A lot of my thinking over the past year rests on an assumption about observers, namely, that cognition and perception are observer-dependent, and thus cannot provide access to any absolute Reality or Truth.
Yet notice that for this assumption to justify the conclusion, it has to be interpreted as being actually real – that is, that the observer is a real object with real capabilities that can be known and measured.
But my conclusion states the precise opposite of that!
Is this clear? It is like I am saying “only the perceiving cognizing human observer is real – everything else is conditional, relative, uncertain, et cetera.” If one looks at it this way, it’s incoherent. It presupposes the reality of the body – of the observer – in order to argue that nothing is real (or certain or true . . . ). The premise undermines the conclusion.
So perhaps I am wrong, or at least deeply confused. Then what?
I might conclude that bodies are actually real and that the world they construct (via perception and cognition) enjoys an actual non-trivial correspondence to Reality. The dead really are dead and the living really do need to eat and sleep.
On that view, a path like A Course in Miracles – and other contemporary approaches to nonduality – are wrong. Embodied duality subject to time and space is the only God there is, and it doesn’t give a damn about our feelings. Kneel before the microscopes and telescopes! Pledge thy fealty to Feynmann!
On that view, religion and spirituality are only useful to the extent they modify our behavior in the direction of helpfulness, kindness, gentleness, et cetera. They ought to be evaluated the same way we evaluate pharmaceuticals – run tests under strictly monitored conditions, gather up data, and then go where the data says go.
A lot of us don’t like that but . . . what if it’s where logic and experience take us? Would that be okay?
Another possible conclusion is to realize that presumptions notwithstanding, we are still left with the observer. There is still this experience. If one explanation for it falls shy of accuracy, and another one doesn’t feel sufficiently magical or otherwise appealing, why not look for others?
Is it possible that a pure approach to nonduality is coherent? That is, to argue that there is only awareness with its unbelievably rich tapestry of experiences, including the one of being a human observer with her intimately dualistic worldview? That everything – from gravity to cancer cells to bullets to pansies – are all merely appearances in, to, and as awareness?
That even this self is an appearance? Even this precious apparent center alternately calling itself “Me” and “I?”
Often, faced with knotty dilemmas such as these, I fall back to shrugging. I can’t prove Eckhart Tolle and Ramana Maharshi and Rupert Spira wrong. Feynmann and Maturana and Nagel can’t quite totally convince me they’re right . . . So maybe the best thing is to adopt whatever posture works best. What’s right is what works!
What’s handy about that is it lets me skip the hard questions and instead focuses on defining “works” and how to go about accurate measuring.
Say I want “works” to mean “most efficient at securing a natural and serious happiness throughout the collective,” and I am going to measure it through happiness indexes, food security, statistics on global death by famine, war, disease et cetera.
From a nondual perpsective I can say, well, yes, all that are appearances in consciousness but . . . it makes me happy. And being happy seems to help me make you happy, so . . . yes. We’ll do that. Even if it’s merely appearance.
Is that enough? To just say “hey – nondualism works for me. YMMV. It’s all good!”
What about my neighbor who believes a patriarchal Christian worldview is what makes people happiest? And his standard for measurement is how many women are only able to do what their fathers/husbands/brothers allow them to do?
Must I do battle – epistemological or otherwise – with my neighbor? What if he tries to convert me? What if he tries to convert my daughter?
Or what if my neighbor is a physicist and she mounts a well-sourced, well-articulated rational argument in favor of simply accepting bodies as objects in a universe subject to physical laws. I can’t refute it. And it’s at least moderately predictable (in a Bayesian sense). Adopting it makes me more productive and efficient, and productivity and efficiency help promote this “natural and serious happiness . . . ”
Must I accept her argument? Must I put my crucifixes and tarot cards and A Course in Miracles away?
I don’t think these are trivial questions! Which is not to say they are all equally valid or even answerable. But they do seem to follow from my premise: which is that the premise I adopt viz. human observers may, in fact, be bullshit.
When faced with a seam in the foundation, it’s a good idea to take it seriously.
How do we know anything? How does knowing matter? Is there some degree of unknowing that is acceptable? What degree? Who decides? Who will help us? And how will we know?
Where do we go from here?