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Materialism, Idealism, Free Will, God: An Exploration


Which comes first, consciousness or the brain? Is this whole happening fundamentally matter or spirit? Do we have free will or not? What is God? These are the questions this outpouring explores.

My own sense is that the apparent divide between mind (or consciousness) and matter (the physical universe) is a false divide, two ways of seeing or understanding one thing. But like most of us, I was deeply habituated and conditioned to the prevailing, ubiquitous, socially reinforced materialist perspective. That’s the familiar story in which the universe, which is said to be made of physical matter, was (rather mysteriously) created out of nothing back when the Big Bang happened over 13 billion years ago, and then eventually, out of matter, life forms emerged and evolved, and eventually consciousness emerged from matter as a product of nervous systems and brains, and finally humans emerged from apes and quickly rose to the top of the food chain. In this story, close to 8 billion of us human primates are now living on this rock that is hurling around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour, each of us encapsulated in a separate body, and each of us with free will and choice. We are the authors of our lives, the thinker of our thoughts, the maker of our decisions. We are responsible for what we do.

This is the prevailing, consensus reality. Our legal systems, educational systems, and modern societies in general, are all built on this story. It isn’t even regarded as a story, but as fact. Many of us never question it, and those who do are often religious fundamentalists who believe the story that God created the world in 6 days, and that we are all separate souls who go to heaven or hell after death depending on how well we have behaved. Most folks who are reading this website don’t wish to be associated with that backward crowd. But a growing number of rational and forward-thinking scientists seem to be moving nowadays to the perspective long-held by Vedanta, many schools of Buddhism and other wisdom traditions, as well as by those secular philosophies known as idealism, that Consciousness (or Mind, or spirit) is the ground of being, the fundamental reality, and that matter is a kind of conceptual abstraction or passing appearance—a picture painted by consciousness.

In exploring all this directly, I find that I never actually experience anything outside of consciousness. Matter, it turns out, is an assumption, whereas consciousness is our most fundamental and undeniable experiential reality. And having looked deeply for the thinker of my thoughts and the maker of my decisions, I have found no one at the helm. Our urges, interests, preferences, desires, thoughts, feelings and actions all emerge spontaneously from an unfindable source, which (in another story) we might describe as an unfathomable mix genetics, ever-changing conditioning, and actually, everything in the whole universe.

Of course, there is actually no way to prove either view with absolute certainty, idealism or materialism, the primacy of mind or matter, and compelling arguments can be made, logically and experientially, for both—which is part of why I suspect that these two views might be “not two.”  They may simply be different conceptual maps of the same territory, the territory being our direct experiencing, here and now—this knowingness of being here now and this present appearance that cannot be denied or doubted. We can doubt whether it is a dream or a material reality, whether it is made out of consciousness or subatomic wavicles, whether it emerges from the brain or from universal consciousness or from somewhere else, but we cannot doubt the bare actuality itself, prior to any interpretive overlay. And in the end, all these metaphysical arguments over which comes first, the chicken or the egg, are like the children of a childless couple haggling in a dream.

No brain has ever appeared outside of consciousness. Any brain you have ever seen, read about, operated on, or touched was an experience you were having in consciousness. That is undeniable. But clearly, there seems to be an undeniable relationship between the brain and our finite, personal consciousness. If you sustain a head injury, your consciousness changes or disappears altogether. Or at least, so it appears in the movie of waking life.

I personally have no expectation that my movie of waking life, i.e. my conscious experiencing, will survive death. It disappears every night in deep sleep and under anesthesia, as does even the first, bare sense of being present and aware, and I assume this will be true of death. And, as in deep sleep and under anesthesia, I won’t be there to miss myself or my movie of waking life.

But I feel quite sure that life itself will go on—whatever this whole happening is—whether we call it universal consciousness, the material universe, intelligence-energy, the Great Spirit, or any other name for the unnamable. The individual waves come and go, but the ocean persists, and the waves have never actually been anything other than a movement of the ocean.

Whether the nature of this unborn, undying larger reality—the infinite wholeness without beginning or end—is best described as Infinite Consciousness or physical matter seems unresolvable to me. But as science continues to explore matter, it is discovered to be less and less solid and more and more dependent on the observing consciousness. And the more I explore my own conscious experience directly, the same thing happens. The whole notion of "matter" seems to get more and more abstract, and the living actuality seems to reveal itself as less and less concrete or locatable, and more and more an evaporating appearance in (and of) consciousness that vanishes as soon as it arrives.

Consciousness is what Here-Now is. Consciousness is the unmoving present-ness or immediacy in which the ever-changing appearance appears and disappears, the common factor in every different experience. The possibility that consciousness is the fundamental reality has come to seem quite plausible to me. But to assert it as an absolute fact seems to me like a step too far. I prefer to remain with not knowing, and not needing to know. Whether the brain creates consciousness or merely transmits it in some way may never be known, and whether there is a material reality outside of consciousness is, as far as I can see, totally unknowable. But in terms of daily life, which is, after all, the only actuality we ever have, what difference does it make?

As far as the prevailing belief that we are each a separate entity with free will and choice, responsible for our actions, I find that this view simply doesn’t hold up to careful direct investigation of our own experience as choices and decisions happen. Neuroscience is also finding, more and more, that the sense we have of being a coherent self with agency and choice is nothing more substantial than neurological sensations with no actual entity behind them. No actual thinker, no actual decider has yet been found. And yet, paradoxically, we have no choice but to function as if we have choices to make: which movie will we see, what will we have for dinner, what should we wear to work today, which presidential candidate shall we vote for, do we want to undergo another round of chemotherapy, should we buy the house or not, what is the best course of action to take with our delinquent child?

But the more carefully we watch how these decisions actually unfold, the more we find that there is no decider. Thoughts arise spontaneously, perhaps arguing for one choice and then the other, a back and forth period of indecision and conflicting thoughts occurs, and then at some point, the decisive moment happens—the decision is made—and yet if we watch closely, we cannot say exactly how that decisive clarity occurred, and we cannot make the decisive moment arrive any sooner than it does.

Our interests, urges, preferences, desires, thoughts, emotions and actions arise unbidden from an unfindable source. Before a choice is made, thought, posing as “me,” worries that “I” might get it wrong and ruin my life (or my child’s life, or the world, or whatever). This creates anxiety and worry. And then, after the fact, thought, again posing as “me,” takes credit or blame, which creates pride or guilt. And since we assume everyone else is also acting out of free will, we blame them if they act badly. They could have done better, or so we think. And we could have done better. This erroneous view is a recipe for self-hatred, hatred of others, vengeance, fear and angst.

And because we assume we’re all seeing the same material world, an observer-independent objective reality that is really “out there,” outside of consciousness, when others see that world differently from how it appears to us, we find ourselves in conflict and disbelief, filled with self-righteous anger. Why can’t they see what is so obvious to me!!?? Under that anger, often undetected, there is a deep fear that perhaps my view isn’t really true or reliable after all, that maybe nothing is as solid or as certain as we think. The fact that others see it so differently seems to threaten the very ground beneath our feet. And thus, it often feels as if our very life is being threatened when someone takes a different position on a hot button issue. Our “self” is being challenged, and our whole worldview is being thrown into doubt. Wars erupt in the wake of this, family wars and global wars.

But perhaps there is no actual observer-independent, objective, inherent reality “out there,” outside of consciousness. In fact, even science now tells us that the world we see is a construction of the brain, which creates patterns and apparently solid objects out of some kind of nonlocal, indeterminate, subatomic, quantum energy-fluctuation. And science also informs us that our perception is conditioned by the condition of our brain, the quality of our sense organs, the ever-revising psychological and physical conditioning resulting from every life experience we have, and numerous other factors, such that each one of us actually sees a unique world. Memory has been shown to be notoriously unreliable and protean.

We can never know with certainty anything outside our own present conscious experiencing, and that is gone as soon as it arrives, replaced by a new experience. We cannot even know for sure that we are on a planet orbiting the sun or that there are 7 or 8 billion other people also on this planet. It could all be a dream or a simulated reality, we have no way of actually knowing for sure. This may sound frightening to the mind that wants to know, the mind that wants certainty. But there is actually an immense freedom in the openness of not knowing, and in the realization that we actually don’t need to know. As I see it, being awake is being open. And being open is being free.

Arguing over philosophy and metaphysics has never been a passion of mine, but what does interest me is the practical, down-to-earth ways that how we see and understand life affects our everyday experience, our relationships, our behavior, our ideas, and our peace of mind. Believing in free will, for example, inevitably leads to some degree of guilt, blame, anxiety, worry and desire to punish. Maybe we don’t need that belief anymore. Seeing through it doesn’t mean we can't or shouldn't apparently “decide” to stop smoking, go into therapy, learn a new language, change jobs, take up meditation, or anything else that life moves us to do. It is simply the recognition that our motivations, abilities and actions are a movement of the whole ocean and not of the individual wave.

All we know for sure is being here, present and aware, and present experiencing. That we cannot doubt. The rest—ALL the rest—is subject to doubt. We can question the reality of what our thoughts tell us, and that can be very helpful. We can question our stories and beliefs, and that can be immensely liberating. We can also utilize beliefs in a functional way without regarding them as absolute truths. For example, believing that the earth is round, or that climate change is real, are examples of beliefs that can serve us.

We can also notice how it affects us when we hold the belief that everything is made of matter, and how it affects us when we hold the belief that everything is consciousness or spirit. Without holding tightly to either idea, we can play with each possibility and see how it moves us. We can realize that no map (no word, no concept) is ever the territory (the living actuality) that it describes, but at the same time, maps are useful, and mapping is something the territory is doing, so we don’t need to discard or spurn maps either. And we can recognize that the same territory can be mapped in many different ways.

When we rest in simple being, in the knowingness that is right here with doubtless certainty, we find that this aware presence naturally has the qualities of spaciousness, clarity, openness, luminosity, peace, joy and love—even when circumstances are painful. That’s helpful to notice. It gives us a huge clue about where to look for what we are seeking. Instead of rushing to the bookshelves for a spiritual book, poring another glass of wine, guzzling more coffee, eating a pint of ice cream, lighting a cigarette, checking our phone, or whatever we do when faced with unsettling waves of emotion-thought, we discover the possibility of doing nothing at all. Simply BEING. And it’s helpful to notice that this wakefulness, this awaring presence, this alive beingness is actually always here, waiting to be noticed. Whatever experience is arising, it’s always Now and we’re always Here in (and as) this present-ness, this immediacy.

This is what the word God means to me. God is a rather loaded word that means many different things to many different people. I was raised by atheist-agnostics, so that word doesn't have the painful baggage for me that it does for some people. To me, God is not some outside force or some Supreme Being that we believe in (or don't believe in). God is something we experience, something we most fundamentally are. In my lexicon, God is simply another word for this awaring presence here-now, this aliveness, this openness. Calling it God connotes the sacredness of this, the richness, the intelligence, the beauty, the unconditional love, the infinite potential. But we can drop all the words. Ultimately, no word is what it represents. The word "water" is not water. You can't drink the word. Which isn't to say that words can't nourish us in many ways. They can!

There is certainly a place in this movie of waking life for scientific, philosophical and intellectual explorations. But instead of trying to understand all this metaphysically or scientifically, another option—which is my sense of what nonduality, spirituality and even religion are all about (at their truest and best)—is to explore it directly, by feeling into it, being it, knowing it directly—not as a concept, but as a living actuality. We can’t, in fact, ever actually understand this aliveness conceptually. We ARE it. This is it, this very moment. Here-Now is literally all there ever is. But don't assume that means that history is totally unreal or that nothing exists outside of our own personal consciousness.

Whatever reality is, it includes everything. It includes the subatomic level, the cellular level, the level of everyday life, the intergalactic universe; the personal and the impersonal; the vast emptiness of pure consciousness and the hustle and bustle of Times Square in New York City. There’s no need to deny or cling to any one viewpoint, and no need to fixate on any one model, map or way of understanding it. No formulation is the Truth. The Truth is inconceivable, and yet here it always is, plain as day, endlessly revealing itself.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2019 --

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