Life without the Background

On Friday October 22nd I will be presenting at the Science and Nonduality Conference in San Rafael, California. The topic of my presentation will be Evolutionary Non-duality, and I will introduce people to the same evolutionary philosophical tradition in American philosophy that has been the major theme of this blog. My intention is to use my blog posts leading up to the event to work out some of the ideas that I want to share at the conference. If you have any thoughts that might help me formulate the presentation I would very much appreciate them.

If any of you are so inclined you can find out more about the conference and how to attend here:

The over-arching theme that I want to use to introduce my topic is the idea of what it means to dissolve the foreground/background boundary. This metaphor was one I picked up originally from the writings and lectures of Dr. Timothy Morton of the University of California, Davis. Dr. Morton is the author of two books Ecology without Nature and The Ecological Thought. (You can find his blog here.) His perspective stems from his love for and study of the great Romantic writers. His idea that in some ways Romanticism was an exploration of the foreground/background boundary is one that I have found fascinating, illuminating and compelling.

I also think it’s a metaphor that fits well into a discussion of non-duality, especially when that discussion centers on the non-dual evolutionary philosophy of the American tradition. I can see how the classical American thinkers, Emerson, James, Peirce and Dewey were all, each in their own way, working to dissolve some aspect of the background/foreground boundary. And as I said, this can be seen as an effort to explain and define a non-dual experience of reality.

Let’s think about our own experience of foreground and background for a moment. If you do you will see that our experience tends to arise in the form of foreground objects set against a background field of some type. William James in his essay Does Consciousness Exist? recognized that consciousness, or the idea of consciousness, is the ultimate background to all of the experiences that exists within it. In his philosophy called Radical Empiricism he wanted to do away with the whole notion of consciousness and in his own way dissolve the background and exchange it for a non-dual sense of reality composed solely of pure experience. At times some of our experience “appears” to be the foreground and other parts of our experience “appears” to be the background. James put it this way.

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’s being carried on.

My thesis is that if we start with the supposition that there is only one primal stuff or material in the world, a stuff of which everything is composed, and if we call that stuff ‘pure experience,’ the knowing can easily be explained as a particular sort of relation towards one another into which portions of pure experience may enter. The relation itself is a part of pure experience; one if its ‘terms’ becomes the subject or bearer of the knowledge, the knower, the other becomes the object known.

In the essay James explains and illustrates his powerful insight that the exact nature of the foreground and background in our experience is arbitrary and constantly shifting.

“…what I maintain is, that any single non-perceptual experience tends to get counted twice over, just as a perceptual experience does, figuring in one context as an object or field of objects, in another as a state of mind…”

A brief description of James’ insight about the non-dual nature of our experience will be the way I open my talk at the conference. I think it will fit it in well with the general discussion of the place where non-dual philosophy and science meet that the conference is devoted to. Let me know what you think.