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A Universe That Can't Be Contained

A work in progress

In our culture, life is seen as emerging essentially from a dead zone. An alternative is to begin seeing the background itself as teeming with life, life that emerges in specific instances with all its characteristics on display. This could have a profound effect on how we see our lives being lived, and our own death. Such is the underlying significance of William James’s own examination of tough, sometimes obscure, philosophical issues. His particular value is that he remains grounded in the messy reality we live in rather than in the abstractions of the academic field we call philosophy. Even when he ventures far into the abstractions himself, he continually returns to that ground where we live.

In A Pluralistic Universe, William James observes:


“A philosophy is the expression of a man's intimate character, and all definitions of the universe are but the deliberately adopted reactions of human characters upon it. … [A Pluralistic Universe, University of Nebraska Press 1996. Page numbers in brackets are from this 1996 edition: 20]


“If we take the whole history of philosophy, the systems reduce themselves to a few main types … Cynical characters take one general attitude, sympathetic characters another. But no general attitude is possible towards the world as a whole, until the intellect has developed considerable generalizing power and learned to take pleasure in synthetic formulas. …


“Perhaps the most interesting opposition is that which results from the clash between … the sympathetic and the cynical temper. Materialistic and spiritualistic philosophies are the rival types that result: the former defining the world so as to leave man's soul upon it as a sort of outside passenger or alien, while the latter insists that the intimate and human must surround and underlie the brutal. This latter is the spiritual way of thinking.”  [20-23]


James discusses theism, one of two types of spirituality. “The theistic conception, picturing God and his creation as entities distinct from each other, still leaves the human subject outside of the deepest reality in the universe.” [25] In the theistic view, “God is not heart of our heart and reason of our reason, but our magistrate, rather; and mechanically to obey his commands, however strange they may be, remains our only moral duty. Conceptions of criminal law have in fact played a great part in defining our relations with him. Our relations with speculative truth show the same externality. One of our duties is to know truth, and rationalist thinkers have always assumed it to be our sovereign duty. But in scholastic theism we find truth already instituted and established without our help, complete apart from our knowing; and the most we can do is to acknowledge it passively and adhere to it, altho such adhesion as ours can make no jot of difference to what is adhered to.” [27]


James contrasts this theistic idea with a sort of down-to-earth pantheistic one: “God as intimate soul and reason of the universe has always seemed to some people a more worthy conception than God as external creator. So conceived, he appeared to unify the world more perfectly, he made it less finite and mechanical, and in comparison with such a God an external creator seemed more like the product of a childish fancy.” [28-9]


In this more intimate view, “the only opinions quite worthy of arresting our attention will fall within the general scope of what may roughly be called the pantheistic field of vision, the vision of God as the indwelling divine rather than the external creator, and of human life as part and parcel of that deep reality.” [30]


Then he further subdivides this more intimate view: “The inner life of things must be substantially akin anyhow to the tenderer parts of man's nature in any spiritualistic philosophy. The word 'intimacy' probably covers the essential difference. Materialism holds the foreign in things to be more primary and lasting, it sends us to a lonely corner with our intimacy. The brutal aspects overlap and outwear; refinement has the feebler and more ephemeral hold on reality.


“From a pragmatic point of view the difference between living against a background of foreignness and one of intimacy means the difference between a general habit of wariness and one of trust.” 


In this book on pluralism, James describes ”a pluralistic, restless universe, in which no single point of view can ever take in the whole scene.” His biographer Robert Richardson notes, “Pluralism for him meant the possibility that the universe may be a pluriverse. It may be that we each apprehend a different aspect of the one true universe; it may also be that the universe itself is not a single system but a loose collection of many separate systems.” James quotes Benjamin Paul Blood:


“Not unfortunately the universe is wild—game flavored as a hawk’s wing. Nature is miracle all; the same returns not, save to bring the different.” [Robert D. Richardson, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006, p 364]


James observes, “We have so many different businesses with nature that no one of them yields us an all-embracing clasp. The philosophic attempt to define nature so that no one's business is left out, so that no one lies outside the door saying 'Where do I come in?' is sure in advance to fail. The most a philosophy can hope for is not to lock out any interest forever. No matter what doors it closes, it must leave other doors open for the interests which it neglects.” [32]


James spends considerable time expressing what he finds wanting in absolutism. “For monism the world is no collection, but one great all-inclusive fact outside of which is nothing—nothing is its only alternative. When the monism is idealistic, this all-enveloping fact is represented as an absolute mind that makes the partial facts by thinking them, just as we make objects in a dream by dreaming them, or personages in a story by imagining them. … [36]*

*Monism is one God only. Idealistic here can be thought of as a practice of assigning reality to a concept ("vegetation") rather than, say, an object (a twig in your hand); that is, the twig does not exist but the ideal is real. So in idealistic monism, "God" is an ideal concept, not a tangible entity.


“The absolute is nothing but the knowledge of those objects; the objects are nothing but what the absolute knows. The world and the all-thinker thus compenetrate and soak each other up without residuum. They are but two names for the same identical material, considered now from the subjective, and now from the objective point of view.” [36-7]


He sees the absolute as an unfortunate one-way street: “As the absolute takes me, for example, I appear with everything else in its field of perfect knowledge. As I take myself, I appear without most other things in my field of relative ignorance. And practical differences result from its knowledge and my ignorance. Ignorance breeds mistake, curiosity, misfortune, pain, for me; I suffer those consequences. The absolute knows of those things, of course, for it knows me and my suffering, but it doesn't itself suffer. It can't be ignorant, for simultaneous with its knowledge of each question goes its knowledge of each answer. It can't be patient, for it has to wait for nothing, having everything at once in its possession. It can't be surprised; it can't be guilty.” [39]


James concludes that traditional points of view toward God create “a bar to intimacy between the divine and the human … We humans are incurably rooted in the temporal point of view. The eternal's ways are utterly unlike our ways. … We are invincibly parts, let us talk as we will, and must always apprehend the absolute as if it were a foreign being.” [40]


James finds a more satisfactory way by seeing us in a pluralistic universe, not only because it finds a more intimate divinity, but because it handles evil much better  [124] “In any pluralistic metaphysic, the problems that evil presents are practical, not speculative. Not why evil should exist at all, but how we can lessen the actual amount of it, is the sole question we need there consider. 'God,' in the religious life of ordinary men, is the name not of the whole of things, heaven forbid, but only of the ideal tendency in things, believed in as a superhuman person who calls us to co-operate in his purposes, and who furthers ours if they are worthy. He works in an external environment, has limits, and has enemies …


[125] “The finite God whom I contrast with [the absolute] may conceivably have almost nothing outside of himself; he may already have triumphed over and absorbed all but the minutest fraction of the universe; but that fraction, however small, reduces him to the status of a relative being, and in principle the universe is saved from all the irrationalities incidental to absolutism.”


[126] Further, “You cannot enter the phenomenal world with the notion of it in your grasp, and name beforehand any detail which you are likely to meet there. Whatever the details of experience may prove to be, after the fact of them the absolute will adopt them. It is an hypothesis that functions retrospectively only, not prospectively.”


[129] Instead, “reality MAY exist in distributive form, in the shape not of an all but of a set of eaches, just as it seems to—this is the anti-absolutist hypothesis. Prima facie there is this in favor of the eaches, that they are at any rate real enough to have made themselves at least appear to every one, whereas the absolute has as yet appeared immediately to only a few mystics, and indeed to them very ambiguously. … [T]he only course we can take, it seems to me, is to … seek reality in more promising directions, even among the details of the finite and the immediately given.”


This, of course, opens us to various findings of science even as we suspend our belief in the premise of non-living matter at the base of it all. Suspending that premise does not negate the findings. It perhaps makes even more sense. Consider slime molds: [New York Times, Oct. 3, 2011] Can Answers to Evolution Be Found in Slime? 




“… Slime molds are a remarkable lineage of amoebas that live in soil. While they spend part of their life as ordinary single-celled creatures, they sometimes grow into truly alien forms. Some species gather by the thousands to form multicellular bodies that can crawl. Others develop into gigantic, pulsating networks of protoplasm.


“… Lab experiments are revealing the complex choreography of signals in some species that allows 20,000 individuals to form a single sluglike body … In 2000, Japanese researchers placed Physarum polycephalum — the name means “many-headed slime mold” — in a maze, along with two blocks of food. It extended its tendrils down the corridors of the maze, bending around curves, reaching dead ends and then backing out of them. After four hours, the slime mold was feasting on both blocks of food. …


“Despite their name, slime molds are not related to bread mold or the black mold that grows in damp houses. They belong to a separate lineage that evolved from ordinary soil amoebas. By analyzing the DNA of different slime mold species, researchers are reconstructing their evolutionary history, which turns out to reach back about a billion years. Since all known slime molds live on land, that suggests that they were early pioneers, arriving hundreds of millions of years before animals or plants …


“Today, biologists no longer think of Dictyostelium as an embryo: It is more like a society of amoebas that come together for a common cause, for which some will sacrifice themselves. The organisms respond to starvation by rushing together by the thousands into a single blob. The blob stretches out into a slug-shaped mass about one millimeter long (one twenty-fifth of an inch), which then crawls like a worm toward light.


“Once it reaches the surface of the soil, the slug undergoes another transformation: Most of the cells turn into a stiff stalk, while the others crawl to the top and form a sticky ball of spores. They stick to the foot of an animal and travel to a hospitable place. Inside the slug, about 1 percent of the amoebas turn into police. They crawl through the slug in search of infectious bacteria. When the amoebas find a pathogen, they devour it. These sentinels then drop away from the slug, taking the pathogen with it. They then die of the infection, while the slug remains healthy. When the slug is ready to make a stalk, more amoebas must die so that others can live. They climb on top of one another and transform their insides into bundles of cellulose. Eighty percent of Dictyostelium cells die this way, allowing the survivors to climb up their lifeless bodies and become spores.”


It leaves the idea of an individual alone a rather fuzzy, perhaps misleading idea.


Surely this enriches our understanding of reality as much as carefully honed prose about philosophical concepts such as an absolute, and with any luck it will inform that philosophical discussion. It’s a step into understanding through science, which leads to what is thought today in scientific circles about quantum reality.


We must be careful to recognize that a simplified description of quantum reality does not take into account the complexities of current scientific views. There are at least half a dozen theories of quantum reality. Some consider everything in the universe to be in an unresolved state until observed, while others say it’s less universal, and some consider only dynamic attributes of “particles,” such as position and movement, to be in this cloud of potentiality, and such “material objects” as cats and trees not.


What we are dealing with here is whether there is any guidance available from such a person as William James in sorting out the rather startling viewpoints being seriously considered in trying to understand reality.


For it seems to be the case that “in the beginning, all the matter and energy in the universe existed for one instant in utterly close association. That association still prevails … [as demonstrated in] what physicists call ‘nonlocality.’ By that they mean there is … an ongoing intimate connection between every subatomic particle in the universe. Under the right conditions, it can be shown that a particle at one end of the universe will ‘know’ what another particle is doing, even though they cannot possibly communicate with one another. [This connection is instantaneous even where the speed of light would take billions of years to connect one with the other.] [Joel Davis, Alternate Realities: How Science Shapes Our Vision of the World, 1997, p 277]


“As we’ve seen, it is not that the electron (or any particle for that matter) really was located at only one of those possible positions, but we simply don’t know which. Rather, there is a sense in which the electron was at all of the locations, because each of the possibilities … contributes to what we now observe.” Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality, 2004, p 179


Davis quotes physicist John Wheeler as saying the universe has given birth to observers, who participate in it by giving it its “reality.” He calls it a “self-excited circuit.” [Davis 267] “Wheeler says … we are far from even beginning to have an answer to the question What is reality? Do untold billions of acts of observer-participancy weave the foundation of reality? The possibility that this is somehow ‘true’ is enormously intriguing. … [W]e are glimpsing at least the possibility that the science of quantum physics offers a new understanding of how we collectively create our alternate realities.” [Davis 265]


What are we to make of this condition? [James 137]: “Nature, Green* keeps insisting, consists only in relations, and these imply the action of a mind that is eternal; a self-distinguishing consciousness which itself escapes from the relations by which it determines other things.”  James finds a thinness in approaches like this, but a fuller picture in Gustav Fechner (to whom he devotes two lectures), something more closely matching the colorful, lively world we find ourselves actually living in.

*T.H.Green of Oxford, an idealist

And the more we ponder these things in terms of James’s analysis of them, the more intriguing it becomes. It hardly seems to matter that quantum physics emerged full blown after James died; the foundations from which it emerged were already present. And even today there seem to be hardly any willing to spell out with a Fechnerian thickness what the quantum surprises mean. Most of the scientists seem to labor deep in the sailing ship, analyzing minutia and avoiding analysis of the whole. It gives an ongoing relevance to what James says, even as we consider the credibility of interpretations coming from wherever we can find them. (I’m intrigued by Amit Goswami, a theoretical quantum physicist who sees in quantum material analogies for engaging these deepest questions of reality with the added assistance of spirituality. He’s not afraid to go there, just as Fechner was not. I take James as a good guide in both cases.)


Steve Jobs: “I began to realize that an intuitive understanding and consciousness was more significant than abstract thinking and intellectual logical analysis.” Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs, 2011, p 35


Concerning Fechner


If we can avoid getting caught in the maze of a quantum formula, this physics of the very small has enormous consequences, for it reopens speculation thought to be closed to a truly scientific mind. It invites speculation such as Fechner’s fantastic yet fascinating proposals as the following:


[James 151] “My house is built by some one, the world too is built by some one. The world is greater than my house, it must be a greater some one who built the world. My body moves by the influence of my feeling and will; the sun, moon, sea, and wind, being themselves more powerful, move by the influence of some more powerful feeling and will. I live now, and change from one day to another; I shall live hereafter, and change still more.”


We tend, with our understanding of modern science, to think we have to dismiss out of hand the idea that some one built it. That smacks of creationism. But does it? We have to sort that out for ourselves, taking into account whatever biases and superstitions raise their heads in approaches we try valiantly to avoid. I personally find Fechner’s approach to be free of the unfortunate flaws I feel exist in creationism, and so I am open to exploring Fechner, especially in view of the strange and fascinating world revealed at least in bare outline by quantum theory as I understand it. Fechner is not careless, but rigorous in his examinations, using some phrasing that makes me uncomfortable but taking me places where few others seem to have capabilities for insight. Mostly, it’s because I relate in some profound way to what I find in Fechner, not without questions and reservations, but that’s part of any exploration I could or would make.


Fechner anticipates by more than a century the scientific notion that the earth operates as if it were an organism, regulating temperatures and oxygen levels in a complex system that tends to sustain life:


[152] “The entire earth on which we live must have, according to Fechner, its own collective consciousness. So must each sun, moon, and planet; so must the whole solar system have its own wider consciousness, in which the consciousness of our earth plays one part.”


So, does Fechner espouse the dreaded aspects of creationism? [153] “The earth-soul he passionately believes in; he treats the earth as our special human guardian angel; we can pray to the earth as men pray to their saints; but I think that in his system, as in so many of the actual historic theologies, the supreme God marks only a sort of limit of enclosure of the worlds above man. He is left thin and abstract in his majesty, men preferring to carry on their personal transactions with the many less remote and abstract messengers and mediators whom the divine order provides.” 


One of the dreaded flaws of creationism for me is that it saps the energy of genuine scientific discovery and replaces it with a set of doctrines controlled by people as far away from openmindedness as one can get, doctrines that spell out things that don’t even stand up to ordinary common sense. Since quantum theory doesn’t work too well with common sense, either, I have to allow some leeway, but I’m unwilling to embrace the package of creationism and I only allow consideration of things that seem similar to it when they emerge from a different, more objective and, to me, more believable basis. A route that I find particularly appealing comes from the richness of actual experience, as James characterizes Fechner, as opposed to arbitrary, and thin, concepts or superstitions.


[154] “[T]he power of the man [Fechner] is due altogether to the profuseness of his concrete imagination, to the multitude of the points which he considers successively, to the cumulative effect of his learning, … to his admirably homely style, to the sincerity with which his pages glow, and finally to the impression he gives of a man who doesn't live at second-hand, but who sees, who in fact speaks as one having authority, and not as if he were one of the common herd of professorial philosophic scribes.” And, let’s be honest, the content.


[155] “Abstractly set down, his most important conclusion for my purpose in these lectures is that the constitution of the world is identical throughout.” Strikingly parallel to quantum reality, with more to come about consciousness: 


“In ourselves, visual consciousness goes with our eyes, tactile consciousness with our skin. But altho neither skin nor eye knows aught of the sensations of the other, they come together and figure in some sort of relation and combination in the more inclusive consciousness which each of us names his self. Quite similarly, then, says Fechner, we must suppose that my consciousness of myself and yours of yourself, altho in their immediacy they keep separate and know nothing of each other, are yet known and used together in a higher consciousness, that of the human race, say, into which they enter as constituent parts. Similarly, the whole human and animal kingdoms come together as conditions of a consciousness of still wider scope. This combines in the soul of the earth with the consciousness of the vegetable kingdom, which in turn contributes its share of experience to that of the whole solar system, and so on from synthesis to synthesis and height to height, till an absolutely universal consciousness is reached.”


I believe there’s nothing in there that’s contradicted by quantum physics. Nor is what follows it about a dynamic living earth contradicted by Lovelock’s Gaia theory. Quite the contrary. And quite the contrary for Fechner’s account of earth using pathways other than literal brain fibers, when compared with similar recognition of chemical and other alternate pathways for unified functions in brain science.


So, what to make of: [162] “Cannot the earth-mind know otherwise the contents of our minds together?”


Further: [166] “people suppose that [plants] can have no consciousness, for they lack the unity which the central nervous system provides. But the plant's consciousness may be of another type, being connected with other structures … Does the water-lily, rocking in her triple bath of water, air, and light, relish in no wise her own beauty? When the plant in our room turns to the light, closes her blossoms in the dark, responds to our watering or pruning by increase of size or change of shape and bloom, who has the right to say she does not feel, or that she plays a purely passive part? Truly plants can foresee nothing, neither the scythe of the mower, nor the hand extended to pluck their flowers. They can neither run away nor cry out. But this only proves how different their modes of feeling life must be from those of animals that live by eyes and ears and locomotive organs, it does not prove that they have no mode of feeling life at all.”


The biological sciences reinforce this view more and more as nature is observed in its own natural conditions.


[168] “The special thought of Fechner's with which in these lectures I have most practical concern, is his belief that the more inclusive forms of consciousness are in part constituted by the more limited forms. Not that they are the mere sum of the more limited forms. As our mind is not the bare sum of our sights plus our sounds plus our pains, but in adding these terms together also finds relations among them and weaves them into schemes and forms and objects of which no one sense in its separate estate knows anything, so the earth-soul traces relations between the contents of my mind and the contents of yours of which neither of our separate minds is conscious.”


[170] “Fechner likens our individual persons on the earth unto so many sense-organs of the earth's soul … When one of us dies, it is as if an eye of the world were closed, for all perceptive contributions from that particular quarter cease. But the memories and conceptual relations that have spun themselves round the perceptions of that person remain in the larger earth-life as distinct as ever, and form new relations and grow and develop throughout all the future, in the same way in which our own distinct objects of thought, once stored in memory, form new relations and develop throughout our whole finite life. This is Fechner's theory of immortality …”


[171] “We rise upon the earth as wavelets rise upon the ocean. We grow out of her soil as leaves grow from a tree. The wavelets catch the sunbeams separately, the leaves stir when the branches do not move. They realize their own events apart, just as in our own consciousness, when anything becomes emphatic, the background fades from observation. Yet the event works back upon the background, as the wavelet works upon the waves, or as the leaf's movements work upon the sap inside the branch. The whole sea and the whole tree are registers of what has happened, and are different for the wave's and the leaf's action having occurred.”


Is this sufficient for someone concerned about immortality? It’s certainly a start. And James offers this additional tidbit: 


[172] “If you imagine that this entrance after the death of the body into a common life of higher type means a merging and loss of our distinct personality, Fechner asks you whether a visual sensation of our own exists in any sense less for itself or less distinctly, when it enters into our higher relational consciousness and is there distinguished and defined.”


James compliments materialistic science for giving us a far richer picture than “absolute idealism” does, but even today there seems a great reluctance to make use of what James on 175 calls “psychophysical analogy or correspondence” in fleshing out quantum reality theories, no doubt for fear the science would be tainted somehow.


[176] “If philosophy is more a matter of passionate vision than of logic,—and I believe it is, logic only finding reasons for the vision afterwards,—must not such thinness come either from the vision being defective in the disciples, or from their passion, matched with Fechner's or with Hegel's own passion, being as moonlight unto sunlight or as water unto wine?”


[put Buhner’s Plant Intelligence excerpts next]


Compounding of Consciousness


Recognizing a “basic similarity between the quantum behavior of a system . . . and the behavior of mind,” physicist David Bohm stated that “the mental and the material are two sides of one overall process . . . I would suggest that both [mind and body] are essentially the same . . . That which we experience as mind . . . will in a natural way ultimately reach the level of the wavefunction and of the ‘dance’ of the particles. There is no unbridgeable gap or barrier beween any of these levels . . . It is implied that, in some sense, rudimentary consciousness is present even at the level of particle physics. It would also be reasonable to suppose an indefinitely greater kind of consciousness that is universal and that pervades the entire process [of the universe].” [David Skirbina, Panpsychism in the West, MIT Press, 2007 p 204]


This amounts, in the view of David Skirbina, to panpsychism, which James considered late in his life the “most satisfactory theory” taught in his Harvard syllabus.  Panpsychism is “the theory that all matter, or all nature is itself psychical or has a psychical aspect; that atoms and molecules, as well as plants and animals, have a rudimentary life of sensation, feeling and impulse.” [Richardson, p 424]


Bohm saw this pluralistic panpsychism as a condition of a participatory world: “the basic notion is participatory rather than interaction.” Skirbina explains that as Bohm saw it, “matter is participatory because of the quantum nature of atomic particles. These particles, even if assumed to be point-like entities (as Bohm did), are seen to exist probabilistically: an electron in an atom has a high chance of existing in its so-called proper orbit, but it also has a non-zero chance of existing outside that orbit, across the room, or even across the universe. Each particle exists, in a very real sense, everywhere in the universe at once. Because of this, every particle is in contact with every other particle. All particles thus ‘dance’ together, to a greater or lesser degree. We can clearly see this phenomenon in special cases like superconductivity (wherein ‘electrons are thus participating in a common action based on a common pool of information.’)” [Skirbina, p 204-5]


At this point, pursuing quantum theory deep into the woods is likely to get us lost—some of us, anyway, including me. Avoiding that, of course, runs the risk of oversimplifying and thus distorting the esoteric science of our modern world, but that will have to be the risk we take. The physicist Amit Goswami provides a summary that suffices for our purposes:


“…[T]hinking of matter and light in the old Newtonian way--namely, matter is always localized, traveling in well-defined trajectories, and light is always wavelike, dispersed, capable of being at more than one place at the same time--gave [physicists] anomalies and paradoxes. They discovered a new way of thinking--the quantum way …


“Recognizing that light has a localized particle nature in addition to its more familiar wave nature and that matter has a wave nature in addition to its more familiar localized particle nature eliminated the anomalies and paradoxes …


“Quantum objects exist as a superposition of possibilities until our observation brings about actuality … And observation brings about the collapse of the possibility wave into an actual event … Consciousness no longer is seen as brain epiphenomenon but as the ground of being, in which all material possibilities, including the brain, are embedded.” [Amit Goswami, Physics of the Soul, Hampton Roads Publishing Co. Inc, 2001, p 12-14]


Since James himself talks about soul, we can courageously add this possibly outrageous statement from Goswami:  “While the physical body, when alive, represents possibilities which always must manifest as a localized structure that has a finite beginning and a finite end, the soul represents possibilities, potentia without localized structure in manifestation.” 


Physicist Werner Heisenberg: “The probability wave . . . means a tendency for something. It’s a quantitative version of the old concept of potentia in Aristotle’s philosophy. It introduces something standing in the middle between the idea of an event and the actual event, a strange kind of physical reality just in the middle between possibility and reality.”


Physicist Nick Herbert: “Heisenberg’s world of potentia is both less real and more real than our own. It is less real because … of mere tendencies, not actualities. On the other hand, the unmeasured world is more real because it contains a wealth of coexistent possibilities, most of which are contradictory. In Heisenberg’s world a flipped coin can show heads and tails at the same time.” [Nick Herbert, Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1987, p 27]


This strange realm is labeled, among other things, consciousness. What does that mean and can it help us understand ourselves and what’s around us? It seems very far from our daily experience of tables, trees, cars, and children. Our default understanding comes from three centuries of an assumption in science, namely that all phenomena are based on matter. This new paradigm instead is based on the primacy of consciousness, that is, a unitive and transcendent deep reality, a one that becomes many in sentient beings like us. “We are that consciousness,” Goswami says. “All the world of experience, including matter, is the material manifestation of transcendent forms of consciousness.”


William James wrestled all his life with the nature of consciousness, sometimes dismissing the idea that there is such a thing, suggesting there is a process we can call consciousness, but that it is not a thing. He struggled for a consistent view of whether consciousness is one or many. His examination teases out ways to see it. We’ll have do deal with hints rather than clear, rational statements--potentia, as it were, instead of bumper stickers. James spends a great deal of time dealing with the one and many question, and finally has a surprise or two for himself and us.


Along the way he observes that two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen don’t just combine: they form a third quantity that has different characteristics from either of the others. Likewise, he tells himself, [189] higher states of consciousness are not only made up of the simpler, but have different characteristics. And on he goes.


If we have trouble grasping what all the fuss is about, difficulty seeing the point of making such fine distinctions, we can be complimented for not being absorbed in the intellectualism that James finally declares to be his real problem. Here’s what he for so long thought was his dilemma:


[204] “I don't logically see how a collective experience of any grade whatever can be treated as logically identical with a lot of distributive experiences.” Ultimately, he finds rationality “makes the universe discontinuous.” He finds that unacceptable, even “unintelligible.”


Here James gets to the heart of it: what we actually experience should outweigh what we make of it all with our intellect: 


[207] “That secret of a continuous life which the universe knows by heart and acts on every instant cannot be a contradiction incarnate. If logic says it is one, so much the worse for logic.”


He’s intrigued by the idea behind what we call the “soul,” but finds the word inadequate to reveal what it really means:


[209] The word soul “shares the fate of other unrepresentable substances and principles. They are without exception all so barren that to sincere inquirers they appear as little more than names masquerading … You see no deeper into the fact that a hundred sensations get compounded or known together by thinking that a 'soul' does the compounding than you see into a man's living eighty years by thinking of him as an octogenarian.”


[211] “Let us leave out the soul, then, and confront what I just called the residual dilemma. Can we, on the one hand, give up the logic of identity?—can we, on the other, believe human experience to be fundamentally irrational? Neither is easy, yet it would seem that we must do one or the other.”


[212] “For my own part, I have finally found myself compelled to give up the logic, fairly, squarely, and irrevocably. It has an imperishable use in human life, but that use is not to make us theoretically acquainted with the essential nature of reality—just what it is I can perhaps suggest to you a little later. Reality, life, experience, concreteness, immediacy, use what word you will, exceeds our logic, overflows and surrounds it.”


[213] He is content to accept reality as being of no “higher denomination than that distributed and strung-along and flowing sort of reality which we finite beings swim in. That is the sort of reality given us, and that is the sort with which logic is so incommensurable.”


[214] “If I had not read Bergson, I should probably still be blackening endless pages of paper privately, in the hope of making ends meet that were never meant to meet.”


[215] “For our present purpose, then, the essential contribution of Bergson to philosophy is his criticism of intellectualism … [216] [W]hat Bergson denies is that its methods give any adequate account of this human experience in its very finiteness.”


[217] “Intellectualism has its source in the faculty which gives us our chief superiority to the brutes, our power, namely, of translating the crude flux of our merely feeling-experience into a conceptual order … When we name and class it, we say for the first time what it is, and all these whats are abstract names or concepts. Each concept means a particular kind of thing, and as things seem once for all to have been created in kinds, a far more efficient handling of a given bit of experience begins as soon as we have classed the various parts of it. Once classed, a thing can be treated by the law of its class, and the advantages are endless. … [T]his power of framing abstract concepts is one of the sublimest of our human prerogatives. We come back into the concrete from our journey into these abstractions, with an increase both of vision and of power. It is no wonder that earlier thinkers, forgetting that concepts are only man-made extracts from the temporal flux, should have ended by treating them as a superior type of being, bright, changeless, true, divine, and utterly opposed in nature to the turbid, restless lower world. The latter then appears as but their corruption and falsification.


[218] He warns against thinking “that the essences of things are known whenever we know their definitions. So first we identify the thing with a concept and then we identify the concept with a definition, and only then, inasmuch as the thing is whatever the definition expresses, are we sure of apprehending the real essence of it or the full truth about it. …


“The misuse of concepts begins with … using them not merely to assign properties to things, but to deny the very properties with which the things sensibly present themselves … [219] It is but the old story, of a useful practice first becoming a method, then a habit, and finally a tyranny that defeats the end it was used for. Concepts, first employed to make things intelligible, are clung to even when they make them unintelligible.”


[221] “The particular intellectualistic difficulty that had held my own thought so long in a vise was, as we have seen at such tedious length, the impossibility of understanding how 'your' experience and 'mine,' which 'as such' are defined as not conscious of each other, can nevertheless at the same time be members of a world-experience defined expressly as having all its parts co-conscious, or known together. The definitions are contradictory, so the things defined can in no way be united.”


We’ve perhaps also noticed the quantum view is, for all its puzzlement, rather thin compared with personal experience. Next we see if Bergson can make things less unintelligible.


Bergson: Into the thick of reality

French philosopher Henri Bergson, in a 1903 letter to William James, wrote:


“‘The unity of the self’ of which philosophers speak, appears to me as the unity of an apex of a summit to which I narrow myself by an effort of attention-- an effort which is prolonged 

during the whole of life, and which, as it seems to me, is the very essence of life. …


 “I am quite convinced that if a really positive 

philosophy is possible, it can only be found there [by going beyond logic alone].”


James, the relentless reader, found that of all the people seriously seeking reality:


[243]  “Bergson alone … denies that mere conceptual logic can tell us what is impossible or possible in the world of being or fact.” [244] “We live forward, we understand backward, said a danish writer; and to understand life by concepts is to arrest its movement, cutting it up into bits as if with scissors, and immobilizing these in our logical herbarium where, comparing them as dried specimens, we can ascertain which of them statically includes or excludes which other.”


[246] “[I]n the deeper sense of giving insight they have no theoretic value, for they quite fail to connect us with the inner life of the flux, or with the causes that govern its direction. Instead of being interpreters of reality, concepts negate the inwardness of reality altogether.” [247] “Sensible reality is too concrete to be entirely manageable.”


“The only way in which to apprehend reality's thickness is either to experience it directly by being a part of reality one's self, or to evoke it in imagination by sympathetically divining some one else's inner life. But what we thus immediately experience or concretely divine is very limited in duration, whereas abstractly we are able to conceive eternities … Direct acquaintance and conceptual knowledge are thus complementary of each other; each remedies the other's defects. … But if, as metaphysicians, we are more curious about the inner nature of reality or about what really makes it go, we must turn our backs upon our winged concepts altogether, and bury ourselves in the thickness of those passing moments over the surface of which they fly, and on particular points of which they occasionally rest and perch.”


[253”The essence of life is its continuously changing character; but our concepts are all discontinuous and fixed.”


[254] “[I]n the real concrete sensible flux of life experiences compenetrate each other so that it is not easy to know just what is excluded and what not. Past and future, for example, conceptually separated by the cut to which we give the name of present, and defined as being the opposite sides of that cut, are to some extent, however brief, co-present with each other throughout experience. The literally present moment is a purely verbal supposition, not a position; the only present ever realized concretely being the 'passing moment' in which the dying rearward of time and its dawning future forever mix their lights. Say 'now' and it was even while you say it.”


[256] “We are so inveterately wedded to the conceptual decomposition of life that I know that this will seem to you like putting muddiest confusion in place of clearest thought, and relapsing into a molluscoid state of mind. Yet I ask you whether the absolute superiority of our higher thought is so very clear, if all that it can find is impossibility in tasks which sense-experience so easily performs.


“What makes you call real life confusion is that it presents, as if they were dissolved in one another, a lot of differents which conception breaks life's flow by keeping apart. But are not differents actually dissolved in one another? Hasn't every bit of experience its quality, its duration, its extension, its intensity, its urgency, its clearness, and many aspects besides, no one of which can exist in the isolation in which our verbalized logic keeps it?”


[258] “Without being one throughout, such a universe is continuous. Its members interdigitate with their next neighbors in manifold directions, and there are no clean cuts between them anywhere.”


[259] “Meanwhile each of us actually is his own other to that extent, livingly knowing how to perform the trick which logic tells us can't be done. My thoughts animate and actuate this very body which you see and hear, and thereby influence your thoughts. The dynamic current somehow does get from me to you, however numerous the intermediary conductors may have to be … [I]n life distinct things can and do commune together every moment.”


[261] “When you have broken the reality into concepts you never can reconstruct it in its wholeness. Out of no amount of discreteness can you manufacture the concrete. But place yourself at a bound, … as M. Bergson says, inside of the living, moving, active thickness of the real, and all the abstractions and distinctions are given into your hand: you can now make the intellectualist substitutions to your heart's content. Install yourself in phenomenal movement, for example, and velocity, succession, dates, positions, and innumerable other things are given you in the bargain.”


[262] “Get at the expanding centre of a human character, the élan vital of a man, as Bergson calls it, by living sympathy, and at a stroke you see how it makes those who see it from without interpret it in such diverse ways. It is something that breaks into both honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, stupidity and insight, at the touch of varying circumstances, and you feel exactly why and how it does this, and never seek to identify it stably with any of these single abstractions.”


[263] “What really exists is not things made but things in the making. Once made, they are dead, and an infinite number of alternative conceptual decompositions can be used in defining them. But put yourself in the making by a stroke of intuitive sympathy with the thing and, the whole range of possible decompositions coming at once into your possession, you are no longer troubled with the question which of them is the more absolutely true. Reality falls in passing into conceptual analysis; it mounts in living its own undivided life—it buds and bourgeons [sprouts], changes and creates. Once adopt the movement of this life in any given instance and you know what Bergson calls the devenir réel [become real] by which the thing evolves and grows. Philosophy should seek this kind of living understanding of the movement of reality, not follow science in vainly patching together fragments of its dead results.”


[265] “[O]pen Bergson, and new horizons loom on every page you read. It is like the breath of the morning and the song of birds. It tells of reality itself, instead of merely reiterating what dusty-minded professors have written about what other previous professors have thought.”


[272] “We are so subject to the philosophic tradition which treats logos or discursive thought generally as the sole avenue to truth, that to fall back on raw unverbalized life as more of a revealer, and to think of concepts as the merely practical things which Bergson calls them, comes very hard. It is putting off our proud maturity of mind and becoming again as foolish little children in the eyes of reason. But difficult as such a revolution is, there is no other way, I believe, to the possession of reality …”

[to be continued, and maybe modified ... ]

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