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Martin LeFevre - Meditations: We Need Not Be Black Boxes To Ourselves

We need not be black boxes to ourselves

“So limited and poor is our access to our own conscious experiences that it does not differ much from the access another person can have to those experiences.”

Daniel Dennett

That was a core premise of the philosopher Daniel Dennett, one of the “The Four Horseman of the New Atheism,” who died last week. It makes a mockery of Socrates admonition, “An unexamined life is not worth living.”

Dennett’s claim that we are inevitably black boxes to ourselves is false. Indeed, it is so false that it renders any of his other premises questionable or superfluous.

As rare as it is, the antithesis is true: self-knowing allows us access not only to our conscious experiences, but to the deepest recesses of our own minds, which is inextricable from collective consciousness.

Indeed, self-knowing is the only means we have for transcending the mechanistic mindset that Dennett espoused.

Self-knowing is a very different animal than self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is the intellectual recognition of one’s patterns and tendencies from the past, whereas self-knowing is firmly grounded in the present.

While self-knowledge is an aspect of accumulative learning, self-knowing is not accumulative, but subtractive. Self-knowledge is time binding, and self-knowing frees the mind from the shackles of time, which is a construct and continuity of thought.

Mindfulness is awareness of what is happening within and around one during the day. It is necessary but not sufficient.

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Self-knowing entails taking the time every day to passively watch sensations and body states, thoughts and emotions as they arise. That gives access to non-reactive awareness of the conscious and unconscious mind, without upholding the self at the center of experiencing.

When one is sufficiently aware of the movement of thought/emotion, the mind grows quiet and the heart is at peace.

Therefore self-knowing allows us to stand in silent awe in direct awareness of consciousness beyond content and mechanism.

At 21, Daniel Dennett defined his life’s mission: “Figuring out as a philosopher how brains could be, or support, or explain, or cause, minds.” As scientifically interesting as that is, it isn’t a serious philosophical question, but rather the central project of neuroscience.

The crucial philosophical question is: Is there mind beyond thought? In other words, is there consciousness that surpasses the content of thought, knowledge and the known?

These are questions worthy of a philosopher, rather than a neuroscientist. I’m not denigrating neuroscientists, just demoting them. Neuroscientists are contributing to our understanding of how the human brain produces thought and intentionality.

So far they’ve added to human confusion, because they remain stuck in the same mindset for which Dennett was a primary spokesperson: Figuring out how brains mechanistically cause thought and intentionality, from the premise that “homo sapiens spins narrative selves as spiders mindlessly spin webs.”

Daniel Dennett believed that the question of how brains produce narrative selves is the only valid question. As a hard-core atheist he believed, like the vast majority of philosophers and neuroscientists also believe, that consciousness is solely the content and operation of thought.

Mind in this mindset is equated, if not synonymous with the narrative self. To my mind, the narrative self is extremely limited, the thing that we are tasked to liberate ourselves from.

Dennett and his fellow travelers trivialize the human brain, and portray consciousness as an inescapably mechanistic thing. They see consciousness “along a spectrum with no clear dividing line of human brains, bees, computers, thermostats -- a functional relation between object and environment.”

That is the ultimate reductio ad absurdum. The “functional relation between object and environment” is an adaptive strategy that evolved in hominins, culminating, for better but increasingly for worse, in Homo sapiens.

The root meaning of the word separation is “to remove and make ready for use.” A few other animals possess this ability to a rudimentary degree, and can make the simplest tools.

But man is like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice with our extractive abilities, unable to stop separating. That has alienated us from nature and is fragmenting the earth all to hell.

Therefore what Dennett meant by mind, which is nearly synonymous with our petty “narrative selves,” is but froth on the ocean of man’s ancient, cumulative fragmentary consciousness.

In short, our inability to think in terms other than object and environment is what we humans most mistakenly do. It isn’t what bees do, or even what the highest mammal species such as elephants, chimps and orcas do.

In philosophical terms, no other animal on earth says, “I think, and therefore I am.” Animals are. A few may think to a fairly complex degree, but only humans come from “I think.”

There is thinking, but Dennett was correct in maintaining that the subjective feeling of ‘I’ doing the thinking is a primal illusion.

The division between object and environment, between ‘me’ and the world, isn’t just a Cartesian mistake. It reflects the evolutionary capability of humans for conscious separation, which, because there’s been woefully inadequate insight into it, is destroying the earth and humanity.

Strangely, if not contradictorily, Dennett proposed “to understand how consciousness is possible by understanding how unconscious content is possible first.”

Yet he threw the baby out with the bathwater with respect to subjectivity when he denied our capacity for direct awareness of our own conscious experiences.

Being aware of conscious experiences, as physical sensations as well as reactions of the self, and of unconscious memories and associations as they arise, is the action of self-knowing. With sufficient unguided attention, the mind of thought falls silent, and brain is bathed in awareness of the whole and the immeasurable.

Finally, Daniel Dennett made a straw man out of religion, failing to understand that organized religion is just the most regrettable fabrication of the mind emanating from thought.

There is an infinitely higher order of mind than the thought-based mind we know. A transcendent, numinous actuality exists, but not for believers, nor for atheists, only for deeply self-knowing human beings.

Martin LeFevre
Lefevremartin77 at gmail

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