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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Monday, April 10, 2017

Some Try to Super-Shrink the Self, But Others Try to Balloon It to Infinity

Explaining the human self is a problem for materialists. Under their assumptions, there is no particular need for you to be a you. From a Darwinian standpoint, things would work just as well if each of us were just a kind of Pavlovian stimulus-response system, with no sense of a personal self. So why do you have a self, particularly a self capable of introspection, philosophical curiosity, spirituality, and other higher human capabilities?

Faced with such a difficulty, many materialists have resorted to a strategy that we might call “shrink the self.” The idea is to describe the self as a kind of illusion. Such thinkers claim, very implausibly, that we are just a kind of stream of brain blips, and that our brains fool us into thinking this is a self. It's an idea which makes no sense, for how could a self be fooled about selfhood unless there was a self to begin with?

But a recent book by Deepak Chopra and Menas Kafatos takes an opposite approach, an approach that we may call “balloon the self to infinity.” Their book is entitled You Are the Universe: Discovering Your Cosmic Self and Why It Matters

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A profound insight or runaway ego-tripping?

The book often contains enigmatic prose that leaves you wondering whether the authors are speaking literally or metaphorically. There are many statements that seem to be written in a kind of Zen Buddhist style. For example, we are told on page 241, “To claim that there was nothing before the big bang is just as correct as saying that everything existed before the big bang.” On the next page we are told, “It is permissable to see the universe as perfectly designed, perfectly random, a mixture of the two, or, as some mystics would declare, mere dream stuff with no substantiality at all.” Then we have this cryptic passage on page 243:

Choosing to call the soft green moss on a rock a living thing while denying life to the rock is merely a mind-made distinction. In reality, everything in the universe follows the same path from its origin (dimensionless being) to a state that consciousness chooses to create out of itself. Since they follow the same path from the unmanifest to the manifest, a rock and the moss that clings to it share life on equal terms.

On page 95 the book tells us, “If we can look past the illusion created by clocks, the race against time comes to an end, and the fear of death is erased once and for all.” But on page 253 we are told the following:

Death is the termination of a particular qualia program (the life program of an individual). The qualia return to a state of potential forms within consciousness, where they reshuffle and recycle as new living entities. The consciousness field and its matrix of qualia are nonlocal and immortal.

At this point in the text the reader may be forgiven for saying, “Cold comfort!” Apparently the authors think that the self is not immortal, but that death brings some “return to a state of potential forms” and a reshuffling in which little parts of your self (qualia) are thrown into the vat, ending up perhaps as parts of some new person. That sounds for all practical purposes just like death not followed by any meaningful survival of the self. So if someone believed that his fate at death was such a fate, I don't see why it would be a situation that “the fear of death is erased once and for all.”

Qualia, incidentally, are transient “this moment” mental events experienced by a self, so it would seem to make no sense to speak of the qualia of one person being reshuffled and recycled into “new living entities.”

We may skeptically ask: if “you are the universe” as their book title asserts, why can't you at least have at death some fate better than just being reshuffled and recycled, like some tin can ending up at the recycling center? Like forty other statements at the end of the book, the statement quoted above is delivered in an oracular and dogmatic manner. The book discusses scientific findings, but the discussion is just window dressing for metaphysical conclusions that are derived through philosophy rather than scientific inference.

The authors make no mention of paranormal phenomena or psychic phenomena, which anyone should be studying before he pontificates on the fate of the soul. Such phenomena suggest a fate more hopeful than the “recycling center” fate the authors imagine.

The subtitle of the book is “Discovering Your Cosmic Self and Why It Matters.” But the book fails to explain much in the way of any implications of their philosophy that matter. They describe some mysterious consciousness field giving rise to consciousness, but this conclusion doesn't seem to have any implications for mankind's future. They depict this consciousness field in such an impersonal way that it's hard to imagine such a thing taking much interest in the fate of man. The book's description of “qualia recycling” upon death doesn't seem to be any news flash that would cause anyone to think: now that really matters.

I think “you are the universe” is a poor way of expressing whatever truth the authors were trying to express by making such a claim. How could each one of us be the universe when there is such a difference between individual minds? Whether it is mainly material or mainly mental, the universe is something vastly more than any one of us.