The Thread That Extends Through Consciousness, Freedom, And Matter


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MV Conversation Continues

Future Time

“Yes, but in your presentation, as I recall, you answered all the Professor’s questions,” said MV. “It’s just that in the poetry department your answers fell far short.”

“My answers lacked more than poetry,” I replied. “They lacked substance. That’s why, after a couple days of thinking about those questions, I tried to write out in a letter another set of answers to Dr. Clifford’s questions.”

“Is that when you introduced your X/Y form?”

“No. The X/Y form didn’t even exist until after I mailed that letter,” I replied. “In fact, after I dropped off the letter, and after considering the implications of what I had just written, only then, while walking home, did the X/Y form come into focus.”

“So when did you begin to speak out about your X/Y form, anyway?” said MV.

“I never did. When I finally got around to talking about it,” I replied, “I had already simplified it—to make it easier to understand. In that regard, the X/Y form and b~b ~bb mean the same thing. Irregardless of form, though, the bottom line is that the ascendance of the human being, — the origin of self-consciousness, — can be traced back in time to where consciousness bifurcated into the split of self/other. But, hey, I’m jumping ahead here. This whole revelation began with the two questions Dr. Clifford asked when I concluded my Dynamic Of Freedom presentation. He asked: ‘How is freedom implied in consciousness?’ And, ‘how is consciousness connected to the aesthetic continuum?’ My answers were disappointing, so I went home and took another stab at those questions in the letter that I wrote to him. I described how existence, freedom, and knowledge were all grounded in the precondition for anything whatsoever– in the ‘nothingness’ that lies at the heart of everything, and, while walking home from mailing that letter the X/Y form just seemed to pop into my head.”

Letter Response To Dr. Clifford’s Questions

March 11, 1981

Dear Dr. Clifford,

During the discussion period following my presentation, you asked two questions: How is freedom implied in consciousness and how is consciousness connected to the aesthetic continuum (the “stuff” our senses connect us up with)? I was not happy with my response. So, I will try harder this time. As I recall, my response to the first question was that freedom and consciousness are the same thing, and, in response to your second question, I said freedom cannot be conceived as a thing to be isolated, it must be conceived within the totality of the relationships it expresses. Now that I have had more time to think about your questions, I would like to add that there is a common thread that extends through consciousness, freedom and the aesthetic continuum. In Eastern philosophy this thread is called by the name sunyata. Basically, sunyata requires that all things are linked together, or, put another way, not a single thing comes into existence without some relationship to every other thing. I realize this is probably not a concept familiar to you, and, for my part, I will not bring it into this discussion except to say that it must be considered in any final evaluation of what I am trying to say.

But, on second thought, and from another point of view, perhaps you are familiar with this concept. Zukav, in his book The Dancing Wu Li Masters, connects the idea of interconnectiveness up with the wave/particle nature of light when he says:

“Transferring the properties that we usually ascribe to light to our interaction with light deprives light of an independent existence. Without us, or by implication, anything else to interact with, light does not exist. This remarkable conclusion is only half the story. The other half is that, in a similar manner, without light, or, by implication, anything else to interact with, we do not exist! As Bohr himself put it:

“…an independent reality in the ordinary physical sense can be ascribed neither to the phenomena nor to the agencies of observation.”

By “agencies of observation”, he may have been referring to instruments, not people, but philosophically, complementarity leads to the conclusion that the world consists not of things, but of interactions. Properties belong to interactions, not to independently existing things, like “light”. The philosophical implications of complementarity became even more pronounced with the discovery that the wave-particle duality is a characteristic of everything.” (1979 p.118)

Anyway, it’s time to get back to my presentation, back to a description of the significance of the indeterminate part of the aesthetic continuum and the consciousness/freedom connection.

The aesthetic continuum, as has been pointed out by Northrop, is both determinate and indeterminate, and this indeterminacy is encountered in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. We reach a point, in the subatomic realm, where our picture of nature becomes blurred. At this level, the inner structure
of the atom is closed off to all descriptive accounts. In the logic of physics this means that A or B, in an AB system, can be determined with any desired precision, but a conjunctive statement concerning A and B becomes imprecise. In fact, for some physicists, a conjunctive statement concerning A and B becomes completely meaningless.

In an attempt to clarify the above described situation, the mathematician, John von Neumann, in his book The Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics asked the question: “If a wave function (Schrodinger wave equation) actually should describe something in the real world, what would that something be like?” He then answered that question when he said; it would be “…a strange animal constantly changing with the passage of time. Each moment it would be a simple mixture of possibilities, it would be a sort of organic whole whose parts are changing constantly but which, nonetheless, is somehow a thing-in-itself. This thing-in-itself would continue to develop indefinitely until an observation (measurement) is made on the observed system which it represents” (Zukav, p. 218). Von Neumann’s description, I believe, is not only valid for what takes place at the quantum level; it’s also valid for what takes place in consciousness—in particular, in Sartre’s description of the consciousness of the for-itself.

Asking A Question Collapses The Jumping Monkey Behavior Of Consciousness

Letter Response Concluded

My relationship to consciousness–my self-consciousness (according to Sartre)–brings to consciousness the pure negative of nothingness, and, in so doing, denies itself the possibility of truly becoming self-conscious. Again, according to Sartre, a negation separates me from myself. Nothingness then, lies at the heart of consciousness. Sartre describes man “as the being by which nothingness comes into the world.” Being for-itself can never, in any final sense, be conscious of itself. It carries within itself the rift of nothingness that negates that very possibility, and as such, only makes itself known to me as a lack, a lack that typically fills up with ego, –but it does something else too. Without it, without the nothingness that negates, the question and our capacity for inquiry would cease to exist. The annihilating act of self-consciousness is the real consciousness behind consciousness. It is the lack of self, a question unto self that we are left with. It is what Sartre calls the pre-reflective cogito. What this means is that any knowledge of consciousness is secondary to existing consciousness itself. This is not unlike what physicists experience at the quantum level.

In quantum mechanics, when a measurement is taken on a system, one of the many possible states of that system gets actualized (the system breaks down). It is the collapse of the wave function that allows the physical state of a system to be observed. In our own consciousness there exists an analogue to the wave function collapse. Asking a question collapses the “jumping monkey” behavior of our awareness. John von Neumann’s “strange animal” does not just exist at the quantum level of experience. The act of measuring a system under observation at the quantum level is, to my way of thinking, no different than stopping the jumping monkey experience of awareness as it tumbles through temporally generated thoughts. Perhaps you have had this experience? Take a “time out” and listen to people in conventional conversation. It’s “just one thing after another.” Mental associations move the direction of discourse seamlessly through different subjects. Moved by these mental associations, consciousness develops indefinitely (a macro version of von Neumann’s strange animal); that is, until a question arises. With the question we “collapse the system.” We actualize future possibilities. What do you mean? How can that be true? Why, at the quantum level, does a cause and effect disconnect occur? See what I mean? A question stops the flow of consciousness, but, according to Sartre, the consciousness of for-itself, at its most fundamental level, is already stopped before the question can be asked. The very existence of consciousness—the consciousness of the for-itself—is a question in waiting.

In quantum mechanics it is not possible to observe reality without changing it. When we get close enough to a system to see what’s happening, we change the outcome, or put more succinctly, there would be a different set of alternatives had we not interfered. Even our choice of experiment affects the outcome. The particle-like nature of light or the wave-like nature of light depends on how we choose to look at it. We cannot eliminate ourselves from the picture. Thus, an objective look at nature is prohibited. The knower and the known, at that level of experience, are inextricably intertwined. At the quantum level, just as it is in self-conscious, we are looking at the reduction of primacy of knowledge to the primacy of existence; but, even more than that we are looking at the reduction of the primacy of existence to the primacy of freedom, or at least the freedom of multiple possibilities.

Returning to Sartre, two consequences follow from the existence of for-itself. 1) Consciousness and belief have overlapping meanings; and, 2) negation and freedom form an inseparable unity. It is not possible to separate belief from consciousness and still have cognitive awareness. Consciousness is necessary for belief, and belief is the being of consciousness. In Sartre’s terminology, this is consciousness of reflection reflecting, or my consciousness of presence-to-self. In terms of “existing,” every conscious existence exists. It is not possible to separate freedom from existence and still remain in existence, and that is the way I see things at the quantum level of experience, also.

The concepts of position and momentum are intimately bound up with the idea of what it means to exist. At the atomic particle level, we may have to admit that this thing that we have been calling a moving particle is not a moving particle at all. If we can’t determine (in our description of a particle) more than one of the two properties that define existence then how can we be justified in concluding that the thing under examination is actually a particle? I am suggesting that at the level of consciousness where existence has been reduced to freedom, so too, at the level of the atomic particle, freedom is inextricably bound to an “existing particle,”– the inseparable unity of freedom and negation. That would explain why we never see moving particles the way they really are. We only see them the way we choose to see them. Niles Bohr, in his theory of complementarity, addressed this very issue.

Bohr developed the concept of complementarity to explain the wave particle duality of light (or the conjugate variables at the heart of all existence). Wave-like characteristics and particle-like characteristics, or so the theory goes, are mutually exclusive, yet they exist as complementary aspects of light. Although one of them always excludes the other, both of them are necessary to understand light. Wave and particle characteristics exclude each other because light, or anything else, cannot be both wave like and particle like at the same time. I believe the thread of negation that runs (concurrently) through consciousness, freedom and matter explains this anomaly.

An almost identical relationship is taking place in what Sartre calls the dyad of belief-consciousness. By standing off from itself as it reveals itself, Sartre’s pre-reflective cogito structures the consciousness-belief dyad. According to Sartre, we have consciousness of an object only through the negation of not being that object, and, it is that negation that separates me (my consciousness) from my belief. The pre-reflective cogito cannot be posited as an object of reflection because it is its own existence; it knows itself only through the consciousness of existing. For Sartre, the knower in this knower-known relationship can never be known because it is existence itself. Because consciousness and belief exist in a cohesive relationship, each postulating the other, consciousness is necessary for belief and belief is the being of consciousness. Their meanings overlap. Thus, a necessary duality shapes our cognitive awareness and that duality is what constitutes our “freedom to know” the world in terms of spatiality, quantity, temporality, and instrumentality. Zukav, in his book, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, identifies the significance of this “common thread”—the thread of nothingness extending through consciousness, freedom, and the aesthetic continuum (the “stuff” our senses connect to) when he says:

Since particle-like behavior and wave-like behavior are the only properties that we ascribe to light, and since these properties now are recognized to belong (if complementarity is correct) not to light itself, but to our interaction with light, then it appears that light has no properties independent of us! To say that something has no properties is the same as saying that it does not exist. The next step in this logic is inescapable. Without us, light does not exist. (p. 118)

To sum up, the aesthetic continuum is grounded in nothingness, — the nothingness of freedom and self-consciousness, or the source of all possibilities. This negation, this thread that runs through consciousness, freedom and matter (the sage calls this thread sunyata, the philosopher calls it the ground of being) births our capacity to question, know, and change that world—hopefully for the better.

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