The Descent of Mind (1.03.09)
You routinely read, for example, about how Descartes was responsible for the pernicious Western "body-mind dualism" because he said "I think, therefore I am." As if this abstract philosophical meme somehow trickled down to the masses -- the farmers, artisans, and serfs, who all thought to themselves, "damn, the man's got a point. There's an extended substance. And a thinking substance. I just don't see any way to reconcile them. I guess the world is hopelessly fractured."
No, the reason the body-mind duality spread throughout the West is because that is what it feels like to have a mind! If you don't have much of a mind, then it's not going to be a problem, is it? As I've mentioned before, I've done psychiatric evaluations of people from all over the world, and there is no question that in certain cultures the individual barely emerges out of the collective -- even out of their own body, to be honest. They don't have the problem of the body-mind dualism because they don't possess the latter. They are shockingly free of what we would call insight, reflection, interiority, detachment, etc. It's as if they do not live in their minds, but in their bodies. They are amazingly content to perform the most mindless and repetitive work -- in fact, in many ways, they are probably happier than the average American. They essentially don't think about things until something goes wrong with their body. Otherwise, "no brain, no problem."
I don't know about you, but I can think back to my own childhood, when this unified condition was the natural state. One just felt the conflict-free bliss of being alive. Prior to that, early infancy and toddlerhood are filled with a lot of inevitable frustration. I can see it in my son. It's heaven and hell. There are so many things he wants to do, but can't. Every time he masters something, he wants to push the limit to the point that he endangers himself. He is dependent, but is obviously ambivalent about that. In a heartbeat he can go from imagining he's "large and in charge" to being small, needy and demanding.
But after that is when the real fun begins. At least that was true for me, especially between, say, 7 and 12. By this time, your nervous system has completely come "on line." You can speak, you can play, you have an imagination, you have friends, and if you have good enough parenting, you have no problems except for the mindless drudgery of school. Existential problems don't really emerge again until puberty. Just when you get used to the world, you're plunged into a new one, with new thoughts, new relations, a new body.
The latest research in developmental neurology explains why adolescence can be so difficult. As it so happens, it doesn't just feel like your brain is being disassembled. Rather, that's actually what happens. The brain literally disassembles and reassembles during the teen years. A particular problem for boys is that the part of the brain that you might label "impulsivity" or "risk-taking" is temporarily delinked from the higher part of the neocortex where the thing called "judgment" resides. Like the infant, the adolescent goes through life at the same time his brain is being wired together. Throw in the surge of hormones -- which is especially powerful in girls -- and you have a potential recipe for disaster. In my case, I don't think "judgment" and "impulse" were reintroduced in my brain until I was about 26.
Now coincidentally, Will mentioned in a comment yesterday that "most people are not really ready for college until they're about 24 - 26 years old. That's the age when the 'I-relate-everything-to-myself-and-my-emotions' fixation starts to dwindle. A bit." That is exactly how it was for me. Although I started college at 17, I couldn't have been less prepared. I faked my way through five semesters of junior college, but when I transferred to the state university, the game was over. I struggled through one semester but just stopped going in the middle of the second. This would have been when I had just turned 21.
Around the same time, I had begun working as a retail clerk, which I continued doing for the subsequent 12 years, until 1988, the same year I completed my Ph.D. I returned to college when I was 23. Looking back on it, I can see that a certain intellectual "awakening" was beginning to dawn, much to my surprise. It became markedly stronger when I was 26, but was like a sudden explosion at 29. By that time I was in graduate school, but it is important to point out that this explosion had nothing to do with school.
Rather, it was a thing or a process unto itself. It was literally an "opening" in my soul, accompanied by a flood of ideas, insights and connections that went well beyond anything I had formally learned in school, or any capacities I had even remotely possessed up to that time. To a certain extent, if you can picture it, it was like a descent of pure intelligence without form or content. Naturally, given my meager academic history, this was totally unexpected. I began reading voraciously and widely in the effort to provide some "content" to this seeming "force." I needed my mind to catch up with my new-found intelligence.
Why am I bringing this up? Several reasons. First, I'm still very sick with this virus, and I'm too lazy to do anything except free associate in a self-referential way at the keyboard. More importantly, I'm wondering if anyone else out there has had similar experiences of "descents" and "awakenings?" I'm guessing that many Raccoons have similar stories to share.
I think it is fair to say that by this time, I had reached the "summit of intelligence." Now please, don't get me wrong here, for I am hardly making any special claim for myself. I think most "intellectuals" reach the summit of intelligence by one path or another, meaning that there is essentially nothing in the realm of ideas that they cannot understand. The world of "intelligence" is basically open to them. Much will depend upon the character of the person, the content with which they fill out their intelligence, and their motives in doing so. For intelligence, more often than not, is in the service of a bad end or a bad egg. Obviously, intelligence itself in no way correlates with truth. Look at Noam Chomsky, for example. He is obviously at the summit of intelligence. You can even say he's genius if you like. But what good is the intelligence, when it exists in a parallel looniverse of lies, hatred, and paranoia? The smarter the person, the more catastrophic will be their error!
Throughout history people have reached the summit of intelligence, just as countless artists have achieved the summit of aesthetics. This is why the ancient Greeks still intrigue us. Someone like Plato was already at the summit of intelligence over 2,000 years ago. As Whitehead said, Western philosophy since then is basically a footnote on Plato -- which is not so much a tribute to Plato as an ackowledgement that pure intelligence, like artistic perfection, cannot surpass itself. One person becomes a Hegelian, another becomes a logical positivist, another becomes a deconstructionist. It doesn't really matter. It's just pure intelligence imagining it can surpass itself and know the one truth on a plane where it is intrinsically impossible to do so.
Something similar to a descent of pure intelligence occurred to Sri Aurobindo. In his case, he didn't remain stuck there, but immediately saw through its limitations. He did not see it as an end, merely a realm that had to be infused with a higher spirit in order to attain its proper end.
The best introduction to Sri Aurobindo is The Adventure of Consciousness, by Satprem. In it, Satprem describes Aurobindo's recognition of the limits of the intellect: "The day came when Sri Aurobindo had had enough of these intellectual exercises. He had probably realized that one can go on amassing knowledge indefinitely, reading and learning languages, even learning all the languages in the world and reading all the books in the world, and yet not progressing an inch. For the mind does not seek truly to know, even though it appears to -- it seeks to grind. If by chance the machine were to come to a stop because knowledge had been obtained, it would soon rise up in revolt and find something new to grind, just for the sake of grinding and grinding."
Critically, "That within us which seeks to know and to progress is not the mind, but something behind it which uses it: 'The capital period of my intellectual development,' Sri Aurobindo confided to a disciple, 'was when I could see clearly that what the intellect said might be correct and not correct, that what the intellect justified was true and its opposite also was true. I never admitted a truth in the mind without simultaneously keeping it open to the contrary of it.... And the first result was that the prestige of the intellect was gone!
Now, notice two things, First, Aurobindo had achieved the summit of intelligence, which essentially leaves one on a plane where the endless circles of deconstruction and integralism are inevitable. In other words, deconstruction is simply intelligence playing with the same facts to come up with radically alternate conclusions. And the whole point of integralism is that, as Sri Aurobindo points out, someone at the summit of intelligence can easily be on one side or the other of a particular dispute. Equally intelligent people can come up with opposite ideologies, so for the "integralistic" intellectual it is our task to admit the truth of each and to "integrate" them. Thus, for example, we must integrate "left" and "right," since plenty of equally intelligent people adhere to each.
But this is not the path to truth. Unless intelligence is infused with the descent of a higher light, it will forever remain on its own partial plane. More on which tomorrow. In any event, I am curious to hear from others who have had this experience of a sudden opening, or "descent," of intelligence, followed by the descent of something surpassing it, and which begins to shape and reform intelligence for its own higher ends.