Myers’s very helpful original analogy, where Kelly uses ‘supraliminal’ to refer to what comes from above, and it shows just how far he was prepared to go in taking into account disciplines that others would have felt were beyond the pale (page 78):
Our ordinary waking consciousness corresponds only to that small segment of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the naked eye (and varies species to species); but just as the electromagnetic spectrum extends in either direction far beyond the small portion normally visible, so human consciousness extends in either direction beyond the small portion of which we are ordinarily aware. In the ‘infrared’ region of consciousness are older, more primitive processes – processes that are unconscious, automatic, and primarily physiological. Thus, ‘at the red end (so to say) consciousness disappears among the organic processes’ (Myers, 1894-1895). Sleep, for example, and its associated psychophysiological processes are an important manifestation of an older, more primitive state. In contrast, in the ‘ultraviolet’ region of the spectrum are all those mental capacities that the remain latent because they have not yet emerged at a supraliminal level through adaptive evolutionary processes. . . . . Such latent, ‘ultraviolet’ capacities include telepathy, the inspirations of creative genius, mystical perceptions, and other such phenomena that occasionally emerge.
He does not feel we are yet at our highest achievable level (page 80): ‘. . . our present sensory capacities and our normal waking consciousness [do not] mark the final point of the evolutionary process.’ This gels strongly with my own feelings about the matter as does most of what he wrote. Basically, consciousness is to all intents and purposes infinite. Currently we can read only a tiny fraction of it. Our brains are capable of evolving far further and of taking in or ‘reading’ a broader range of wavelengths from this spectrum of consciousness.
From here Kelly goes onto look at his concept of the self. This is too complex a topic to cram into the end of this post so it will have to wait for next time.