Consciousness is not a “stuff”

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 37 Comments

I pulled two quotes from Chuck to respond to.

We may be the “conscious part of the universe” (possibly not the *only* conscious part – life on other planets?) but that doesn’t inexorably lead to a probability that we are thereby manifesting some sort of universal consciousness.

There is no logical connection between having an individual consciousness and there being a universal consciousness. I totally agree that we “emerged through the process of evolution right up out of the matter in the universe” and there is an ever-growing mountain of evidence to support that statement. But consciousness “emerging out of matter” does not necessitate the existence of a “field of consciousness” possessed by the universe itself.

Interestingly I actually agree with Chuck here – even though he is refuting me. I don’t believe in the existence of a “field of consciousness” that would exist like some kind of electromagnetic field of intellect or a conscious invisible mist hanging in the air around us. At the same time, I have to admit my guilt in having used the metaphor of a “field of consciousness” at times when giving seminars or lectures – but in my own defense I do believe that the image of consciousness as a field can be useful to create certain adjustments in our view on reality – even if it isn’t ultimately something I believe exists in a literal sense. Discussions like the one we are attempting here are difficult because of their speculative nature – we don’t even have the language yet to describe some of the things that we want to write about.

As I was saying I don’t believe in a “field of consciousness” and given everything that Carl has shared on this blog over time, I am not sure I believe in consciousness at all – at the very least I go along with William James when he denies the exists of consciousness and states:

“There is, I mean, no aboriginal stuff or quality of being, contrasted with that of which material objects are made, out of which our thoughts of them are made; but there is a function in experience which thoughts perform, and for the performance of which this quality of being is invoked. That function is knowing. ‘Consciousness’ is supposed necessary to explain the fact that things not only are, but get reported, are known. Whoever blots out the notion of consciousness from his list of first principles must still provide in some way for that function to be carried on.”

Consciousness, to the extent that I am willing to be definitive at this time, is whatever it is that allows human activity to be so uncannily harmonious with its surroundings. We seem able to know, predict, see, infer, understand and decide – and we know this because these “functions” are reflected in the consistency with which our activities merge seamlessly with the world around us. (You see Carl you are making a behaviorist out of me – but that is for another post.)

When I write about our consciousness not belonging to us, but to the universe, I am not speculating on the nature of some “stuff” of universal consciousness to which we are connected. I am questioning the location of the boundary that we are drawing around the self. Rather than a gall bladder (Chuck’s metaphor) what about using an apple seed. You could reasonably say that the seed belonged to the apple and you wouldn’t be wrong – you can also say that the seed belongs to the tree and also not be wrong. Similarly consciousness (as defined above) could be seen as belonging to the individual human or it could be seen as belonging to the universe of which the human is a part. I contend that this is a matter of definition just like the case of the apple seed, but the definitions we hold do have affect in action.

So the question becomes: which is the better boundary to draw? Sometimes a ring around the apple is more useful, for instance if I ask someone to get me an apple seed it is useful for them to know that they will find one inside an apple. At other times it is more useful to draw the boundary around the tree, for instance if I ask what will grow if I plant an apple seed it is useful to know that it will be a tree and not just an apple.

I believe that the boundary that we draw around the individual human in relationship to the source of consciousness is similar. There are positive and negative results in action for having that boundary so unquestioningly taken to reflect reality. The positive effects have been all the incredible development of the western world. Our ability to see ourselves as separate sources of original consciousness, I believe, is an ontological source of the enormous diversity and creativity that has created all of the social and technological advances that we enjoy and that benefit us. At the same time it has created a sense of alienation and separation from other human beings and from our natural surroundings that is threatening to destroy the planet on which we live .

There may never be any way to know what the ultimate truth is about questions as big as the nature of consciousness, and I would never advocate that everyone on the planet become a romantic explorer of unknowable truths. What I do think is that we need a small but statistically significant number of people who are willing to put their lives on the line to probe into impossible possibilities. And we need ongoing dialog with people who are adventurers in other directions – and we all have to stick to our guns with a loose enough grip on the handle so that we can teach and learn from each other. Is that romantic or what?

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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Chuck R
Chuck R
11 years ago

Jeff, Nice post immediately above. You surprised me. I was beginning to assume you believed (accepted?, thought likely?) in a “field of consciousness. Question on the James quote: Is the ‘are’ correct in “…things not only are, but get reported, are known.”? That sentence doesn’t scan properly to me. Too many ‘are’s? [Shades of Long John Silver!] So if (par 7 above) “our consciousness [does] not belonging to us, but to the universe…” how does it, like the apple seed, get into us? Where in us does it reside? The pineal gland? Or does it come along with the atoms… Read more »

Joanna
Joanna
11 years ago

This is cool Jeff, quote from you below, I’m with you that!:) ‘There may never be any way to know what the ultimate truth is about questions as big as the nature of consciousness, and I would never advocate that everyone on the planet become a romantic explorer of unknowable truths. What I do think is that we need a small but statistically significant number of people who are willing to put their lives on the line to probe into impossible possibilities. And we need ongoing dialog with people who are adventurers in other directions – and we all have… Read more »

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

In this blog we stand on the shoulders of giants from yesteryear, but let’s take a look at some modern marvels. I was in attendance when Robert Wright spoke at Vanderbilt not long ago. Just before the event I put together a 4-quadrant grid with secular to the left, spiritual to the right, tolerant on top and intolerant at the bottom. Sorry I can’t draw the grid here. In the upper-left (secular-tolerant) I put Robert Wright, Michael Shermer and myself. In the upper right (spiritual-tolerant) I put the Dali Lama , Deepak Chopra, and I could add Jeff. In the… Read more »

françoise
françoise
11 years ago

I think we can choose now to go beyond the simple dichotomy (tolerant/intolerant – it seems almost an old idea) and see the whole universe (us) moving forth and acting now, sharing, being interested and relentlessly looking “for creating that which does not yet exist”. Teilhard de Chardin called it ‘the divinisation of the cosmos’, it’s a movement and it includes. Tolerant and untelorant are almost coming from an old planet. The one we are changing. I am super interested in this whole conversation about consciousness, I never saw it that way (quoting Jeff : ” I don’t believe in… Read more »

gregorylent
gregorylent
11 years ago

flip your pov for a minute by considering that everything you know or observe is taking place IN consciousness … there is nothing outside of that, including “the universe” …

and then reconsider how this all works …

Michael A.
Michael A.
11 years ago

A quick response to Brian’s 4 Quadrant Grid. I myself have had a clockwise journey through it, starting in the lower right quadrant and ending in the upper right quadrant. I think the lower left quadrant has shut themselves off from any extraneous experiences relating to consciousness. They have just what is necessary for existence. I wish I could explain consciousness, I have some ideas but nothing I would put down in writing, yet. So I’ll quote William James:”Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

Hello Jeff, there maybe is no “field of consciousness” but for sure there is such a thing as “ field of meditation”. One can experience it in any good retreat, like the one of Andrew Cohen this summer. The first time I experienced this “field of meditation” I was utterly surprised. Couldn’t believe it. So what is this field of meditation ? Isn’t it the field of consciousness ? What is it , really, this “curious vortex” which looks completely alive ? One the side, for Chuck. The american flavor is certainly not coming from Steiner… it is coming from… Read more »

Frank Luke
11 years ago

Hi catherine, re: “I still fail to see why it could be important to separate everything in 4 artificial quadrants.”

Are you referring to Ken Wilber’s diagram delineating the four quadrants of consciousness?

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

Yes, Wilber. I don’t see how such a dualistic segregation of the world into the 4 quadrants could possibly bring humanity closer to enlightenment.

exterior/interior
me/us

that’s basically the misery of it.
Wilber claims he believes in the reality of non duality and then, he contradicts himself immediately with the most simplistic dualistic vision of the world you can find.

I don’t get at all why people are so enthusiastic about this.

Frank Luke
11 years ago

Catherine: I believe you’re misreading Wilber’s Four Quadrants. RAther than dualistic I believe he’s pointing out that a holistic consicousness is one that incorporates the four aspects he delineates and they should be encompassed en toto if you pretend to be really conscious. To neglect any aspect is to not be addressing that part of what a spiritual person should be aspiring to. Wouldn’t you agree that those who do keep the four aspects in mind will behave more spiritually than any who don’t have them in mind? I’m actually taken aback that you would question the truth of his… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

Hi Frank, I don ‘t know many people in the Ken Wilber’s circles. So I really cannot put an opinion on whether they are more “enlightened” or not with the four quadrants. I would say that Wilber himself doesn’t match my criterium of radical enlightenment, [ and form what I heard, he doesn’t claim that he is enlightened]. I am sure people in those circles are “very nice” and that working on the four quadrant make them “nicer”. But that’s the point you see, at a certain level, I don’t care about “nice”. To address your question, the world was… Read more »

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

As they say, the 4 quadrants are just the map not he territory. They remind me to cover all the bases. I’ve used them to help write a more thorough term paper and to solve problems with a more inclusive view. Helpful? Yes. Enlightening? What is elightenment?

Frank Luke
11 years ago

Hi again Catherine, re: “I don ‘t know many people in the Ken Wilber’s circles. So I really cannot put an opinion on whether they are more “enlightened” or not with the four quadrants.”

I don’t think that the quadrants enlighten those who understand them but that they further a more holistic consciousness which may or may not lead to attaining Enlightenment but it certainly is important in that process. Without including the four aspects of consciousness delineated can you really claim to be serious in pursuing higher consciousness or is it not your concern?

Frank Luke
11 years ago

Catherine, additional thoughts on the Four Quadrants: It’s like becoming Spirituallly Awake in a consciously committed way or just “being so” without that commitment that Awakening brings. When you become cognizant of the delineation as Wilber has diagramed, it serves to put it on your mind much more than simply “having it” in a casual way. If you’re so ingrained with it without cognizance of the 4 aspects of consciousness, good for you. As Brian says above and I concur, it reminds us to cover all the bases if you pretend to address consciousness holistically. If it’s not your interest,… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

HI Frank, You can put me into the unconscious people and segregate me if you want, but by doing this you are not being fair. I am covering my basis the way I can. I read Wilber, recently I discovered Steiner. You have not read Steiner, as far as I know, so I could as well put you in a bad place, and say you don’t cover your basis or that you are less advanced. { at least I read both Wilber, and Steiner so I can compare the two [ which I did ! ] and you cannot}. So… Read more »

Chuck R
Chuck R
11 years ago

Brian: You wrote: “Helpful? Yes. Enlightening? What is elightenment?” E-lightenment is “lightenment” over the E-net. Joke. Ha ha. ENlightenment. What is it? How does one get it? What does one “do” with it? Buddha called himself “the man who woke up.” Enlightenment is another one of those words we toss around without really knowing what we are talking about. Here’s a question: If you’re not enlightened, how can you possibly know what constitutes enlightenment? How can you seek it if you have no idea where or what it is? If you’re not enlightened but *think* you know what enlightenment is,… Read more »

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

Chuck: nice try to answer “what is enlightenment?”

Catherine and Frank seem to know how to get more or less enlightened. If I study the periodic table will I get more enlightened about chemistry? If I watch too much American Idol will I become less enlightened? Does it help if I spell Enlightenment with a capital E?

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

Hi Chuck and Brian, if I knew how to get Enlightened, then I would be Enlightened, no ? so obviously I am not. So no Brian, I know how to get there. That is why I am learning with a Teacher. To answer precisely to Chuck: “Here’s a question: If you’re not enlightened, how can you possibly know what constitutes enlightenment? How can you seek it if you have no idea where or what it is? If you’re not enlightened but *think* you know what enlightenment is, perhaps 1) you haven’t got a clue, or 2) you actually already are… Read more »

Chuck R
Chuck R
11 years ago

Brian:
Ah well, I tried. Give me an “E” for Effort.

Your tongue-in-cheek questions “shed light” on a point I a while ago: Bad premises lead to meaningless questions which result in useless or misleading answers, which then lead to further ever-more-meaningless questions and so on, ad nauseam.

But on your last question, Yes, the capital E makes it seem more important.

Chuck R
Chuck R
11 years ago

Catherine: I hope you gain something positive from your experience with your teacher and he/she is not just stroking his/her ego with your attention and interest. I have seen such ego-stroking up close and personal (when the “gurus” didn’t know that someone – me – just happened to be within earshot), and it’s not a pretty sight. Enlightenment – as I hope you have discovered with your teacher – isn’t like physics. Both take interest, aptitude and dedication. Unlike physics, there isn’t much to “learn” beyond a few techniques of concentration or “letting go”. It’s primarily an experience. Like falling… Read more »

Chuck R
Chuck R
11 years ago

That’s a better metaphor than mine as it includes intention and will *during* the fall, whereas in my metaphor once you start falling, there’s not much you can do about it. During meditation it’s the constant jostling and rustling of your minds-wills-intentions-memories-etc. (I am intentionally pluralizing) that prevent the experience. “Letting go” means not reaching for the banister, at first. After a while, as you say, the banister and stairs disappear. “Throwing oneself down the stair” also reminds me, for no good reason, of Sartre’s discussion of angst as knowing you might intentionally kill yourself as differentiated from dying by… Read more »

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

Catherine:

Is enlightenment a subject in itself? Your physics leads to a better understanding of natural phenomena, which seems pretty enlightening to me (and all the enlightenment I need, btw). But then you go on to talk about Enlightenment as some other…realm? What exactly are you talking about?

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
11 years ago

When I think about Enlightenment I think ‘that nothing sticks’ : what is said by an Enlightened person doesn’t come from biological/personal/cultural conditioning, it comes from a free mind, the person has a possibility to think beyond structures, it is always fresh, new. When I listen to an Enlightened person, I am not able to repeat what is said, because it doesn’t connect with any of my structures, it is also possible that I am lifted up to a higher stage that I do not know yet, it might be Enlightenment is a stage far beyond the ones we know.… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

Hi Chuck and Brian, I am sitting at a physics conference here and writing during a talk [ very bad indeed …] Sorry or the accusations of cynicism: it is indeed wrong and skepticism is the right term. IT is actually OK with me, as a scientist I don’t have a problem with what I call the “great skeptics”. Chuck , now it is my turn to confess that I feel you told me something important that I don ‘t fully understand. What is this “bad premise ” you are talking about ? I am in the dark here could… Read more »

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

Catherine:

OK so it seems we are talking about Enlightenment as a subject like Physics or Economics. You told us about your Enlightenment teacher. Would you also like to tell us about your favorite Physics teacher? Mine was Mr. Duncan, he was a young guy with long hair. He would rush into class and write the test questions on the chalkboard while we were already trying to answer them. My takeaway was to always label my units of measure. I do it to this day.

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
11 years ago

Just one more remark on the subject: Enlightenment is not something that can be learned. It is the willingness to drop self-importance of ego. Ego can be diminished in small steps, but like so many examples –like Ramana Maharsi, who never read a book or saw a teacher- the thing itself is a mystery and will always be a mystery.

Michael A.
Michael A.
11 years ago

After reading and re-reading these posts it seems as though the actual process of enlightenment is being lost in the shuffle. Is it not the path towards enlightenment that everyone seeks? As far as I know nobody wakes up and says I am enlightened. One has to actively search. Enlightenment is not something that can be varified by scientific tests. Socrates said, “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” I feel that sums up spirituality and enlightenment. Some things cannot be shown they just are. This is the difficulty… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
11 years ago

It is beautiful and true what you say, but I have to make a correction. Two people actually did wake up and became enlightened: Byron Katie en Ekhart Tolle, they just saw that they where not there mind…And it seems also Ramana Maharshi just realized at one moment that his soul (or consciousness, I do not remember) was never born and would never die..I think a lot of people do have Enlightenment experiences, the mystery is that some people ‘keep it’ while others take up old (or maybe new ‘structures of consciousness’ withing a few minutes that seems to emprison… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
11 years ago

I need to correct what I just wrote. I am still reading Steiner and I just read that ‘seeing the color red’ is a matter of perception and thought. So to be aware of inside or outside perception, we need the mind. The only difference I can think of now, is the connection with ‘I am’. The small ‘I am’ is this body and this brain; the Enlightened ‘I am’ is the cosmic process, where the color red is seen thanks to my advanced abilities…well, I do not know what Enlightenment is.

Chuck R
Chuck R
11 years ago

Jeff, Obviously you don’t believe in reincarnation. Good for you. I wasted decades struggling with that one, and it’s nice to see someone else *not* falling into that trap. I liked your posting. Something to think about: When our heart stops beating and blood stops moving through our brain, according to scientists we have about 5 minutes before our brain starts to die from lack of oxygen. So…during the five minutes or so you have before your brain starts dying, what do you think about? And how long is the perceived period of time? During sensory deprivation, one’s sense of… Read more »

Chuck R
Chuck R
11 years ago

Catherine: On accusation of cynicism. Don’t worry about it. I realize that English is not your first language, although you are well able to express complex thoughts. My command of any foreign language is pretty much limited to “how much beer cost?” Anyway, I later realized that I am cynical about spiritual teachers in general, as I am with financial advisers, politicians, press agents and lawyers. Also people who claim to have access to Deep Secrets and Hidden Truths, people who claim to *Know* something that they can’t share, except perhaps for a fee. They all demonstrate the typical human… Read more »

Frank Luke
11 years ago

Hi again Catherine: In your last reponse to me you seem to have gotten the idea I was judging you on your dissing the four quadrants. Your not acknowledging their validity, all four aspects of consciousness, makes me wonder if your concept of conscioiusness is as holistic as it should be. It’s not to judge you but only to question, invite you to question yourself and hope you’re not offended by my query. Without the inclusion of the four aspects, I feel a person is only partially conscious spiritually. I don’t like to be judgemental but do give more respect… Read more »