One of my favorite thinkers who has had a major influence on the evolution of my ideas is Owen Flanagan, a professor of neurobiology at Duke University. All subsequent quotes are taken from his book The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of Mind and How to Reconcile Them.
First let me point out my usage of the term “mind.” By mind is meant the interactive system of being derived from the complete biological systems of the body and the relationships those system have with all other entities, providing the means by which we relate to the world as one natural ontological entity to another. Ontology is a branch of metaphysics that notes the qualities or properties of what makes something what it is or its being-ness. We can speak of a universal substance and thus be discussing metaphysics generally, but when we get to particular instantiations and how to differentiate them and whether they exist at all we are then discussing ontology.
A central difficulty in discussing the nature of mind/self (the hash noting already where I’m going with this) is our language system, given its subject-object form inherently providing a space for assuming a dissociation between the two. This is likely due to our biological need for differentiating what is our flesh from what is other flesh for purposes of procreation and eating. The reciprocal nature of our brains as it constantly interacts in a loop of input/output then gives us the feeling of having a self-knowledge of the mind. As Flanagan notes: “What we think of as our unique individual selves consist of the integrated set of traits we reliably express and embody, the dispositions of feeling, thought, and behavior we reliably display, as well as a certain kind of psychological continuity and connectedness that accrues to embodied beings by virtue of being-in-the-world over time.” Also, “The subjective feel is produced and realized in an organism by virtue of the relevant objective state of affairs obtaining in that organism.” In other words, the self exists not as a thing in itself, it has no separate ontology outside of the context from which it is derived, if you remove or change the extant variables you will remove or change the feel of which the self seems to possess all on its own. “What we call ‘the self’ is an abstract theoretical entity in the same way that force, mass, and energy are abstract theoretical entities.” We do not describe force outside of noting the interaction between two objects, no more than we describe mass except by the interaction between atoms and energy as the form it takes.
The problem here is one of inflation, of making more out of a feeling than what is actually there. To be self-aware is not a divorcing or dissociating concept but one that allows us to differentiate within experience what is our particular biological relation to everything else. “The self is an abstraction designed to do, in interpersonal and intrapersonal commerce, the work of explanation, prediction, and control.” The conceptualization of the self should be one of greater joining, in the sense that knowledge of how one is related can create a greater sense of being connected, even if such a feeling is initially felt within the seemingly necessary starting point of a separated self-awareness. We are not separated from anything else though as we all belong to an essential metaphysic, we all partake of and are created out of the same substance, the energy that manifests in form.
While largely poetic, to say ‘we are the universe thinking of itself’ is not merely grandiose, though I admit it can certainly be used as such. Rather, it is a recognition that despite our differentiated ontology, we are of the same metaphysical substance that is no different than that which makes up the universe. As such, the action that arises out of the mind/self referred to as awareness is not just an individual enterprise but has cosmic connections.
Viewing the self as an abstract term given to the relational space created by the interaction between the brain and the universe allows us to see intentionality in a whole new light, one that is not about shame-filled judgment but a recognition of how we as the creatures we are interact in particular ways. It is an intentionality and an ethic derived from our particular ontology, not from a moral dictate separated and distant from the means by which we experience reality. All objects intend upon another in a broad sense of defining or giving structure to what the other is, each object not existing by itself but rather in relation to all else. For instance, to think of a rock only, disconnected from anything and everything else is impossible, for even in thinking of it within a dark expanse is to think of it in relation to that dark expanse. I have spoken of this in other entries when referring to the self as well, noting that to consider our individuality is to always do so from a place of relational dynamics, always in connection with something else. Here it simply points out that again we are not of a completely different nature then the universe and thus are not separate from the poetically-noted creative power of that universe.
Consciousness or the awareness of self, as it relates to intentionality, is the ability to ‘see’ what is this intrinsic nature of all things, to imaginatively construct the relations of one to another. This imagination stems often from within the felt experience of an “I” participating from a place of declarative power, in no small way reminiscent of the Jewish and Christian myth of Adam and Eve naming the animals in the Garden. As Flanagan puts it: “What was this ‘I’ that is having the thought? ‘I’ is how we denote the biological and psychological continuity of our unique first-person stream of consciousness.” It is a linguistic notation of the centrality of the subject doing the action, not an expression inflated to a separate being.
“The self that is the center of narrative gravity is constructed not only out of real-life materials; it is also organized around a set of aims, ideals, and aspirations of the self.” There is no relevant loss to ethics, meaning or purpose in removing the notion of a monolithic separated self. All these still exist and perhaps even more strongly as they are now acknowledged as being bound within interactional and inter-relational reality, providing us with a clear image that we are not lonely creatures striving blindly into a cold dark night, but alive and existing in a fullness the awareness of which is a constant path of further enlightenment.
To wax poetic for another moment, “I and the Father are one” is not then simply a mystic declaration of Jesus but one which we can all make, partaking as we do from our own locus of experience we call self and yet always within the reality of a single non-separated universe.
© David Teachout