Actually, it might be, but who knows?
by Michael W. Taft
If you’ve ever practiced in a nondual tradition, you’ve heard the phrase, “The Universe is ONE,” probably a few million times. It’s a staple of how nonduality is communicated, “we’re all connected,” “there is no separation,” “it’s all one big consciousness.” In the traditional versions of these teachings, they pretty much leave this helpful pointing out instruction at that. But in the modern West, we’ve taken it further. Much, much further, into a realm where it was never meant to be taken. To the point where, in my opinion, it becomes completely misleading.
What is nonduality? Click here
The misstep here, and it is an epic one, is to think that what your experience in your meditation (a first-person, subjective experience) has anything at all to do with how the external universe works (a third-person, objective reality). You think you are discovering the hidden truth underlying reality, but that is not what’s going on at all. Instead you’re discovering the hidden truth behind all of your experience, the secret of who you really are—which is arguably much more important. This misunderstanding leads to all kinds of problems, and, worst of all, simply wastes your time and fills your brain with a lot of useless ideas.
When you have a nondual experience (and, yes, I know that it’s not strictly proper to call it an experience, but we’re restricted to using human language here), there is a profound collapse of subject-object duality. In the smaller, but still significant version of this there is a collapse of the difference between you and any other object in the world. In the larger version of this, there is a collapse of the difference between you and the world, on the one hand, and the Ground of Being or God or the Source on the other. Everything appears to be composed of one, undivided universal consciousness. The entirety of the world is simply one. To call this experience profound doesn’t do it justice. It is radically reshaping of your life and is utterly transformative.
What is going on here? How could it be that all things appear to be equal, composed of consciousness, and connected? There are two possible explanations:
- That it is the literal, external, objective truth, or
- That it is true from the subjective experience of a mind.
If you land on the first explanation, which is the standard one (in most but not all nondual philosophies), then hopefully you will just accept that and leave it alone. If not, you will be stuck forever trying to find all sorts of scientific justifications for this belief. There is a huge zoo of these so-called explanations, most of which rely on some sort of quantum mysticism. In QM, you use a fundamental misunderstanding of quantum physics to postulate an underlying “connection between all things” as well as a “substrate of pure consciousness” out of which the universe is supposedly created.
Scientific Explanations Required?
I’ll leave it up to others to debunk these misunderstandings in detail, but what I’d like to say here is this: Why is it important to you to even try to make these elaborate “scientific” claims? Such claims will not deepen your nondual awareness, nor will they somehow give you any more abilities to “create the world you want” than you have already. All they leave you with is a half-baked belief system which you’ll spend the rest of your life arguing with others about. At best, you can make a fairly decent living trying to explain it to others who will then believe that you are deep. But it is my contention that you are actually misleading people.
The second explanation, on the other hand, is simple, clearly true (while not negating the possibility of first one), and actually can benefit you and other people. Let’s look at it more closely. It seems as if everything is actually one thing (which is not a thing, but…). It seems like everything is infused with or made of consciousness (or emptiness). It seems as if a perfect, pure, endless, timeless, awareness unifies everything. As Nisargadatta puts it in one of a thousand similar quotes: The world you perceive is made of consciousness; what you call matter is consciousness itself.
How is that possible? Does he actually mean that consciousness is the only reality, or is he saying something much more direct and comprehensible? Let’s look at it from a secular and scientific perspective. First of all, no human being has ever experienced the actual world. Your experience of the world comes to you through the signals of a group of peripheral devices, called “senses.” Those signals are then assembled in the brain into some kind of experience. It’s important to remember that this experience is a brain-generated representation, not the actual outside world. It’s just like a really high-resolution VR.
Secondly, no human being has ever experienced their own body for exactly the same reasons listed above. The nerve impulses from your body are assembled in the brain into an experience, but this is just a virtual representation of the body. Thirdly, the same is true for even your thoughts and emotions.
Let’s look at the situation then. All sensory experiences of the external world, your own body, and your own thoughts are just brain-generated representations. (There probably really IS an physical reality out there, and a physical self that houses your physical brain, but you’ve never experienced any of that directly. ) Instead, what you are experiencing as yourself and the world is a very compelling, convincing VR generated by your brain. This is not me speculating here, this is just standard neuroscience of perception — that’s how brains and bodies work.
Under those conditions, noticing that all thoughts, feelings, sensations, and sensory experiences are “one” is utterly clarifying. They are in fact all generated by one brain — yours. They are in fact pervaded by one consciousness — yours. Your experience of life and the world is in fact a dream — your dream. This fact is utterly liberating when experienced from within. It is in fact total, seamless, stainless, pure nondual reality. One Taste. It.
Here, neuroscientist Anil Seth describes this viewpoint of conscious experience:
Nondual Quantum Nonsense
When understood intellectually, in the way I just outlined it, you will probably not have a strong nondual awakening. The real thing is a first-person, non-intellectual direct “knowing.” A collapse of the VR into pure wakefulness. But it has two advantages over the usual intellectual understanding of nonduality. The first is that you won’t get lost in endless speculation about “creating your own reality.” Yes, your brain generates your experience of the world, and that is a highly-slanted version of the world, filtered and mediated through a lot of unconscious biases. But, no, that doesn’t equal the actual, external world. Those are two different things.
I hasten to add here that, Yes, there almost certainly is real physical world out there with real physical humans in it, with you living among them. And, yes, your senses are probably reporting a fairly accurate version of that world. It’s crucial for survival that they do so. So, yes, the world is probably real—it’s just that you’ve never experienced that world.
Secondly—and I think this point is extremely ironic—you can quit being so sure you know how the Universe works. It may in fact be all one, and composed of pure consciousness. I’m not saying it isn’t—except in the title of this article, which is intended to be provocative. All I’m saying is that you don’t know. And you definitely don’t know because it looks that way when you close your eyes and sit quietly. Landing on one fixed interpretation of How Everything Works is the epitome of what nondual experience teaches you to avoid, isn’t it? The whole damn point is that you don’t know in concepts and that you can never know in concepts how the universe actually works. The underlying construction of the universe, what is called “deep reality,” is forever beyond the ken of science, and certainly beyond the ken of your meditation experience.
Thirdly, and this is the most important point, you can stop wasting your time attempting to slap together kludges of pseudo-science and poetry into some kind of Theory of Everything. Such theories are just embarrassing to you and everyone else and are almost certainly wrong. They won’t help you to build a better airplane, or cure cancer. They will only cause you to squander your one precious life on this planet.
Of course, in practice letting go of all of these concepts is crucial. This is true of all ideas about how the brain works, how the world works, and how the universe works, too. For me, the understanding that even the experience of the external world is a kind of unconscious creation of the brain makes it much easier to let go of, and come back continuously to the consciousness that supports it.
For those of you who feel like enlightened nondual masters, try this experiment: Just for a few days, let go of all your theories about the supposed scientific validity of nondualism. Let go of being convinced that the world is composed of consciousness. Recognize that even if these are both true, they only exist in your mind as concepts. Don’t just drop them provisionally, drop them utterly and entirely. Allow yourself to be truly concept-free during this time, fully immersed in not-knowing. My guess is that you will discover a level of freedom that you have never experienced before.
“I want you to know that there are no colors in the real world, there are no fragrances in the real world, that there’s no beauty and there’s no ugliness. Out there beyond the limits of our perceptual apparatus is the erratically ambiguous and ceaselessly flowing quantum soup. And we’re almost like magicians in that in the very act of perception, we take that quantum soup and we convert it into the experience of material reality in our ordinary everyday waking state of consciousness.”
~ Sir John Eccles, Nobel Prize winning neurophysiologist and philosopher
Related articles: Nonduality and Mindfulness: Two Great Traditions that Go Great Together , Follow the Threads—Mindful Awakening
mountain photo by HD Wallpaper
quantum foam by Alex Sukontsev
So what is your take on John Hagelin’s essay, “Is Consciousness the Unified Field?”
I’d say that he’s making a fundamental mistake of trying to prove his religion scientifically. That’s a waste of time, and a misunderstanding of religion.
But, from his perspective, _advaita vedanta_ isn’t a religion, but an interpretation of the perspective that arises out of a physiological state of consciousness.
You read the essay, I assume.
Yes, and he’s writing from Fairfield, IA.
Michael, this is a great article. I was thinking along the same lines but you formulated the point perfectly.
Hi Michael, loved this article (and your new book, btw).
I attended SAND for the first time last year and spent the much of the day feeling baffled. Just couldn’t figure out why so many of the sessions involved a speaker theorizing about (or baldly claiming their ultimate understanding of) the physical universe, based only on his or her subjective experience. After about the 10th mysterious invocation of quantum physics I decided the confusion might not all be my own. But it’s reassuring to see this sort of analysis from a 10,000x deeper practitioner… thanks!
On a somewhat related note, it seems to be a pretty explicit teaching in much of the Vipassana world that by practicing insight meditation, we’re able to experience the “ultimate truth” of our subjective/sensory experience. Certainly I’ve found that by paying close attention, over time, I’m able to make finer and finer distinctions about how my subjective experiences appear to relate to one another (for instance, noticing how a mental image arises or dissolves in response to an external sight or sound, in a mechanical and essentially empty way).
I can see how following this path further could result in a yet more direct subjective experience of this emptiness, a complete unraveling of the ‘self’ into constituent sensations, etc. One interpretation of that might be that I’m closer to apprehending some absolute reality and seeing through a huge “delusion”. But it seems to me an equally useful, equally valid, and more easily supported interpretation is simply that these practices tend to change one’s subjective experience in a characteristic way (which has many desirable qualities 🙂 In other words, not that I’m getting closer to the reality of subjective experience, so much as the reality of subjective experience for people who meditate a lot! What are your thoughts on this?
Cheers and thanks for the great site!
Thanks, Otto. Thanks for the feedback.
Regarding your Vipassana question, I think that Vipassana really can deconstruct your subjective experience to a pretty high degree. And that experience can be utterly liberating. Whether it’s the “truth” of experience or not is a big question and a high bar. But I do agree with you that the practice changes your experience of your own experience in a very desirable way.
“It’s important to remember that this experience is a brain-generated hallucination or fantasy, not the actual outside world. It’s just like a really, really high-resolution VR.”
Sorry, but this is bullshit
I study neuroscience and what you just said is pure bullshit.
You obviously experience the outside world, there is no other escape for you, you get signals and information from external objects. It is not like playing a game and imagining that you are there using devices, IT IS OBJECTIVE REALITY IN FRONT OF YOU, there isn’t any images in the brain, what you see is not an image, but the actual object.
So I suggest you to edit this post.
All the rest is fine.
Have a nice day.
Yes, yes, don’t get upset. I’m not denying the existence of objective reality. I’m not using the language of neuroscience here, because I’m not speaking to an audience of only neuroscientists. I’m using the language of the meditation community to describe what you would call “indirect realism.” As I mention twice in the article, I’m not saying that the external world does not exist. We can all agree on the existence of some external object. What I’m saying is from the subjective perspective you are not actually seeing a rock, you are encountering a stream of sensory data about a rock. When I write “image” here, what I mean is the subjective experience of a stream of visual information. There’s nothing in what I’m saying that disagrees with standard neuroscience.
That’s clearly not what you said
“that this experience is a brain-generated hallucination or fantasy ”
No, It is not a hallucination, nor fantasy, there is a big difference between hallucinating and you seeing what is in front of you.
“For me, the understanding that even the external world is a kind of unconscious creation of the brain”
Here, you are just saying that the brain is creating the external world, this is beyond absurd.
To me, this is philosophy, not neuroscience.
Direct realism is what works, in direct seeing, not two images, but the actual thing.
What you think about saying this is hallucination, isn’t wrong to say that?
Or that the unconscious brain is creating instead of PERCEIVING only. what is there.
The brain is a perceiver, not a creator.
The act of perception is an act of creation. The brain uses its memories, interpretations, filters, and expectations to help parse the incoming streams of sense data. Of course. Although this sense data is coming from the real external world, you are only every perceiving a facsimile of the world, not the real world itself. In that (limited and metaphoric) sense, this facsimile of the world is like a hallucination or fantasy or dream. You have never experienced the actual external world, only your perception of it, and the two things are different (albeit related). The argument you are making is like saying that the senses are windows and there is a little man in your head who sees the real world directly. (Never mind that you then have to explain how the homuculus would see it.) I’m never saying that the external world doesn’t exist, just that you’ve never experienced it as it is — only as your brain perceives it. Again, notice that I’m talking about a first person, subjective perspective, not a third person objective one.
The speculative probabilities regarding our universe is an exciting path to follow. We must
always remember that new “concept realities” are being discovered, and the more of them
we study the better we will be at honing in on an answer. We as a global species have been
trying to answer this question since the beginning of time…so keep on the path that you think
is best. Thank-You to all that have shared their own “concept realities” with us.
(Each step we take gets us one step closer to finding the answer)
It may be that the answer can never be proven only believed.
Enjoy the journey!
“For me, the understanding that even the external world is a kind of unconscious creation of the brain”
that is even more nonsense, no, it isnt.
Edited for clarity to say “…the experience of the external world…”
I think you are spot on. Some people say you are arguing for representationalism (indirect realism), which is true, but it seems to be the conventional belief from the neuroscientists nowadays, in oppose to the common sense view of ‘direct realism’. I just disagree with the “virtual” or ‘high resolution’, representationalism does not say anything about being “virtual”, or in “high resolution”, like as if we were in a video game, haha, our retinas do in fact a great job processing light, to get the whole view of what is external to us with the best sight. But I do in fact believe that we don’t experience reality 100% as it is, visual illusions and color illusions prove it. Unconscious part of our brain must be the subconscious do in fact create illusions, it doesn’t create real objects around us, but if you smoke DMT it can indeed create visual hallucinations which we can call ‘objects’ of our own perception, so yes, our unconscious can indeed fabricate some sort of reality when we are tripping, but not reality tho.
Thanks, Mina. I get what you’re saying, but I think you’re missing an important point. Even if the eyes (or retinas) are extremely accurate in processing light, as you say, they are still converting that into electrical impulses, which are then parsed and processed by layer after layer of the brain. That processing is creating a visual image (i.e. a representation) within the brain which is, when you consider it, 100 percent constructed. This does of course bear a close relationship to whatever is being seen by the eyes (and must, for us to survive and thrive). It is not that we are hallucinating, in the sense of seeing something that isn’t there, but it is something somewhat like a hallucination, in that our experience is of the representation, not the actual, external object we are seeing. In an actual hallucination, we’re seeing a representation of something that isn’t there. In ordinary perception, we’re seeing a representation of something that is there. In both cases, we are seeing an internally-generated representation. This is just obvious, and is—in fact—standard, conventional neuroscience of perception.
“I’m never saying that the external world doesn’t exist, just that you’ve never experienced it as it is”
that’s also false. you could be experiencing as it is , and you would never know it. and you do, since hallucinations differs from when you are dirrectly seeing it as it is, do you wanna argue against it? if u would, there would be no common sense reality that we all share and see as it is, and hallucinations and brain and eye color illusions would not exist.
you are arguing for representationalism, just admit it, no neuroscientists agree with you, we would still not know everything on how we see and how our eyes and brains work for us too see reality around us.
but I think you may be saying sometimes we do not see as it is, or some sort of unconscious interpretation based on the past, can alter our directly knowing or perception of what we are seeing , or maybe even drugs can do that
Just want to point out that the main technique of Advaita Vedanta (self enquiry) very much agrees with your article, and also with the modern understandings of metaphysics via quantum mechanics (see the journal of neuroquantology). I utilize self enquiry as one would with any sort of ‘neti neti’ meditation and it always comes back to the same point. Ask who am I? Then ask who is the I that am? Find the I within you and youll see that it is not, it is just the mind/ego. It is the pure, unconditioned consciousness out of which the I comes that is. And that isness is likely an all pervasive aspect of reality that we truly are. So tough to explain in words but I hope I conveyed ‘my’ point in a comprehensible manner. It does not disagree at all with this article.
Thanks for sharing, Nicholas.
Thank you for the article, I enjoyed it very much.
I want to ask some clarification questions to see if we share the same understanding, one of your sentences got me thinking.
“There probably really IS an physical reality out there, and a physical self that houses your physical brain, but you’ve never experienced any of that directly.”
Would you agree that experience is by definition virtual/representational and therefore by definition non-direct?
I assume that by *directly* you mean to say *without mental representation in working memory*.
If so, would you consider an amoeba (for example) to be a being that does experience the physical reality *directly* (assuming it does not make use of a representational model of its environment)?
Does an amoeba have an experience (a consciousness)?
If not, does it imply that you can be alive but unconscious?
Or that it might be more proper to adjust the definition of life to *life = having consciousness* and an amoeba should be regarded as not-alive, like a virus?
I hope you understand my line of thought, I’m curious as to what you think.
Hi, Amir ~
1. Yes. Experience is meditated through software and hardware (mind and brain).
2. The short answer is that I have no idea. However, as just a guess, I’d say that there is a large class of animals who are alive, but not conscious.
and I might add something more. You are ONLY seeing something internally- ̷ ̷̶̷g̷̶̷e̷̶̷n̷̶̷e̷̶̷r̷̶̷a̷̶̷t̷̶̷e̷̶̷d̷̶̷ ̷̶̷r̷̶̷e̷̶̷p̷̶̷r̷̶̷e̷̶̷s̷̶̷e̷̶̷n̷̶̷t̷̶̷a̷̶̷t̷̶̷i̷̶̷o̷̶̷n̷̶̷ when you imagine with your mind; When you see something EXTERNAL, you are seeing it EXTERNALLY. If you still have problems or are still confused. (Take a LSD and start seeing a clown in front of you, if you can’t differ the real external clown, from the internal representation clown that the LSD just created, then you need a doctor to check your mental healthy)
There is no ‘high resolution’ there is no VR glasses in your brain with a button of high resolution, this is all fanciful nonsense you just made up. Your pupils will adjust for the brightness that is external, the rods/cones detect colors that are external, and so on………… where is the high resolution thing you talk about? where is the button and the vr glasses in your eyes?
And none of what you said obvious, nor is it standard, conventional neuroscience of perception. Neuroscience of perception STILL has the naive-realist view. Just ask the other neo-advaita religious troll called “Steven Lehar”, he argues for the same BS you do, and he tried to pushes his agenda to the mainstream physics of perception. He ended up being discarded. Do you know why ? Because representationalism (what you both argue) is 100% false. You know Anil Seth is not conventional science right? He is another new-ager ready to be refuted on youtube.
1. If you are seeing something externally, then maybe you should check your mental health. I submit that your brain is actually internal to your head, not external.
1.b. Please go learn about how perception works, specifically, how the brain uses memory and context to make guesses about what visual input represents, and then fills in the massive gaps using memory.
2. Please go learn about brain plasticity, and how practicing a skill increases the brain matter thickness and density in the areas responsible for that skill.
3. Please show me this 100% proof of the falsity of representationalism that you have.
Please return when you have something useful to contribute.
Michael, you write: Your experience of the world comes to you through the signals of a group of peripheral devices, called “senses.” Those signals are then assembled in the brain into some kind of experience. It’s important to remember that this experience is a brain-generated representation, not the actual outside world. It’s just like a really, really high-resolution VR.
You appear to be assuming something for which there is no evidence. What evidence is there for the existence of something purely non-mental, or “physical” as some philosophers put it, while admitting they have no definition of the word “physical”
How would you describe, for example, a ‘stone’ without referring to anything associated with experience or as some refer to it, phenomenal qualities?
Dozens of philosophers familiar with these questions have, by the way, attempted to engage Anil Seth and he has not given any evidence he understands what they are talking about.
I want to clarify, I’m taking a thoroughly agnostic position here. I don’t mean to imply there is “only” consciousness. I’m simply asking why you posit something unknowable in principle, something that is ultimately indefinable, incoherent and thus, as Pauli famously said, “not even wrong.”
There are four reasons I make these claims in the way I do:
1. I’m positing this in this overly certain way because it instantly removes a tremendous amount of mythology, bullshit, and confusion from the process of awakening. If you want to add in mystical elements after initial awakening, then fine. But get there first, and hacking through the morass of worship, religion, and complicated-but-unsupported theories in a single stroke is the best way to do that. We can also clear away the pseudo-scientific and totally unhelpful quantum nonsense I write about in the article. Notice that everyone making extravagant claims about the nature of reality (worlds of devas, demons, reincarnation, karma, etc.) also claim these without support. Let’s cut right to the chase with awakening.
2. I assume you, like me, regularly do thing—like drive an automobile and take allopathic medicine—that require positing a physical world with the properties described by chemistry, physics, etc. Do you require each of these to prove their existence philosophically before you make use of them? If you do, you’ll be waiting a long time before getting your medicine. So why should awakening be any different, or depend on some extra level of surety? Get there first, then ask that question.
3. To be provocative.
4. Because we do not have an infinite amount of time before we die. If these questions are unsolvable, currently, and we cannot posit anything with certainty, then let’s experiment with different sorts of temporary or conditional certainty and see what happens.
In short, I understand the point you’re making. I’m taking an overly-certain stance in the article to provoke discussion and questioning.
Thought I’d drop back in to try again. I do like very much your opening subtitle – “it might be but who knows”. But then you go on to contradict yourself regularly, as you do in this comment – “require positing a [self existent; ie existing apart from any awareness – human or non-human – whatsoever] physical world.”
I get that you’re intending to take an overly-certain stance, but citing Anil Seth’s philosophically delusional take on the brain is not the best way to go. A host of us over at Aeon tried over the course of the weeks to engage Dr. Seth in the most elementary philosophic discussion and he seemed hopelessly out of his depths.
While Donald Hoffman may be more of a cognitive scientist than a philosophically informed one, he at least has done his due diligence in providing a very philosophically sound (if you think I should have written “scientifically sound” then you might consider reflecting again on what the word “science” means – at leas,t what it tends to unfortuantely devolve to nowadays) explanation of why the idea that we evolved to perceive a wholly external purely physical world more or less as it “is” in “reality” to be without any empirical evidence.
And to add one more point, I’d be more than happy to acknowledge that people like Fritjof Capra made it nearly impossible to have an intellectually respectable conversation about physics and consciousness, I’d be quite surprised to hear you haven’t studied anybody who actually understands both physics and contemplative practice.
You might start with internationally acclaimed nuclear physicist Arthur Zajonc. To get past what Owen Barfield referred to as the “reside of unresolved positivism” in your otherwise articulate and even at times eloquent post and comments, you might go on to physicist/philosopher of science Michel Bitbol’s “Is Consciousness Primary?” Season this delectable reading dish with a careful examination of Steven Weinberg’s fantastic admission (and subsequent denial) that science (quantitative science as generally practiced nowadays) explains nothing, it only describes abstract relations between perceived phenomena (note “phenomena” means “appearing” – appearing in perception, or as perception).
If you’re really sincere about this, you could read through your post and comments adopting an “overly certain” attitude of pure agnosticism – no mysticism, no philosophy required, only honesty. This would, I imagine, be stunningly difficult and perhaps frightening emotionally, as it will challenge virtually every assumption you appear to cling to. As the Dalai Lama once said about emptiness, if you hear about it and aren’t utterly terrified, you have no idea what it means.
You are missing an important point. You say that external world and body may or may not exist and they can not be directly accessed in the experience (and this is fine).
But then you talk with certainty that experience (“VR”) is the creation of the brain. But how can you be so sure of existence of a brain? If you can’t be sure of existence or non-existence of the world or your body,
In the same way you can’t also be sure of the brain. Of course, brain could be inferred just like the world and body are inferred based on sense data, but they never appear as inherent things in themselves in the direct experience. In direct experience you can only have vision (like MRI), sounds, sensations, thoughts of the brain, but you can never ascertain or accessathe existence of brain except by inferral (which are thoughts!) based on experiential evidences.
You’re right that we cannot be 100 percent sure of those things. I didn’t explore that angle further in this article because:
1. As you said, it’s implied in the statement I make about the external world and the body.
2. Most nondual discussions are all about that angle, and so it’s not worth unpacking here.
3. While it’s a theoretical possibility, such solipsism isn’t that interesting.
But, yes, you are right.
There has never been a more solipsistic “philosophy” than physicalism (the scare quotes are there to allude to the understanding the nihilism is not, strictly, a “philosophy.” Though it must be added that it is an insult to nihilists to include them in the category of physicalism which is utterly incoherent)>
Eccles’ comment is a good example of the extent to which scientists become quite literally incapable of the simplest logical thinking when their minds have been swallowed up by physicalist delusions.
Michael would have us believe that while the knowing (Jnana) that arises in the greatest of sages tells us nothing per se about reality, yet takes seriously Eccles’ idea that there are no colors (or qualities) apart from human (or animal) perception.
It is astounding that such things are taken seriously.
I’m not sure why so many people here fail to grasp the simple truth of the matter that you elucidate pretty well. I may not agree with everything you said (such as a comment suggesting there are a large class of unconscious living things…I think it’s likely that all life has some degree of experience, but along with you, I can’t be certain). Unfortunately, I’ll have to leave further thoughts for another time. Gotta go shovel snow. Yay! This was a quite refreshing article, nonetheless. People are too “certain” and rely too much on “certainty of the fundamental nature of reality,” which I can agree, can be a massive distraction in waking up.
I definitely am not sure about how many living things are unconscious. Interesting point. Thanks!
Sorry, I forgot the add the title of Weinberg’s essay: “Does Science Explain Everything? Anything?” As I said, look particularly carefully at the ending, where he quite flawlessly concludes the answer to his question is “yes,” then, unable to resist the fear of sunyata, attempts in the most comically inept way to wriggle out of acknowledging the implications of what he has correctly concluded. A wonderful experiment. You might enjoy my “Shaving Science With Ockham’s Razor” as well.
Thanks for your article. Was a pleasure to read! I definitively support your point of not knowing. We too often get lost in theoretical arguments which mostly lead to nowhere. Which isnt bad, but theres no reason to do it as well :).
In the whole discussion about perceiving, real reality and similar I would point to the center in us – the center we are. What is it? Can you actually experience it? If not, theres not even a starting point for the perceiving/reality discussion. Everything is one and isn’t. Enjoy it and don’t enjoy it. Ambiguity rules and it doesnt.
A writer posts: “Thanks for your article. Was a pleasure to read! I definitively support your point of not knowing.”
Michael’s “thoughts” might be worth considering if he applied the same agnostic view to that of the physicalists (such as Seth, one of the most extreme) as to the non dualists.
Several of us (none of us non dualists, by the way, a view entirely infected with the physicalist virus) attempted to engage Seth in a simple philosophic discussion regarding his conclusions about the brain. This was at the online journal, Aeon. He had absolutely no idea how to begin thinking outside the box he has made for himself. one wonders how the world will escape the Kali Yuga!
Conclusions as to what is known or not seem to miss the point of love. Love being and or love not being. We love to feel we know. Even when we don’t know, we can still love. It can seem that love or satisfaction depends on knowing or the known. My mind has had me drawn toward loving knowing my whole life. I’m finding I can love being and or not being. As for this “being” beyond either being or not being, whether it is my reality or reality itself makes no difference to me or itself. Somehow love is here. Seems to me that when love turns to desire to know and then/now believes and feels it knows stuff. Then/now love behind it all gets lost in the shuffle and a subtle pride of knowing and being my “own” self kicks in.
I appreciate this because I have been confused and even quite disturbed by the assurance with which nondualists speak of the nature of absolute reality. Straining to understand, I have put myself through practices that have resulted in derealization and depersonalization, and the net result has been a subtraction of value from my life rather than an enhancement. If more adherents evinced the humility toward absolute knowledge shown here, I don’t think I would have gotten myself into nearly the trouble that I did. The irony is that the perspective described here is quite easy to grasp, one that I believe I have intuitively held all my life. In fact, I don’t know what it would even mean not to realize that one’s sensations were representations in consciousness. I can’t imagine what else they would be!
However, attempting to see through this to a worldview where the world had no independent reality beyond consciousness made the world feel hollow and hopeless. Thankfully, I just don’t think that perspective is tenable. All things that I closely observe, from flowers to bees to elevators to other people, operate in the world through a dynamic order that has consistency and integrity, even though I often can’t understand it from the outside. I have no idea how a bee’s wing flaps, but I know that it does, and I know that if I studied the topic, it would become comprehensible, would fit with other facts I know about bees and physical reality, and would also still contain some open mysteries. It is not my will – certainly not my conscious will – that creates this order. Of course this order could be said to be One, in the same sense that Einstein sought a description of reality that was simple enough to explain to a child. And yes, I am part of that order and that oneness. But it clearly exists outside of consciousness or has features that are not conscious or that are separated from one another, as evidenced to me by the fact that I often don’t know how or why I do what I do.
Thanks, Cody. I’m glad to hear that this article was helpful!
Why should we even assume there is a “real world”, some reality outside our experience?
We can’t even be sure that there is even a brain somewhere processing an external world.
All we know for certain is that there is experience happening.
The experience happening includes making it seem like there could be an external unknowable “real world” beyond experience.
But we don’t know. We only know that there is an experience.
Yes, that is a possibility. It’s not my favorite viewpoint, but it cannot be 100 percent discounted. That’s why, every now and again in the piece, I say that there “probably” is a world out there. Rather than “absolutely” is a world out there.
Hi Michael. Thanks for the article. A good pointer for me here is questioning where this part of me that wants the knowing of truth more than being comfortable with the unknowing.
That aside, there are just countless stories of near death experiences where patients leave their bodies and are able to witness and hear conversations from the other side of the operating room from doctors and nurses while they were under anesthesia.
I’m linking a video below from Dr. Lloyd Rudy who was one of the more well known mainstream cardiologists and here, he is talking about his experiences with patients who had NDE’s and were able to recall details of the operating room while under general anesthesia. It’s only 12 minutes. Please just give it a watch with an open mind, if you have 12 minutes to spare.
I do believe that much of this is even beyond the non dual scoop. I believe non duality is a piece, a starting point and a pointer to ultimate truth. But, people get stuck there, Like you said in the article….the first person view is life changing, but people confuse that with solipsism, which is delusion and a mis-understanding of non duality. This leads to a denial of the person and our human experience as well.
My personal take…..materialism is a paradigm….albeit an old one that is dying. There is a lot to suggest that consciousness is primary. The only limit for ourselves in opening to this is what we perceive as “evidence”.
Best to you.
Thank you for this fascinating and very elucidating article.
It takes balls to ponder god aka non dual experience in such a way.
I came to similar positions in the last years and to be honest it is very frustrating to listen to the uncritical “big consciousness in the sky” proponents, who would often dismiss any objections by saying they came from a lack of experience with non duality.
Yet, I wonder if the subjective and the objective ways of looking at the question of non duality are that far apart.
After all, the non dual experience is not just a subjective experience of a mind but rather the subjective experience of mind as such. That is to say – you hit upon territory that sort of supports and makes possible all conscious experience that a human brain as such can have. Although there may be individual flavours to it, non dual experience have some common traits which support this claim. So that can bee deemed the ground of consciousness not only produced by your brain but by any brain.
And here is the tricky part because if that is the case, all knowledge is supported by this ground. Including the knowledge of a brain. So if we accept the radical position that this is all some hyper detailed VR generated by the brain, we can question how do we know that there is a brain in the first place? Because we know of brains and how they function only as part of this VR that is made possible by this very consciousness we share.
Not sure if that make sense but at the moment I don’t have more time to state it more clearly:)
Once again, thanks for the article!
Very best wishes
We can always reduce the position to solipsism. Just turns out to not be that helpful.
Awesome article! I was really surprised that so many people attacked it, even though you really didn’t say anything controversial (from a neuroscience standpoint).
I loved how you said to stop trying to create a Frankenstein out of pseudoscience and subjective experience, and to simply keep practicing, because the deep truth may be ultimately unknowable. Beautiful!
Fantastic article. I’ve been feeling torn recently between experiencing a non-dual perspective during sits and sporadically through out my day on rare occasion, and the inability to put it into concrete terms that results in any more than “faith” about ‘how it is’, which left me feeling like I was just embracing nonsense. I in the course of self investigation I had forgotten that it’s ok to not know, to just go with the flow, and to not try to bottle it in concepts. This was a great reminder that I needed. Thank you.
Thanks for sharing, Paul!
I really appreciate you making clear how a non dual understanding can apply totally to the subjective existence, and yet have no actual underlying applicability to the physical reality or metaphysics, I.e. oneness of everything and everyone.
As a fairly staunch physicalist, (aside from a slight mysterianism regarding consciousness) and recently experiencing awakening, I have found my two worlds seemingly colliding, yet you give here a nice outline of how the two can exist alongside each other without creating any great disharmony or ambiguity.
This is a typical reply from an arrogant deluded scientist with lack of experience. Direct realism is a philosophical presumption. The whole endeavor of science is based off of philosophical premises.
‘We can all agree on the existence of some external objective.’
Eastern traditions and others disagree. Many westerners are very naive about reality and experience.
Maybe we disagree, but who is being naive here?
I’m surprised that neither the article nor the comments made any mention of pure awareness. I’ve been studying non duality for a long time, and pure awareness seems to be the unitive ground. Each conditioned mind is vastly different, but the unchanging backdrop of awareness “behind” the mind seems to be where we all meet as One. This is evidenced by the fact that everybody who brings attention to pure awareness describes it in the same way. I can’t think of anything else that everybody agrees on. So when people ask is the world real or does it exist independently from consciousness, my answer is always who knows and who cares?!
I thoroughly enjoyed your article. I was looking for a view contrarian to my own but I pretty much agree with all of it. You tricked me with your title, but that’s kind of the whole point, isn’t it? Just like preception is not reality, written language is not meaning. It points at meaning, so the reader should be willing to look in the direction it points. It’s ironic how some of your critics unskillfully fixate on terms like “high resolution” and “VR”, when they are clearly meant as analogies. Personally, I find it more useful to think in terms of inter-subjective experience, rather than of an external objective-yet-unknowable quantum soup. You could have written “the stream of sensory data that we intersubjectively classify as a rock” instead, but I get what you mean. In any case, I’m not sure my perspective requires any less assumptions about that which is unknowable.
You’ve obviously never taken LSD.
“All sensory experiences of the external world, your own body, and your own thoughts are just brain-generated representations.” Including brain itself and it’s presence.
That’s one possibility, of course. Which is why I keep saying “probably” rather than being absolutist.
The most interesting point, in my opinion, you made was whether or not there are living creatures/organisms without consciousness. Perhaps not the complex type of consciousness we possess. Is the jury still out? I enjoyed your article very much. You painted a Bullseye on your chest and took your hits. I respect that.
This post is 5 years old, so Presumably Kevin is no longer upset. I coincidentally came across the following quote by eminent scientist Edward O Wilson in his book Consilience:
“Outside our heads there is freestanding reality. Only madmen and a scattering of constructivist philosophers doubt its existence. Inside our heads is a reconstitution of reality based on sensory input and the self-assembly of concepts. Input and self-assembly, rather than an independent entity in the brain – the “ghost in the machine” in the philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s famous derogation – constitute the mind. The alignment of outer existence with its inner representation has been distorted by the idiosyncrasies of human evolution, as I noted earlier. That is, natural selection built the brain to survive in the world and only incidentally to understand it at a depth greater than is needed to survive…”
I think it’s interesting though how these individual experiences, albeit unique to each individual are impacted by the interactions with others having their own completely unique experiences. Through these interactions our subjective experience is shifted – thus wouldn’t these be interconnected on some level? If two fish run into each other and shift their life paths, and they go on their separate ways, are they not both part of a larger system in the interwoven sea of life connected on some level – ruled by the laws of physics as we know them? If all things with energy can move and create force on one another, why couldn’t consciousness do the same? If it can, could you see the argument for one?
Your article was exactly what I needed at this point in my meditation practice. I was getting hung up on some of these questions. The last paragraph in particular resonates very well with me. I was becoming lost in thought, looking for deeper meaning as to what the implications are to the non-duality I’m glimpsing more and more frequently, forgetting that there need be no deeper meaning and that this searching is just more of my wandering mind.
Thank you for this.
In my personal experience…when I think I “know”…thats when things go to shit.
Jesus kept saying “Oh ye of little “faith”. Not “oh ye of little certain, factual knowledge”. Faith.
Faith is not “knowing”.
When you try to nail down whats happening in the double slit experiment, it goes back to individual particles. Isolation. Isolation is misery for us.
When you dont try to “know” … it goes back to a wave. Ultimate connection. Connection is good for us.
On matters of consciousness..as soon as someone says they “know”…I know that they dont.
A very good article, Mr Taft. I appreciate your directness and your calmness in the face of disagreement. Well done.
I would like to speak briefly about non-duality and its perception. From what I have read in Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Cynthia Bourgeault and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, the possibility of being aware of non-duality lies in the capacity for we human beings to perceive in a way other than through the five senses, electrical impulses and the brain. I think these authors would readily agree that something like non-duality is not available to sense perception and brain function. A millennias-old understanding of the “heart” as a spiritual receptor and a heart- mind connection might be the means of grasping such information without the limitations and tangles (as so accurately described in Mr Taft’s article) of normal sense perception. This capacity of the mind-heart connection (a new SEAT of consciousness, has described by Ms Bourgeault) can be nurtured and developed through meditation, and according to Keating and Bourgeault quite effectively through what they refer to as Centering Prayer.
Language is the foundation of understanding as far as our minds are concerned. If I cannot put into language my relationship to reality, then other minds will not be able to test the validity of my experiences. They may call me a liar, fool or crazy. This tool I was given to understand, and investigate what it means to understand, is not suited for such inquiries. As soon as you start the investigation you’ve failed. I can be aware of what I cannot understand but I cannot use the tool of language to tell others. People should not believe my claims without evidence although the evidence is always presented or described with the tool of language. I may be aware of reality, but I am not able to understand because of what it means to understand. If I want to know to tell others I will not, If I want to know for personal discovery, I may (But with 0 Validity). Language can point to what is, but I must be with what is to “know”it. The end is the beginning and the beginning is the end.
What is the proof of this so called external real world? Why can’t this world exist without thoughts?
There’s not much difference between these scientists and religious people. They are hell bent on believing something that they have never experienced. Maybe it is because they are using their mind to understand something that is beyond it.
Thank you for your honesty and willingness to be yourself in a context that may seem a little “heretical” to some in the nondual space.
I think the point around what is internal and what is external is a good one to investigate, and not something we should take for granted, either from a monistic perspective or a materialistic perspective.
It’s also fair to say that many in the spiritual field use quantum theory in haphazard ways to try to add scientific credibility.
I’d be curious what your thoughts would be on Gorun Backlund’s book “Refuting the External World.” It’s a fairly short read and reasonably priced on Amazon Kindle. He uses logical deduction in a really interesting way to arrive at a seemingly nondual perspective.
Outside that, I’m intrigued by Daniel Ingram’s claims that through meditative techniques, he and his dharma friends are able to shape and bend reality. I’ve seen you in group interviews with him, so assuming you have some passing acquaintance with him at least.
If this is true, it seems to be a kind of “applied nonduality,” though I know I’m getting into silly concept-making at this point. I bring this up, because the materialist perspective seems to put up constraints on what is and isn’t possible, and the types of things Daniel talks about doing would be dismissed out of hand from that paradigm. I like to keep an open mind, and consider this type of exploration potentially highly useful. Healing would be just one example of the utility.
That isn’t a metaphysical claim in itself (though I would be curious to hear how Daniel might relate this to nonduality). At the same time, experiencing this directly would likely have a paradigm-loosening effect if one had an affinity with a materiastic framework.
Thank you for reading this and for your consideration.
looks like you got schooled by MWT buddy!
Colors do not exist externally. Specific wave lengths of light bounce off of certain materials and are then perceived by the rods and cones in the eye. This process is then coded as red in the brain, as even the eyes do not determine color.
What do you think of this study/theory? https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00371/full