Duality and Perspective
We are born like blank slates, but we are also born as evolved creatures with a vast history written into our genes. This history can be summed up in one word, “survival”. As the blank slate associates itself with our baby bodies, this history is powerfully brought to bear. “Hungry”, “cold”, “hot”, “sore” become our whole focus, and soon enough we learn that the source of these things are the body – our body.
This history in our genes lives in our bodies, acts on our bodies, and becomes our bodies. For single celled organisms, the genes appear to determine everything at a physical or instinctual level — programmed for survival. At the other end of the scale, humans are heavily influenced by this instictual survival programming, but at a level of sophistication that includes conscious decision making. We have a “fight or flight” instinct, we have a desire to reproduce, we have all all kinds of very basic instincts not too different from very simple creatures. However the history in our genes is also intimately linked with the initially blank slate that perceives and associates with the body. Our ability to construct plans and communicate them would not be possible without the self awareness we have as the ‘animators’ of these bodies.
To many, this self awareness is simply an emergent property of the level of complexity we have evolved over time. Just as no one designs a snowflake, and yet simple processes produce an amazing unique form that has perfect symmetry, without the molecules on one side knowing what the other side is doing. Along with many other compelling theories (e.g. see my earlier post on the “Mechanism of Learning”), there are some convincing reasons to believe that this blank slate that becomes our consciousness is just a convincing illusion created by the amazing computer that is our brain – the illusion is the thing. However there are also many reasons to believe that there is something more than this. Ignoring the whole question of where everything came from, why there is such order in the laws of the universe etc, perfectly sane people talk about a spiritual reality – billions of them.
Those looking for a ‘natural’ explanation for this understandably tie this back to the history in our genes. We survived through a long history filled with far more dangerous and powerful creatures because of our ability to interpret patterns, to make meaning out of them, and to react in a more effective way as a result. This ability is great when finding ways of defending the tribe from threats, or finding food, but when turned to the tricky existential questions that are beyond our normal pattern finding abilities, we create patterns that are not there. Of course these patterns we create reflect the ones we know. So to explain who provides the animals and the plants, the sun and the moon, we create an archetypal ‘father’ like the one that provided our meals as children, lit the fire at night.
I could extend this idea much further, but my aim is to describe the way we explain things when only looking at the physical, at the body. After all, we have associated ourselves with our bodies, and we only have tools to test and investigate the physical, so anything else is mere speculation. We can therefore build a wall of truth with the things that are solid and physcial as the foundation, and we can put some small speculative bricks at the top that describe the debates around unproven ideas. Something like “spirituality” can have a whole course of bricks, but the only other bricks they can be laid on are things like “culture”, “history” or “philosophy”. As a result, when modern science or philosophy investigates spiritual questions, there is a real problem with the nature of spiritual things. If the spirit or soul is real but we just can’t detect the substance of it with physical instruments, then how is it connected to the body ? Why do people with some types of brain damage loose specific abilities that would seem so core to us as self aware creatures ?
I don’t know all the answers to these last questions, but its worth reflecting on what the spirit is and what it is not. From a perspective of “matter is the primary reality”, the spirit is indeed something other, something different. From the perspective of spirit, there is no separation or distinction. The overwhelming commonality of the mystic experience is one of the unity of all things. Those who experience these moments of insight don’t see a unified spiritual world that sits separate to the physical world; from the perspective of the insight, the physical is just an extension of the spiritual, albeit temporary and constantly changing. What is said and done by a physical body has just as much spiritual reality as it does physical reality. It could be said that its the perspective of a distinction between the two that is the fall from the primal innocence that wild animals still have intact. By having the degree of awareness that allows us to become self aware, we do something significantly more than animals do when we associate ourselves with our bodies. We create a separation in our mind between the observer and the observed, between our thoughts and ourselves from which they emanate. The mind becomes an isolated loop. In the spiritual world numbers have an innate reality (hence things like symmetry which allow our equations to work), from the perspective of the looping mind they are creations of the mind.
So from the perspective of the science of matter (the only science we have), there is indeed duality. From the perspective of spirit, this is just an illusion, and spirit is the foundation on which matter rests. God is spirit, and he was spirit ‘before’ he created time and space and matter. We are created in his image, so we are primarily spirit, but that doesn’t mean that our bodies are separate from this spirit. The suggestion of those who have experienced this spiritual unity directly is that we can align ourselves to the innate unity of the spirit by an internal silence and detachment from the things of the world, and an attachment instead to the qualities of the spirit – such as kindness and truthfulness. If you are a christian like me, then you accept that we are unable to do this 100% by ourselves, and you embrace the offer god has made to take the splintered and disintegrated parts and make it whole again through him.
The process I mentioned before of creating our wall of bricks of ‘information’ or ‘conclusions’ is surely something that came from our evolutionary past. When seeing a new animal for the first time, our ancestors would surely have needed a degree of caution. Once it had attacked them, it would be thereafter labelled as dangerous. The individual who wanted to re-evalute this each time a similar animal appeared in future would soon end up dead. Likewise, a plant that poisoned someone would be labelled as “not food’, and similar plants in future avoided. Of course in times of extreme hunger, it may be necessary to re-evaluate that, and reconsider whether there may be a way to make food from such things. This way of boxing up conclusions (aka “opinions”) is deeply ingrained in our psyche. You rarely see an atheist become a believer in god through rational arguments. The ingrained process of relying on the wall of boxed conclusions is so strong that only when the person experiences some kind of desperation, such as a loss or feeling that they are at the end of their tether for some reason, do they re-evaluate the contents of the bricks, and where they sit in the big picture. This is often an experience a bit like scales falling from the eyes, and then starting again as a child to build a new wall of truth. However this time its an admittedly faltering process of uncovering a pre-existing wall. A bit like the way great stone sculptors say they are simply removing the parts of the stone that are hiding the finished work.