What is Real ?
Conscious Experience Seen as Basic to All Ontology. An Overview
By Axel Randrup email@example.com
From: http://www.mobilixnet.dk/~mob79301/reality.html (http://www.mobilixnet.dk/%7Emob79301/reality.html)
International Center for Interdisciplinary Psychiatric Research,
Written 2000-2003. Electronic publication only.
Content and Temporal Extension of the Psychological Now
The Ontology of Consciousness
The Ontology of Nature Including Mind - Brain Relations
Individual and Collective Conscious Experience. The Ontology of Intersubjectivity
Collective Conscious Experience Across Time. The Ontology of History
Egoless Experience. The Ontology of Worlds Without an Ego
The Ontology of Worlds Comprising Spiritual Experiences
Religion. God, Rationality, Spirituality
The idealist attitude followed in this paper is based on the assumption
that only conscious experience in the Now is real. Conscious experience
in the Now is supposed to be known directly or intuitively, it
can not be explained. I think it constitutes the basis of all ontology.
Consciousness is conceived as the total of conscious experience
in the Now, the ontology of consciousness is thus derived directly
from the basis. The ontology of nature is derived more indirectly
from the basis. Science is regarded as a catalog of selected conscious
experiences (observations), acknowledged to be scientific and structured
by means of concepts and theories (also regarded as conscious experiences).
Material objects are regarded as heuristic concepts constructed
from the immediate experiences in the Now and useful for expressing
observations within a certain domain with some of their mutual
relations. History is also regarded as a construct from conscious
experiences in the Now. Concepts of worlds without an ego are seen
to be in harmony with immediate egoless experiences. Worlds including
spirituality are conceived as based on immediate spiritual experiences
together with other immediate experiences. Idealist or immaterial
philosophies have been criticized for implying solipsism or "solipsism
of the present moment". This critique is countered by emphasizing
the importance of intersubjectivity for science and by introducing
the more precise concepts of collective conscious experience and
collective conscious experience across time. Comprehensive evidence
supporting the heuristic value of these concepts is related.
I conclude that the idealist approach leads to a coherent comprehension of
natural science including mind-brain relations, while the mainstream materialist
approach entails contradictions and other problems for a coherent understanding.
The idealist approach and the notion of collective conscious experience also
facilitates cross-cultural studies and the understanding of intersubjectivity.
Key-words : Idealist philosophy; psychological Now; collective
conscious experience; collective consciousness; egoless experience;
egolessness; philosophy of mind; philosophy of science; idealist
ontology; reality; mind-brain relations; mind-matter relations;
cognition; spirituality; shamanism; religion and rationality; God.
In preceding papers the author has tried to expound an idealist
ontology stating that only conscious experience in the Now is real.
This challenges the currently dominant materialist ontology in
the natural sciences, nevertheless it does maintain the methodological
presupposition that all scientific research - materialist, idealist,
or dualist - rests on empirical observations from which concepts
and theories are derived (Randrup 1997, 1999, 2002).
In this ontology, or philosophy the immediate conscious experience in the
psychological Now is fundamental, and I shall therefore begin with this topic
and from that
develop the ontology of consciousness, nature, intersubjectivity, history.
worlds without an ego, and worlds comprising spiritual experiences.
Content and Temporal Extension of the Psychological Now
A number of time studies and psychological experiments indicate
that the psychological Now is experienced with a certain temporal
extension and therefore differs from the physical moment or point
of time, which is regarded as infinitesimal with zero duration.
Thus the psychologist Rubin (1934) performed experiments with " two
very short sound stimuli in the outer physical world succeeding one another." When
the interval between the two sound stimuli was short, a fifth of a second (in
physical time), Rubin's immediate experience was:
Quite contrary to our general notion of time, the experience does not occur
one of the sounds is present and that the other belongs either to the just
expected future or to the immediate past. Either both of them are past or both
them are future or both of them have the character of being present, although
they are experienced as a succession.
I find that Rubin's results stand out for their clarity and significance. Searching
the literature I have found no direct replication, continuation or critique
of Rubins work, but there are several authors who concur with Rubin in assuming
that the perceptual or experiential Now possesses extension. Fraisse (1975)
has, like Rubin performed many phenomenological observations and experiments
on the psychology of time, and he thinks that our perception of change is characterized
by the integration of successive stimuli in such a way that they can be perceived
with relative simultaneity (p. 12). He also states that when he hears the tick-tock
from a clock, the tick is not yet part of his past, when he hears the tock,
so the order of the tick and the tock is perceived directly (pp. 72-73, 117).
Whitehead (1920, p. 69) thinks that "the ultimate terminus of awareness
is a duration with temporal thickness" and that "the present is a
wavering breadth of boundary" between the extremes of memory and anticipation.
Denbigh (1981, p. 17) thinks that the "specious present" (or "perceptual
present") gives to temporal awareness a certain degree of "spread",
and he quotes William James for asserting that the perceptual present is not
like a knife edge, but more like a saddle-back. More recently Varela (1999,
p. 119) has stated that "the very mode of appearance of nowness is in
the form of extension, and to speak of a now-point obscures this fact".
Hayward (1987) writes about relations between the sciences and Buddhism, and
he states that conscious experience occurs as series of moments of finite duration
Within the extension of the Now there is room for a rich content including
both memories and anticipations, which can be seen as special modes of experience
in the Now. Memories and anticipations in the Now can of course, together with
the eperience of succession, form a basis for construction of concepts of time.
These concepts (also conscious experiences) can then become part of the psychological
Now. The philosopher Henri Bergson (1980) studied the immediate experience
of successions, and found that such experiences, for instance the notes of
a melody penetrate each other and form a whole (pp. 74-79). He contended that
the time of science and of daily life is an abstraction from these immediate
experiences. I find that Bergson's views correspond well with the description
of the content of the Now by Gurwitsch and Arvidson, which is related below.
Also Buddhist and other Indian psychology have found that physical time is
an "abstraction", a "construction" or a "conceptual
fabrication" (Hayward 1987, pp. 166,169, Inada 1991, pp. 470-471, Mahadevan,
1992, p. 578). Nicholas of Cusa (15th century) held similar views of the Now: "All
time is comprised in the present or 'now'..... time is only a methodological
arrangement of the present. The past and the future, in consequence, are the
development of the present" (quoted in Perry 1971, p. 840).
I think that other concepts, theories and observations of science are likewise
abstracted, abducted or constructed from the whole of the psychological Now.
The reading of a measuring instrumant can serve as an example: usually only
the position of the pointer is recorded, while its color and shape together
with many other features of the perceptual whole are ignored (Marchais and
Randrup 1991, p. 2).
The rich content and the structure of the Now has been studied extensively
by Gurwitsch (1985) followed by Arvidson (2000). Arvidson states: "At
each and every moment of experience, with few exceptions, there is a figure
and a ground, a focus of attention and a context for that focus". At the
periphery of this "thematic field" Arvidson thinks that there is
the contents of "marginal consciousness" (p. 3). In the succession
of moments a marginal item may move into the thematic field (p. 14). I concur
with these views, and I think they help to understand the way concepts and
theories are constructed from the whole of the psychological Now.
Strictly speaking the conscious content of the Now constitutes the only sure
basis of all our knowledge, and if we accept that the Now contains both successions,
memories, anticipations and focal or marginal awareness of many items, this
basis will be sufficient for construction of concepts and theories, including
theories about ontology. Concepts and theories are also experienced in the
Now, in the focus or the margin. The central importance of the Now in the idealist
position developed here indicates that further scientific studies of the psychology
of the Now will yield information of fundamental significance. Studies by Sorenson
(1998) of indigenous people living in isolated enclaves around the world have
revealed a kind of consciousness focussed within a flux of sentient immediacy,
where experience is not clearly subdivided into separable components. I expect
that further studies of this kind of consciousness, "preconquest consciousness" will
contribute significantly to the knowledge of immediate experience in the Now.
The change of preconquest consciousness under foreign influence may yield material
for understanding the process of extraction of separable components from the
immediate experience in the Now and the formation of concepts and theories.
The Ontology of Consciousness
In the English scientific and philosophic literature the term "consciousness" is
used with several very different meanings. Here are some examples
showing the span of the variation:
" Consciousness is a neurological system like any other, with functions
such as the long-term direction of behavior ... " (Bridgeman 1980)
" Consciousness ... is best regarded as an aspect of the system's behaviour,
the latter admitting of both overt and covert dimensions." (Cotterill 2001,
" Consciousness is information" (Goldberg 1996, pp. 12, 32)
The universe is fundamentally a great mind. Consciousness is seen as primary,
and matter as a projection of consciousness (Orme-Johnson, Zimmerman and Hawkins
Wuthnow (1976, p. 60) proposes that consciousness may be defined "as
the ongoing process of constructing reality out of symbols and experience." This
is an example of functionalism which in general views consciousness as a brain
process or mode of functioning (Velmans 1990, p. 79). Wuthnow (p. 65) also
thinks that consciousness "needs to be recognized as not simply a psychological
phenomenon, but as a process linked in important ways to the functioning of
" ...the most important thing about consciousness is that it's a social
attribute" (Freeman and Burns 1996, p. 180).
Brown (1977, p. 150) thinks that "consciousness is a manifestation of
both the achieved cognitive level and the full series of cognitive levels at
a given moment in psychological time."
At a study week on brain and conscious experience the Vatican Academy of
Science expressed this view: "As to the further meaning of the term "consciousness" the
Study Week intends that it strictly designates the psychophysiological concept
of perceptual capacity, of awareness of perception, and the ability to act
and react accordingly." (quoted in Uttal 1978, p. 7).
" An awareness of awareness of self and environment in time" is
suggested as a definition of consciousness by Strehler (1991, p. 45).
" ..... by focusing the attention on the sheer clarity and the sheer cognizance
[the event of knowing] of experience, one attends to the defining characteristics
of consciousness alone, as opposed to the qualities of other objects of
consciousness. (Wallace 1999, p. 183).
Antony (2001, p. 34) relates a view of consciousness from the beginning of
the twentieth century. "Any contents of consciousness ... are not parts
or features of consciousness, but simply what consciousness is conscious of ."
Woodhouse (1997, p. 256) writes: "The sense of consciousness with which
I will begin and subsequently develop is that of awareness per se, irrespective
of the objects or contents of awareness ... this fundamental sense is at bottom
simple and indefinable, and we are forced to rely, in part, on each person's
intuitive underdstanding of what it means to be conscious."
Consciousness is a private perceptual space-time system, manifested as an orderly
manifold of percepts. (Kuhlenbeck 1961, p. 37).
Here I will understand consciousness as the total of conscious experience
in the Now (individual, collective or egoless, see below), immediate
experience as well as constructs, concepts and theories. Conscious experience
(or just experience) is supposed to be known directly or intuitively, it
can not be explained. I think it constitutes the given basis of all ontology.
The ontology of consciousness is then derived directly from this basis.
I believe that the word "consciousness" is today often used in
the sense of awareness per se separated from its content (as described by
by Antony, and by Woodhouse above). In this sense consciousness is a partition
or construction from the direct experience. The ontology of consciousness understood
in this way is derived from the immediate experience too, but less directly.
This also applies to the ontology of consciousness understood in all the other
ways reported above.
When we go to other cultures and languages the ambiguities in the understanding
of consciousness become still greater. Thus in French the word "conscience" can
often be translated adequately by "consciousness", but in certain
contexts it corresponds to English "conscience". Further, the French
word "connaissance" corresponds to English "consciousness" in
certain contexts, while it most often corresponds to "knowledge".
In Danish the term "bevidsthed" corresponds quite well with English "consciousness".
Wilkes (1988) writes about the history of the English term "conscious(ness)" and
states that it arrives late in its present (range of) sense(s). The term "consciousness" with
a recognizabble modern meaning did not appear until 1678. Earlier "conscious" referred
to"shared knowledge", while the term "inwit" had some overlap
with today's term "consciousness" Wilkes also writes about the Ancient
Greek, the Chinese, and the Croatian languages. She thinks that there is no
generally adequate translation for "consciousness" or "mind" in
these languages, but is not denying that there are specific contexts in which
the English terms are translated perfectly by terms such as psyche, sophia,
nous, metanoia, or aistesis in Greek, yishi in Chinese, and duh or um in Croatian.
From Israel I have been informed that it is difficult to give a good translation
of the English word "mind" in Hebrew, since there are 5 - 6 possible
words, each of them with a special shade (Miriam Schwarz 1982, personal communication,
It thus seems that it is not impossible to learn from other cultures about
concepts of consciousnes and the ontology of consciousness, but great care
will be necessary, because of the linguistic and general cultural differences.
This applies to what I write in the following sections about Chinese, Buddhist,
Japanese and other foreign views. I rely on texts written in English or Danish
by authors with insight in the respective cultures.
The Ontology of Nature Including Mind- Brain Relations
The dominant ontology of the Western scientific culture is materialist
realism which assumes that what scientific theories describe is
a material world existing independent of human consciousness and
cognition. This view has proved useful and productive within a
certain, large domain of the study of nature, but it has been contested
by many philosophers (Knight 2001; Randrup 1997, with references),
and a number of scientific findings made in the 20th century have
been difficult to accomodate in this ontology. Thus cognitive
neuropsychology assumed from the beginning, like all biology, the existence
of an external world independent of the human observer. The studies in this
discipline led, however, to the conflicting result, that all our cognitions,
including the assumption of an external world, must depend on the cognitive
apparatus in our brain. The same contradiction has emerged in the discipline
evolutionary epistemology (the study of cognition in the context of biological
evolution) and has been discussed within this discipline, during later years
in the journal Evolution and Cognition. Other examples of contradictions and
problems consequential to the assumption of a material world "out there" are
found within the disciplines second order cybernetics, statistics, and physics.
(Randrup 1997 and submitted).
Doubts about the materialist ontology (or realism) have been expressed by various
physicists. Thus Laszlo (1996, p. 32) writes: "As of today the mainstream
theorists of the quantum world have not succeeded in giving an unambigous answer
to the question, 'what is matter?' ". And Barrow (1988, p.16) states: "It
appears that science is best done by believing that realism is true, even if
in fact it isn't" . The newer theories involving superstrings and supermembranes
have made the doubts still more disturbing. These theoretical entities, extremely
small, are believed to be fundamental constituents of matter, but direct effects
of them can not be assessed experimentally, and the belief in their existence
rests on the usefulness of the theories in which they are embedded. They may
therefore be conceived as heuristic theoretical concepts rather than pieces
of matter, and the superstring theories have been regarded as mathematical
philosophy rather than physics (Brown 1991, Nathan 2000).
A clear and radical position was taken by Lindsay and Margenau (1949, p. 1)
who begin their book "Foundations of Physics" with the statement: "Physics
is concerned with a certain portion of human experience". This expresses
an idealist conception of physics, and at the same time an extension of the
usual conceptions of consciousness to embrace also the domain of physics. These
authors find that the belief in a real material world behind our senseperceptions
may tend to encourage too close adherence to reasonably successful physical
theories with too small allowance for their necessary revision to meet the
demands of new experience (p. 3).
In the idealist ontology proposed here, science is regarded as a catalog of
selected conscious experiences (observations) acknowledged to be scientific
and structured by means of concepts and theories which are regarded as conscious
experiences too. Material objects are thus regarded as heuristic concepts useful
for expressing observations within a certain domain with some of their mutual
relations. This reinterpretation of materialist objects allows a direct understanding
and use of traditional scientific theories without accepting their ontology
(Marshall 2001, p. 60, Randrup 1997, section 4). The idealist ontology emphasizes
the role of the evidence in science and is particularly open to new theories
and to the application of more than one theory and set of concepts to a domain
of observations (Lindsay and Margenau 1949, pp. 1-3, Randrup 1992, 1994, 1997b,
Wallace 1996, pp. 25-27, 113-114,148-150, 190).
The idealist ontology of nature also readily accomodates the intense nature
experiences known as nature spirituality (Randrup 1997). These intense, direct
nature-experiences are felt by the experient to be essential and important,
indicating that they must be real and that nature primarily is an experience.
These experiences are thus felt to be in conflict with the materialist view
that nature exists separated from and independent of the "observer".
Also on more secular ground many people resist the alienation from nature entailed
by strict materialist realism, and tend to retain naive (or direct) realism,
where material nature is believed to be as perceived.
The mind-body or mind-brain problem is now often called "the hard problem",
meaning that it is hard to understand how a material brain can produce consciousness.
I believe that the hardness of the problem is a direct implication of the materialist
ontology, and that therefore the problem cannot be "solved" as long
as this ontology is applied. Materialist realism is the problem. (Very
recently Marshall (2001, p. 60) has expressed similar views on the hardness
of the mind-brain problem). With the idealist ontology the mind-brain relations
are relations between conscious experiences (observations) constituting the
material brain (here seen as a heuristic concept) and other conscious experiences.
It is readily understood that such relations are possible, and they can be
studied in detail by comparing the results from neurophysiology and from attention
to conscious experiences.
In a number of non-Western cultures and belief systems we encounter conceptions
of the world and the human which are very different from the dominant conceptions
of contemporary Western science. Clearly those cultures have made different
extractions and constructions from their immediate experiences in the psychological
Writing on East Asian thought Tu (1980) gives a clear account of such differences.
He states that according to East Asian thought it is fallacious to define human
nature merely in terms of biological, psychological or sociological structures
and functions because, viewed holistically a more comprehensive grasp of its
many-sidedness is required. The uniqueness of being human is an ethicoreligious
question; Ch'an rejects the artificial dichotomy between the body and the enlightened
mind (pp. 167, 172 and 173). Tu also states that human beings are thought to
have the potential power and insight to penetrate the things-in-themselves
(this is in direct opposition to the Kantian view of the unknowable "Ding
an sich") and that humanity forms an inseparable unity with heaven, earth
and the myriad things (in contrast to the view of a material world separate
from the human mind) (p.169).
At the 8th World Congress of Psychiatry Wig (1990) emphasized the need for
a truly international diagnostic system in psychiatry, acceptable also in the
developing countries. As one of the obstacles he mentioned conceptual bias,
i.a. the body-mind dichotomy.
Stanner (1971) gives an account of Aboriginal Australian beliefs and conceptions.
He states that our contrast of body versus spirit is not there and the whole
notion of the person is enlarged. The Australians "enfold into some kind
of oneness the notions of body, spirit, ghost, shadow, spirit-site, and totem".
The Australians can also conceive that "man, society and nature and past,
present, and future are at one".
Werblowsky (1971, p. 37) writes about Jewish thinking. Distinction between
body and soul(s) occurs, but the essential feature of rabbinic anthropology
was not the opposition body-soul, but the doctrine of the two inclinations,
the good yeser and the evil yeser. This dichotomy is still fundamental in contemporary
Purely idealist ontologies have been developed by schools within Buddhism.
Thus Wayman (1971, p. 426) writes about "the idealistic standpoint of
the Vijnaptimatra school by which there is no external object independent of
consciousness". And Hsu (1990) has written a book about the "theory
of Pure Consciousness considered one of the subjective and 'uncompromising'
doctrines of idealism" (p.121). The teory of Pure Consciousness belonged
to the Laksana school, otherwise also called the Yogacara school (p. 81), and
it was transmitted by Xuan Zang to China where it flourished (p. 111).
Okuyama (1994, p. 69) has written about the "Mind-Only" doctrine
of the Yogacara school: "The name Mind- Only came from their strong belief
that all is mind and there is no real world.....outside world is thought as
our illusion created inside of our mind". Lindtner (1998, p.10) write
in a similar way about the ontology of the Yogacara school: "All the universe
consists of consciousness only" (translated from Danish by the present
author). Hollenback (1996, pp.104-105) refers to the Tibetan treatise "The
Yoga of Knowing the Mind, the Seeing of Reality" inspired by Yogacara
teachings. In this treatise it is claimed that the phenomenal world is only
a mental construct, a creation of our minds. The only reality is mind - all
else is an illusory fabrication of mind.
According to Wallace (1999, p. 176) the following declaration is attributed
to the Buddha himself: "All phenomena are preceded by the mind. When the
mind is comprehended, all phenomena are comprehended." It is interesting
to compare this declaration with the intent of contemporary physicists to construct
a "theory of everything" on a materialist basis.
This Buddhist idealism accords with more ancient traditions of the East which
assert "that the universe is fundamentally a great mind, an infinite field
of consciousness at the basis of our mind, far from being a metaphysical notion
lying outside the range of human experience.The great mind is also seen as
the basis of our bodies and all of material existence" (Orme-Johnson,
Zimmerman and Hawkins 1997).
The idealist ontology proposed here will therefore facilitate cross-cultural
studies of nature, including mind-brain relations.
Individual and Collective Conscious Experience.
The Ontology of Intersubjectivity
Immaterialist views such as the idealism proposed here, phenomenalism,
and radical constructivism have been met with the objection that
they are based entirely on private (individual) experiences. Thus
Hirst (1959, pp.94-95) states that material objects are public,
while sense data are private to the percipient, and he asks how
sets of statements about these private sense data can give the
meaning of a statement about a public object.. Likewise it has
been criticized that the immaterialist views are kinds of solipsism
(the idea that the world has no existence outside the thinker's
subjective mind) or may lead to solipsism (Olsen 1986, p. 364,
Russell 1953, p. 623, Von Foerster 1984, pp. 59-60, Von Glasersfeld
1988, p. 86, Watzlawick 1984, p. 15). Whitehead (1978, p. 152)
states that if experience be not based upon an objective content,
there can be no escape from a solipsist subjectivism, and he criticizes
the philosophers Hume and Locke for failing to provide experience
with an objective content. He also states that with Kant's "apparent" objective
content there can be no real escape from a solipsist subjectivism.
It seems to me, however, that this critique is untenable. It is based on the
presumption that conscious experiences are always individual, but it can be
contended that this presumption is far from sure. It ignores the phenomenon
of intersubjectivity which is important in science, also in mainstream science,
as well as the logically possible more precise concept collective conscious
In order to be recognized as scientific, an observation has to be confirmed
by several scientists - become intersubjective. A new observation or concept
may originate with one person, then the scientific community will work to test,
if intersubjectivity can be obtained. In accordance with the assumption that
consciousness is always individual, each person having his own experiences
separated from those of other persons, an intersubjective observation is often
conceived of as the same observation or experience distributed over different
individual minds or consciousnesses. If, for instance, two persons together
are reading a meter with digital display, it is assumed in scientific work
that they read exactly the same value, 7.6 for example.
I think, however, that it is also possible to regard an intersubjective observation
or concept as one collective experience with the whole group of persons involved
as the subject, the We. Logically both interpretations seem equally possible.
They both contradict solipsism, but I prefer the notion of collective consciousness
finding that in several contexts it has the greater heuristic value. In the
following I shall write in more detail about collective conscious experience
and give evidence for the heuristic value of this notion.
Collective conscious experiences will of course be related to neurophysiologic
processes in all the brains of the persons involved ( brains and persons, including
the "I" are of course here seen as heuristic structures in the catalog
of scientific observations), while neurophysiology usually studies conscious
experiences in association with one brain only. Here I believe there is an
extended domain for further experimental research. I think it will be possible
to study relations between changes in two or more brains associated with collective
experiences and with processes leading to collective experiences.
Some conscious experiences, such as intersubjective scientific observations
and concepts, are readily seen to be shared with a collective of persons, while
other experiences appear to be more individual; sometimes I feel that experiences
I have are not shared or only partly shared by persons with whom I communicate.
This feeling may be reciprocal and even shared, so it forms a known and directly
experienced part of a common collective consciousness. This feeling may also
give rise to a belief that the other person has individual experiences different
from mine, and even give rise to thoughts about the nature of these experiences.
Such thoughts are, however, only conjectural, we cannot know the contents of
other individual minds, but I think we know and experience directly the collective
experiences. This I regard as an answer to the much discussed problem of "other
minds", thoughts about the complete content of another mind remain conjectural,
but what we share collectively we can and do know by direct experience. I also
regard this view as the beginning of an approach to another much discussed
that of animal mind (Randrup submitted a).
The boundary between individual and collective consciousness is, however, blurred.
If we talk together about our experiences, the intersubjective or collective
part will be expanded. This aspect of intersubjectivity has been studied thoroughly
by the phenomenological school of psychology at Copenhagen University (Rubin,
Tranekjær Rasmussen, From). Tranekjær Rasmussen (1968, chapter 3, with references)
writes that through communication it is possible to make certain conscious
experiences "intersubjectively transportable" within a group of people.
A set of intersubjectively transportable experiences he calls a recursive basis.
Such recursive bases are established within scientific disciplines (technical
languages), but Tranekjær Rasmussen thinks that within the disciplines little
has been done to state the recursive bases explicitly, and he thinks that working
to accomplish this will be an important task for both epistemology and pedagogics.
Obtaining intersubjectivity in psychology/psychiatry aided by communication
between scientists has been described recently by Marchais (2000, pp. 124-125)
and by Marchais, Grize, and Randrup (1995, p. 371). I think that carefully
established recursive bases can be regarded as collective consciousness within
a group of persons. Since recursive bases in science can be quite comprehensive,
we may envisage that scientists, particularly scientists within one discipline,
have a significant part of their consciousness in common, a collective consciousness.
Indeed, knowledge generally and many concepts such as "eleven," "energy," and
even "solipsism" cannot be individual at all, because from the beginning
they are shaped by communication and education. This view is supported by several
reflections in the literature. Thus Jørgensen (1963, p. 176) describes in detail
how two persons can arrive at common names of certain phenomena such as "head", "arm", "green" etc.
by making observations together and communicate about the names. He contends
that originally we have all learned the names of things and their properties
in this way; in science further education and communication has lead to the
technical terms. In a personal letter of March 20, 1999 Pierre Marchais asserted
that the number 5 is an educational, not a subjective phenomenon, an example
of collective knowledge. He told me that the 5 exists in me only because I
have been taught arithmetic. Wautischer (1998, p. 12) maintains that in most
cultures knowledge is seen as belonging to a group of people rather than being
the result of individual effort. Likewise Lutz (1992, p. 72) regards psychological
and anthropological thought systems as developing in a sociocultural context
and as constructed in interaction with that context. She also finds an essential
similarity between the cultural processes which structure academic psychology
and anthropology and those which structure other forms of ethnopsychology and
ethnoanthropology. Thornton (1996) states that language is an irreducibly public
form of life which is encountered in specifically social contexts, and since
a solipsist requires a language, Thornton sees solipsism as an inherently incoherent
theory. Allwood (1997) writes in a similar vein; he regards dialogue as collective
thinking and contends that "language is an instrument for (collective)
activation of information (or thinking)". Artigiani (1996) proposes an
hypothesis defining mind as an emergent attribute of complex social systems.
He thinks that mind becomes the experience of brains in social networking "computing" environmental
flows released by cooperative actions.
Jung has written comprehensively about the collective unconscious. This might
be regarded as something different from collective conscious experience, but
the Jungian analyst Bernstein writes "....the collective unconscious which
clearly implies a collective conscious" (Bernstein 1992, p. 25). And Bernstein
(2000) has reported examples of directly felt collective conscious experiences.
LikewiseYoung-Eisendrath and Hill (1992) think that Jung's later theory of
archetypes and self is a constructivist model of subjectivity that accounts
for the collective or shared organization of affective-imaginal life. Constructivism
they think reveals the impossibility of mental separatism and recognizes the
shared nature of mental processes that arise within an interpersonal field.
In the literature several authors have discussed collective memory. Thus Bryld
andWarring (1998) have written a book about the Danish collective memory of
the German occupation 1940-1945. They describe the formation of this collective
memory during the years after the war, influenced by the need of the the Danish
people to regard themselves as resistance heroes and not as collaborators.
Halbwachs (1975) has written a comprehensive general treatise about the social
frames of memory. He argues that the notion of individual memory is insufficient
and needs to be supplemented by group memory. Halbwachs employs terms such
as "collective perception", "collective representations", "collective
experience", "collective reflections", "collective thought",
and "collective memories". I think that this can be seen as something
like the collective conscious experience, I am describing here.
Living and acting together can enhance intersubjectivity and collective experience.
The Danish philosopher and psychologist Jørgensen has discussed this in some
detail (1963, chapter 7). He writes about "person-identification," i.e.,
identification with another person, and distinguishes between emotive and conative
forms. The former refers to the catching effect of emotional states and expressions,
and the latter refers to situations where persons act together to reach the
same goal. More recently Vaughan (1995) wrote in a similar way about emotive
The soul that empathetically identifies with both the pain and the joy of others
begins to see that in the inner world we are not separated from each other.
and joy, no less than pain and sorrow, are shared, collective experiences.
And in a recent special issue of the journal ReVision (Rothberg and
Masters, 1998) several authors have given examples of collective and egoless
consciousness in couples living and acting together in intimate relationships.
Some excerpts from this special issue follow:
..... they felt they were ..... one soul residing in two bodies. (p. 8).
Also, a deep spiritual bond - which may be felt during the most routine
activities and even far away - may develop. Robert Bly uses the metaphor of
the "third body" as a way of describing the transpersonal dimension
a couple. It is the "soul" of the couple as one respondent expressed
it (p. 23).
Holding to a sense of self and to the bond feels at times to be overwhelming.
Repeated dancing back and forth - now self, now disappearing, wave to particle
and back..... separateness and union..... (p.9).
These examples show directly experienced, lived collective consciousness; it
is also possible to understand collective conscious experience conceptually
as described above in this section. The last example given shows difficulties
with reconciling the individual and the collective. Personally I have experienced
such difficulties too, a temporary fear of losing myself. But these difficulties
have not been serious for me, after all the collective experience is or becomes
as familiar as the individual experience. When an experience moves from individual
to collective (by communication for example), my immediate feeling is that
the subject changes from I to We, while the rest of the experience remains
the same. In certain cases the subject (I as well as We) vanishes altogether
as described below in the section on egoless experience. A sudden change from
experienced subject to no subject is particularly clearly described in the
report by Austin quoted in that section.
It seems probable that living and acting closely together in smaller family
and other groups has contributed to the experience and concepts of collective
consciousness encountered in various non-Western cultures. In these cultures
collective and relational features of humans and their minds are emphasized
at least as much as individual features. I think this yields significant evidence
supporting the heuristic value of the concept of collective consciousness for
cross-cultural studies, and I shall relate some examples of this evidence.
I have had some contact with Japanese psychiatry and shall quote psychiatrist
Okuyama, who has practiced both in Japan and in the United States. She writes
about the three senses of self among the Japanese: the collective, the social,
and the individual sense. Of these, the collective sense is seen as the most
important and fundamental one. Okuyama states explicitly:
Japanese people commonly think that the self exists only in relationships with
others... our mind is thought to exist in a field of relationships. The self
cannot be considered separate from the relationship field nor having as clear
boundary, as Western people imagine.....one of the conditions to be an adult
is the ability to feel somebody else's or the group's feelings. (Okuyama 1993,
Arisaka (2001) writes in the same vein describing the Japanese philosopher
Watsuji's views: what is primary in human relation is not the atomically separated "individuals",
but rather what is generated "in-between" such individuals as a result
"My being conscious of you is intertwined with your being conscious of me....
the relation of Being-between the consciousness of the participants are mutually
permeated through one another's" (quote from Watsuji 1996 given by Arisaka
2001, p 200).
Roland (1988) has written a comprehensive treatise on the self in India and Japan. He
emphasizes the sense of we-ness or we-self and partial merger between individuals
in these cultures, and he stresses the contrast with the "individualistic
I-self - the predominant experiential self of Westerners." (pp. 196, 224-225,
Orme-Johnson, Zimmerman and Hawkins (1997) describe Maharishi's Vedic psychology
which is based on the ancient Vedic tradition of India and related to
other ancient traditions in the East. According to this psychology,
collective consciousness is the wholeness of consciousness of an entire group
that arises from the individuals that comprise the group. Each level of society
- family, community, city, state or province, nation, and the world - has a
corresponding collective consciousness.
Wu (1998) writes about togetherness which he regards as fundamental. "Actuality
is first organic togetherness.....before being analyzed into units and indviduals" (p.11).
He finds that this view agrees with Chinese philosophy but not with
Western analytic thinking.
The Senegalese philosopher Ndaw (1983) has written a comprehensive doctoral
thesis about African thought. He emphasizes that in African cultures
such as the Bambara and the Dogon the conception of the person is more social
than individual. The individual is conceived as a center of relations.The person
in Africa is not defined in opposition to society, but society is seen as constitutive
of the person. Man is conceived as indissociable from the group and in exact
correspondence with the universe. (Ndaw 1983, chapter 3). In agreement with
this Harris (1997) writes about competing core values in African American communities,
individualism rooted in European and Euro-American conceptions and African-centered
value rooted in collective consciousness.
Building on American Indian cultures Rÿser (1998) states that humans
and other peoples - including plants, minerals, fire, winds, and animals -
share a common consciousness, a common consciousness in the universe. Singleness
of consciousness he regards as always temporary and fleeting while collective
consciousness is the permanent and perpetual condition of things. Rÿser's text
is written in English and he uses the word "consciousness", probably
with a meaning which has something to do with the concept of consciousness
followed by me (see the section on consciousness above).
Sorenson (1998) has studied indigenous people living in isolated enclaves around
the world more or less "untouched" by dominant, conquering cultures.
In these people he found a state of mind which he calls Preconquest Consciousness. One
of the characteristics of this consciousness is an empathetic, integrative,
intuitive rapport between individuals. Sorenson found their way of life to
be simultaneously individualistic and collective. each person constantly enlivening
the others by a ceaseless, spirited, individualistic input into a unified at-oneness.
He felt strongly that this way of life was very different from the ways of
Western cultures, he was used to, and even difficult to describe in the English
language. The difference was also clearly seen in some cases where a rapid
collapse of preconquest consciousness (sometimes within one week) occurred
after contact with dominant cultures.
These non-Western views are difficult or rather impossible to understand on
the background of a strictly individual concept of conscious experience. If
on the other hand collective consciousness is conceived intellectually and
experienced directly on the basis of scientific activity as described above,
this will open opportunities for understanding the non-Western views and thus
be helpful in cross-cultural studies.
Rosenstand's views on collective and individual self provides further help
for cross-cultural understanding. She thinks that "We all know that "I
am me", even if we don't use words such as "self" or "I".
But some cultures consider this knowledge of minor importance" (Rosenstand
2002, p 251).
In the literature there are many other descriptions of collective features
in a number of cultures, indeed it seems that Western individualism is an exceptional
or unique phenomenon among the world's cultures, past and present (Morris 1972,
Rosenstand 2002, pp. 240-251). In recent years, however, experiences with networks
of computers and of neurons (biological, artificial) have suggested also to
some Western authors a more collective concept of brain, mind and conscious
Thus Freeman, author of the book "Societies of Brains" (1995) concludes
that "brains are preeminently social in nature" and that "the
most important thing about consciousness is thst it's a social attribute." (Freeman
and Burns 1996, pp. 178, 180). Likewise Huberman (1989) in his paper entitled "The
Collective Brain" states that intelligence is not restricted to the single
brain, but also appears in the workings of many human organizations and scientific
communities. He describes distributed intelligence and computational ecosystems,
the agents of which operate concurrently with no central control, incomplete
and sometimes inconsistent and delayed information, and with a high degree
of communication. He finds many of these features also in networks of computers.
Personally I find that there is comprehensive communication inside each brain
as well as between brains. Inside a brain the communication between neurons
is mediated by transmitter substances such as dopamine, actylcholine etc.,
and between brains it is mediated mainly by sound and light waves. But I think
that it is not the nature of the mediating substances, but rather the information
content of the communication that is important for the working of brains and
for the relations between brains and consciousness. And the information content
can be very large in the communication between brains as well as in communications
within a brain.
Experiences with the Internet have given rise to new thoughts about interaction
and collectivity. Thus Gackenbach, Guthrie and Karpen (1998) find that the
most important characteristic of the Internet is its emergent collective properties,
and de Kerckhove (1995) contends that the real nature of the Internet is to
act as a forum for collective memory and imagination. He also thinks that on-line
communications have created a new kind of permanence, a new stability of mind,
a collective mind, in which one plugs in or from which one pulls out, but without
affecting the integrity of the structure other than by direct contribution.
Surfing, e-mailing and chatting on the Internet have given rise to new psychological
phenomena. Particularly Suler (1999) who created the word "cyberpsychology" has
published comprehensive studies of these phenomena. Among other results he
.....users often describe how their computer is an extension of their mind
personality - a "space" that reflects their tastes, attitudes, and
psychoanalytic terms, computers and cyberspace may become a type of
"transitional space" that is an extension of the individual's intrapsychic
may be experienced as an intermediate zone between self and other that is part
self and part other. As they read on their screen the e-mail, newsgroup, or
message written by an internet comrade, some people feel as if their mind is
merged or blended with that of the other.
I conclude that the notion of collective consciousness is well founded in
the available evidence. Its heuristic value is that it admits of a more
precise account of the ontology of intersubjectivity, facilitates cross cultural
studies, and strongly contradicts that solipsism should be a consequence of
immaterial world views.
Whitehead (1978, p. 81), however, also writes about "solipsism of the
present moment" which would mean that only present experience exists.
He thinks that this type of solipsism can only be avoided if something more
than presentational immediacy is included in direct perception. The Danish
philosopher Iversen (1917, pp. 369-372) gave up, when he contemplated the solipsism
of the present moment. He believed that he had then reached "rock bottom" and
that there was nothing further to say. This he illustrated by making a hole
of about ten lines in his text, before he continued on other, less stringent
conditions. Iversen made a strong impression on me when I read his treatise
in high school, but now I think, Iversen's problem has been solved. The solution
is given above in the section on the psychological Now and in the following
section about collective conscious experience across time: the past and the
future with their content are constructs from the immediate experience in the
Now. These constructs are also experienced in the Now.
Collective Conscious Experience Across Time.
The Ontology of History
In Western cultures time is usually conceived as linear, the past
and the future separated from the present. But the conception of
time and the attitude to the past and the future is and was different
in many other cultures, past and present. There exists a comprehensive
literature on this, for recent reviews reference can be made to
Gell (1992), Munn (1992), Vatsyayan (1996) and Withrow (1988).
In the following some specific examples of time concepts will be
Nakamura (1991) emphasizes that the Indian conception of time is very different
from that in the West. Time is conceived statically rather than dynamically.
It is recognized in India that the things of this world are always movng and
changing, but the substance of things is seen as basically unchanging, its
underlying reality unaffected by the ceaseless flux. The Indian directs our
attention not to the flow of water but to the river itself, the unchanging
universal. Nakamura thinks that the static conception of time permeates Indian
thought. Other authors use the word "timelessness" instead
of "static time", for example Mahadevan (1992) who writes that timeless
Brahman is the source of all orders of creation and that time is the channel
through which it is possible to return to this source. Through meditation on
time, one gets beyond time to the eternal Absolute (p. 549). Gell (1992, pp.
71-72) quoting Geertz describe Balinese time as "a motionless present,
a vectorless now". He thinks that this does not mean that the Balinese
are living in a different kind of time from ourselves, but that they refuse
to regard as salient certain aspects of temporal reality which we regard as
much more important, such as the cumulative effects of historical time.
Hall and Hall (1990) write about monochronic and polychronic time. Monochronic
time corresponds with paying attention to and doing only one thing at a time,
while polychronic time corresponds with being involved in many things at once.
The cultures of the United States, Switzerland Germany, and Scandinavia adhere
to monochronic time, while the Mediterranian peoples follow polychronic time.
Like oil and water the two systems do not mix, so for performing international
business it is essential to know about the difference.
Cyclic concepts of time are found in various cultures, for instance
in the ancient Greek culture. Rÿser (1998) describes this view: "As time
proceeds around the circle, one encounters the past and repeats the transactions
and events as the
present." Rÿser also thinks that this cyclical reality proved quite adequate
for the social, economical, and political life in antiquity around the Mediterranean
and throughout Africa. Williams (1986, p. 30) judges that the Yolngu (Northern
Territory of Australia) perceive time as circular, so that from any particular
time, what is past may be future, and what is future may be past. And she quotes
a personal communication by von Sturmer: "Aborigines read life backwards
and forwards. We read it forward." She also states that for the Yolngu time
is in some contexts both cyclical and circular, though this does not preclude
a certain kind of lineal causality (Williams (1986,p. 28).
In the Jewish way of thinking, as described by Steinsaltz (1980, chapter 4),
time is seen like a spiral or a helix rising up from creation. Time
is seen as a process, in which past, present, and future are bound to each
other as a harmonization of two motions: progress forward and a countermotion
backward, encircling and returning. There is always a certain return to the
past, a constant reversion to basic patterns of the past, although it is never
possible to have a precise counterpart of any moment of the time.
Also in the Bantu culture time is conceived like a spiral. Each season and
each new generation return on the same vertical of the spiral, but at a higher
level (Kagame 1976). The Mayan concept of time is often described as cyclical,
but Rÿser (1998) finds it more correct to shift the symbolism from a circle
to a spiral.
Berndt (1974, p. 8) reports that with the Aboroginal Australians mythological
or sacred time exists alongside secular time but not identical
with it. The Aborigines recognize both kinds of time as equally real, as applying
in different, although overlapping, sociocultural situations. Berndt and Berndt
(1964, pp. 187-188) write that for the Aborigines the beings said to have been
present at the beginning of things still continue to exist. In one sense the
past is still here, in the present, and is part of the future as well. But
the Aborigines also recognize various time categories in connection with their
everyday activities: days and nights, moons, the sequence or cycle of seasons.
Mowaljarlai (Mowaljarlai and Malnic 1993, pp. 67-68) explains that when you
are in an ancient state of mind, time stands still, because your mind is in
a state where time does not count. Ancient time is no time.
More, comprehensive evidence for experience being regarded as existing in both
past and present has emerged from several studies of the Australian Aboriginal
culture. Thus Elkin (1964, p. 210) states:
In those rituals we were "in the Dreaming". We were not just
commemorating or re-enacting the past. Whatever happened in the
mythic past was happening now, and there is no doubt that the men
were "carried away" by the experience.
This statement by Elkin is particularly clear and explicit, but it is substantiated
by several other reports about past events reoccurring in the present during
rituals and ceremonies in the Australian culture (Berndt 1974, pp. 27-28, Berndt
and Berndt 1964, pp. 226-227, Hume 1999, pp. 9 -10, Isaacs 1992, p. 34, Strehlow
1968, pp. 29-30 and 1971, p. 611) .
Also in other cultures than the Australian ritual time may differ from secular
time. Thus Silverman (1997) writes about the Eastern Iatmul, New Guinea:
Although Eastern Iatmul time can be incremental and linear, the naming
system and totemic identifications seem to merge the present and the past.
To some degree, so does the cyclical temporality of the kinship system. This
form of time is also present in Eastern Iatmul rituals such as curing rites
which often enact primordial events as if they were occuring in the present.
And Lancaster ( 1993, p. 2) writes about the Jewish culture that time for sacred
history is not the everyday passing time of literal history, but that mysterious
dimension of time which is eternally present. He thinks that while literal
history may satisfy the rational mind there are deeper dimensions to the psyche
for which sacred history can provide an equally satisfying picture of the way
things really are.
Like some other people the Australians believe in reincarnation.. It
is the soul or spirit (which would include what is here called consciousness)
of the deceased which is believed to reappear in a person living in the present.
This can of course be seen as an example of the past appearing in the present
and as an extreme example of consciousness shared across time. Australian conceptions
of reincarnation are described by several authors. Strehlow (1971, pp. 615-617)
relates how an ancestral supernatural being can become reincarnated into the
unborn child of a pregnant woman. This may happen while she (or, in some areas,
her husband) is experiencing a dream-vision of the future child brought on
by the supernatural being who is seeking rebirth. Strehlow also reports that
in sacred ritual totemic ancestors are represented by their human reincarnations
(1971, pp. 611 and 619-620). Berndt (1974, p. 28) states that during the process
of initiation, a father could take his son away to a secret place and sing
into him the spirit-double of his own assistant totem. In this way that totem
spirit merges with the youth's own spirit. Isaacs (1992, p. 230) relates that
the Walbiri people of the central desert believe that there are secret caves
containing hidden 'Dreaming' stones which are storehouses of disembodied spirits
who may enter a woman again and so be reborn. After death the spirit returns
to the cave and remains there until the same process is repeated, but this
time the spirit becomes a child of the opposite sex to its previous incarnation.
Williams (1986, p. 30) writes in a similar way about reincarnation of the souls
of the Yolngu who live in the Northern Territory of Australia.
In a more general way it has been stated by several anthropologists
that for the Australians the past underlies and is within the present. Thus
Stanner (1971, p. 289) writes that
Although the Dreaming conjures up the notion of a sacred heroic time of the
infinitely remote past, such a time is also, in a sense, still part of the
One cannot "fix" The Dreaming in time: it was , and is, everywhen.
Elkin (1964, pp. 231-236) maintains that for the Aborigines the past is present,
here and now. The present is the past latent and potential now. Through ritual
and behaviour it is realized. History there is, but it is the myth of that
which is behind or within, rather than before the present. Experiences and
conceptions of the past in the present are also reported from other cultures,
particularly in connection with ritual. Overviews have been published by Bloch
(1977) and Hvidtfeldt (1961). Hvidtfeldt thinks that our own conception of
events is like pearls on a string, while in many other cultures events are
seen as a heap of pearls from which one can draw now one pearl and now another,
view it closely, and put it back. History is in the past but also present,
it is lived and relived in the cult. History is future too, it will be relived
as long as the world exists.
In spite of the West's assumed separation of the past from the present, parts
of the past are believed to exist in the present, also in the West. This applies
to material objects; in particular more abstract objects of physics such as
electrons and quarks are believed to be exactly the same as they were fifty
years ago and even billions of years ago. Also artefacts such as stone tools
uncovered by archeology are supposed to be the same as when they were used
in the past.
With the idealist ontology the materialist entities and events in history may
be regarded as heuristic concepts, just like the material things in the present.
Time itself may also be regarded as a heuristic concept useful for further
ordering of our conscious experiences in the Now. I suppose that the different
conceptions of time in various cultures are and have been useful in this way.
This goes for the concepts of time in physics too; thus in modern physics the
idea of static time is sometimes entertained and regarded as useful, in particular
in association with relativity theory and cosmology ( Einstein and Infeld 1963,
chapter 3, section on space time continuum, Hawking 1988, chapter 8). Hawking
describes the theory of imaginary time, a spatial and therefore static dimension,
and states that like other theories in physics, it is a mathematical model
for describing our observations. He finds that it is meaningless to ask whether
the usual or the imaginary time is the correct or real one, the question is,
which description is the most useful (Hawking 1988, chapter 8). It may be added
here that both of these concepts of time express structures in the catalog
of scientific observations useful in different domains. We are aware of this
catalog in the Now, in the focus and in the margin.
Hawking's views are of course in complete agreement with the idealist ontology
of matter and time advocated here and in a previous paper (Randrup 2002). It
is also in agreement with this ontology that in historical science history
has often been altered with the advent of new evidence. Thus the conception
of the electron has changed during this century, and in each period it has
been assumed that electrons existed in the past exactly as they were in the
actual conception. Another example: very recently the age of Copenhagen city
has been raised due to new archeological finds; according to what the historians
now state, the one mile long coffee table, which was arranged in 1967 to celebrate
the 800 th anniversary of Copenhagen, was held about 100 years too late (Gautier,
Skaarup, Gabrielsen, Kristiansen, and Ejlersen 1999). These historians also
say that until quite recently the historical topography of Copenhagen was built
on learned constructions which over the years had acquired almost mythical
character; data were not separated from interpretations (p. 38). Lowenthal
(1985, chapter 6) has written more generally about changing the past.
The historian Collingwood (1993) thinks that also thoughts from history
can appear in the present. He sees the task of history as re-enactment of past
experience, more specifically rethinking of past thought. He thinks that he
can re-enact in his own mind the very same thoughts that were thought by persons
in the past. This can of course be regarded as collective conscious experiences
across time. Collingwood gives examples and arguments to support his idea of
history. In order to be sure that he really thinks the same thought
that occurred in the past, he considers all the evidence relevant to the past
thinker and the specific thought in question. As an elaborate example he scrutinizes
the thinking of a certain emperor about an edict in the Theodosian Code (p.283).
Collingwood's idea of history has aroused much interest among historians and
has been widely discussed since its first publications in 1928 and 1946 (Collingwood
1993, editor's introduction, Dray 1995, Mann 1998). In religious or artistic
context a few other Western authors have written about sharing experiences
with historical persons (Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi 1988, pp. 237-239,
Lansky 1999, Schutz 1964, pp.171-175).
On a biological and evolutionary background Sheets-Johnstone (1990, p.352-362)
also considers re-enactment of past experience. She uses a method called hermeneutical
phenomenology and thinks that by this means "we might accede, and in the
closest possible way, to the actual experiences of the ancestral hominids."
By writing about re-enactment of past thought Collingwood (and Sheets-Johnstone)
seem to regard the thoughts in history as fixed facts that existed in the past.
This is in agreement with the usual Western linear conception of time. But
it is also possible to assume that the historian gradually develops thoughts,
about the emperor and the edict mentioned above for example, that fit the historical
evidence (here seen as conscious experiences in the Now) and therefore may
be seen as shared with a historical person such as the emperor (here seen as
a construct based on historical evidence). Such sharing would be parallel to
the development of collective consciousness with contemporaries by communication
as described in the preceding section.
This interpretaton of Collingwood's work has much in common with some newer
trends in the methodology of historical science. Thus van Veuren (2000) writes
that the post-modernist view of history is anti-realist and skepticist: history
is non-referential. We can never "really know" the past. When we
study the past we move in a closed circuit of stories/readings/accounts out
of which we cannot get to check if they correspond to the past "as such".
Egoless Experience.The Ontology of Worlds Without an Ego
Egoless consciousness differs from both individual and collective
consciousness. In egoless experiences the subject, the I as well
as the We, is ignored or forgotten. In the literature there are
many descriptions of egoless experiences occurring in both secular
and spiritual states of mind.
Csikszentmihalyi (1997, Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi 1988) has made
psychological studies of engagement with everyday life. He has heard artists,
athletes, composers, dancers, scientists, and people from all walks of life
describe how it feels when they are doing things that are worth doing for their
own sake, and he reports that in these descriptions his informants used terms
that are interchangeable in their minutest details. This unanimity suggested
to Csikszentmihalyi that the descriptions are of a very specific experiential
state to which he has given the name "flow". The main dimensions
of flow are described as intense involvement, deep concentration, clarity of
goals and feedback, loss of a sense of time, lack of self-consciousness and
transcendence of a sense of self (Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi 1988,
The egoless feature of the flow state is described in more detail several times
in the book edited by Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi (1988): "Because
of the deep concentration on the activity at hand, the person in flow ... loses
temporarily the awareness of self that in normal life often intrudes in consciousness
... In flow the self is fully functioning, but not aware of itself doing it
... " (p. 33). "An activity that fosters a merging of action and
awareness with a centering of attention on a limited stimulus field will lead
inevitably to a loss of the ego construct, a loss of awareness of the 'I' as
actor." (p.223). Referring to cruising in a sailboat: "... the oneness
with the natural environment allows for a loss of ego boundaries ... Occasionally,
especially in storm conditions, a total loss of ego occurs ... " (p. 231).
In agreement with this the physicist Mach (1914, chapter I, section 12) wrote
that during absorption in some idea the ego may be partially or wholly absent.
Personally I remember a clearly egoless secular experience: the process of
finishing a manuscript was experienced as that which existed, and when this
process was finally completed, an experience like throwing up occurred as the
beginning of the reappearance and separation of the manuscript and I as two
entities. I think this was an example of the flow experience. Another detailed
description of a secular egoless experience is reported by the gestalt psychologist
Koffka (1963, pp. 323 f).
In reports of experiences regarded as spiritual or mystical dissolution of
all ego boundaries and forgetfulness of the ego are often mentioned, and also
a general feeling of unity including fading or complete disappearance of the
boundary between subject and object (Randrup 1999, with references).
Austin (2000, p. 215, 2000 a) reports a personal experience which appeared
suddenly and unexpectedly, when he was on the surface platform of the London
And despite the other qualities infusing it, the purely optical aspects
scene are no different from the way they were a split second before. The
pale- gray sky, no bluer; the light, no brighter; the detail, no finer-grained
But there is no viewer. The scene is utterly empty, stripped of every
extension of an I-Me- Mine. Vanished in one split second is the familiar
sense thatthis person is viewing an ordinary city scene. The new viewing
proceeds impersonally, no pausing to register the ... paradox that no human
subject is "doing" it.
This experience continued for a few seconds. Then followed a second wave where
a distant quasi-person was being ever so remotely inferred. This second wave
lasted another three to five seconds followed by a third wave. In this some
kind of diminutive subjective I seemed to exist off in the background, because
something vague was responding with faint discriminations. After another three
to five seconds a growing, self-referent awareness entered. It discovered that
it had a physical center inside the bodily self of that vaguely familiar person
who was now standing on the platform. A little later a thoughtful I boarded
the next subway train.
Austin's detailed report shows the complete disappearance of the ego and its
gradual return. Other reports emphasize unity with environment . Thus Smith
reports an incidence of "cosmic consciousness" (CC):
At this point I merged with the light and
everything, including myself,
became one unified whole. There was no separation between myself and the
rest of the universe. In fact to say that there was a universe, a self, or
thing" would be misleading - it would be an equally correct description
say that there was "nothing" as to say that there was "everything".
that subject merged with object might be almost adequate as a description of
the entrance into CC, but during CC there was neither "subject" nor
object"...... just a timeless unitary state of being (Smith and Tart 1998,
These are direct experiences of the environment or the universe without the
ego in the usual central position. It is, however, also possible to think of
the world decentered from the ego or even with another ego as the center. The
change from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican view of the planetary system is
an example of such decentering. Since then, science has continued the decentering
process and developed an "objective" world view.
The decentered world of science is, however, as mentioned above, most often
considered as a material world projected "out there" and separate
from the human mind. This makes it difficult to place consciousness in the
scientific picture. In contrast, an egoless experience of the world (perceived
or conceived) is still a conscious experience and avoids the dichotomy between
the material and the mental. On such a monistic background, worldviews centered
on an ego, centered on a collective, or completely decentered (egoless) are
not in conflict, but can be seen as different structures in the same catalog
of conscious experiences. It is known that there can be more than one structure
in a system of elements, for example, in ambiguous figures. These are perceived
in two or more alternating gestalts, only one at a time, but in thought it
can be conceived that the two or more structures or gestalts exist simultaneously
in the figure (Burling 1964, Gregory 1998, chapter 10, Randrup 1992). This
point is also illustrated by the following anecdote quoted from Randrup, Munkvad
and Fog (1982): A visitor to Florida wanted to mail a baby turtle to his son
at camp. The clerk in the Post Office read the regulations aloud: "Well",
he said "Dogs is dogs and cats is dogs, squirrels in cages is birds -
- and baby turtles is insects" For postal purposes this alternative structure
was preferred to the usual Linnean structure in zoology.
In some cases egoless experiences are not only without ego but also without
other content such as perceptions, thoughts etc. This is called pure consciousness,
contentless consciousness, experience of nothingness, emptiness or void etc..
There are many descriptions of this type of experience in the literature from
Indian, Jewish and other sources. The descriptions differ to some extent, the
nothingness seems to be more or less complete, but surely these experiences
lack many details known from ordinary, daily experiences; see further below.
Lancaster (2000, p. 237) quoting Sullivan gives a clear example of a contentless
experience which followed a road accident:
There was something, and the something was not the nothing (of total
unconsciousness). The nearest label for the something might possibly
'awareness', but that could be misleading, since any awareness I'd ever had
before the accident was my awareness, my awareness of one thing or
another. In contrast, this something ..... had no I as its subject and
content as its object. It just was.
Lancaster adds that he sees no reason to contradict the direct evidence
of such experiences and that seemingly contentless conscious states need to
be incorporated within a meaningful psychology of consciousness.
This egoless experience of Sullivan clearly differs from the expereience of
Austin reported above, where the optical details of the scene he saw were unchanged,
only the ego, the viewer was lacking.
Much information on pure consciousness is collected in a book on the topic
edited by Forman (1990). In this book Griffiths (1990) writes on pure consciousness
in Indian Buddhism. He describes the ascent through a series of altered states
of consciousness or spheres with varying degrees of nothingness. These spheres
are thought of as both cosmic realms, locatable in space, and as psychological
conditions (p. 81). The immediate conscious experience and the world view are
thus harmonized or unified.
Also Hayward (1987) has written about emptiness in Buddhism. His exposition
is based on the term shunyata from the Mahayana school of Buddhism (p. 203).
This term has been variously translated as emptiness, void, nothingness and
openness. According to Hayward shunyata means empty of concept, of mental fabrication
or projection, it means what is, free from concept. Emptiness can not
be elucidated in words and concepts, it can be pointed to only as direct experience.
Emptiness is also seen as a mark or characteristic of every phenomenon, the
ground of all phenomena. It is therefore both a direct experience and a world
view. The full experience of shunyata is said to be one of great joy, because
at the same time as realizing emptiness of conceptions, there is awareness
of complete purity (p. 217). To me this means that shunyata is not completely
empty, since it contains the experience of both joy and purity.
Wallace (1999, p. 183) writes about attainment of the samatha state in Buddhist
tradition by means of a certain technique: "Bringing no thoughts to mind,
one lets the mind remain like a cloudless sky, clear, empty, and evenly devoid
of grasping onto any kind of object." Samatha is characterized by joy,
clarity and non-conceptuality.
Orme-Johnson, Zimmerman and Hawkins (1997) have given a very clear account
of Maharishi's Vedic psychology which is based on the ancient Vedic tradition
of India.. By means of a special meditation technique it is possible to reach
a state of pure awareness or transcendental consciousness. In this state consciousness
is all by itself, without any object other than itself to be aware of. The
mind settles down to a state of no activity, but with full awareness. In the
Vedic psychology consciousness is seen as primary, and matter as a projection
of consciousness. The cosmic psyche, a field of pure consciousness, is described
as an undifferentiated wholeness which gives rise to the infinite diversity
of creation. The cosmic psyche is regarded as the source of all existence,
the ultimate reality. It is also seen as the basis of the individual mind.
At the pinnacle of human development, unity consciousness, the individual is
regarded as a fully integrated expression of the cosmic psyche. Thus the world
view and the direct experience is harmonized in Vedic psychology.
Egolessness and nothingness are also important elements of Jewish mysticism,
both as direct experience and in the conception of the world.. There is a tradition
of gradual contemplative ascent to higher planes. At a high plane the mystic
no longer differentiates one thing from another. Conceptual thought, with all
its distinctions and connections, dissolves; awareness of the self disappears.
Fortune (1995, p. 107) reports that at the one occasion, when she touched the
edge of the highest level, keter, of the tree of life, it appeared as a glaring
white light in which all thought vanished completely. Keter is also seen as
the totality of all existence. Since God's being or essence is believed to
be incomprehensible and ineffable, He is described as nothing. God is greater
than any thing one can imagine, like no thing. To many mystics creation of
the world out of nothing means just creation out of God. This nothing from
which everything has sprung is not a mere negation; only to us does it present
no attributes, because it is beyond the reach of intellectual knowledge. In
truth, however, this nothing is infinitely more real than all other reality.
So in Jewish mysticism the direct experience and the world view are united.While
ascending to higher planes of consciousness the mystic strives to get close
to God or nothingness. Some believe it is possible for man to ascend to absorption
in God with complete elimination of individuality and with no possibility for
returning, but on this point opinions are divided among Jewish scholars. Among
a number of important sources describing egolessness and nothingness in Jewish
mysticism are Fortune (1995), Idel (1988), Matt (1990), Scholem (1955), and
Winther (1986, 2001).
The Ontology of Worlds Comprising Spiritual Experiences
In the international discourse the word "spirituality" is
used with many different meanings. My personal understanding of
nature-spirituality appears from a private letter written July
7, 1994: "This morning, when I went into my garden (about
10 minutes ago), I had what I now call a spiritual experience.
I experienced the garden (the trees, the grass etc.) clearly more
intensely than at other occasions, when I also loved the garden.
This time I experienced "the eternal now" as well, and
immediately after I thought that the felt importance and intensity
of my experience was more essential than its duration and its position
in the ordinary time." I also remember having experienced
entropy, a more abstract, theoretical entity of nature, in this
This description accords with two other descriptions from the literature, which
seem to report immediate experiences, independent of any structured
religious or philosophical conviction. One is from the autobiography "The
Story of my Heart" by Richard Jefferies (1848 - 1887) who was a writer,
in his own time regarded as an atheist.
With all the intensity of feeling which exalted me,all the intense communion
held with the earth, the sun and the sky, the stars hidden by the light, with
ocean - in no manner can the thrilling depth of these feelings be written -
these I prayed.... (Jefferies 1910, p. 6)
The second description is from the partially autobiographic book "Where
the Spirits Ride the Wind" by Felicitas Goodman.
Very soon I discovered all on my own what being an adult apparently meant,
and confided it to my diary: "The magic time is over". For all of
and without the slightest warning, I realized that I could no longer
effortlessly call up what in my terms was magic: that change in me that was
so deliciously exciting and as if I were opening a door, imparting a special
hue to whatever I chose. I noticed the curious impediment first with the
fresh, crunchy snow which fell right after my birthday. It was nice, but I
could not make it glow ( Goodman 1990, p. 3)
Later in life Felicitas Goodman regained her "magic", when she studied
shamanism both by anthropological methods and by own experiences.
I regard these three experiences as examples of nature spirituality, but Pierre
Marchais (1997, 1999, 2000, personal communications 1994-1999) while recognizing
the occurrence of this kind of experiences prefers to name them "exceptional
intuitive experiences". For Marchais "authentic spirituality" is
an act of faith, a part of religion, particularly the Judeo-Christian religions.
He characterizes the former type of experiences, and also East Asian mysticism
and transcendence with the French word "supranaturel", while the "authentic
spirituality" is characterized by the word "surnaturel". This
distinction between supranaturel and surnaturel is fundamental in his view.
Evelyn Underhill (1955, p. 191) distinguishes less sharply between nature experiences
and religious faith:
Such use of visible nature as the stuff of ontological perceptions the medium
whereby the self reaches out to the Absolute, is not rare in the history of
mysticism. The mysterious vitality of trees, the silent magic of the forest,
the strange and steady cycle of its life, possess in a peculiar degree this
power of unleashing the human soul ..... The flowery garment of the world is
for some mystics a medium of ineffable perception, a source of exalted
joy, the veritable clothing of God.
This view is supported by quotations from several European mystics (pp. 190-196).
For Pierre Marchais the meaning of the word "spirituality" is therefore
more restricted than it is for me (and for Underhill). Marchais and I have
had prolonged exchange on these issues and have come to agree on much, also
that even though the terms may differ ("nature spirituality" versus "exceptional
intuitive experiences" for instance) it is possible to agree on the phenomena.
But Marchais and I still differ with respect to the Perennial Philosophy. This
philosophy is based on a broad sense of the word spirituality comprising both
nature spirituality, East Asian mysticism, shamanistic transcendence, and experiences
embedded in Judeo-Christian religions. It assumes that there is a similarity
or common core to all experiences of spirituality (understood in this broad
sense) across cultures and across the ages. It does not regard the distinction
of Marchais between the supranaturel and the surnaturel as important and is
therefore not accepted by him. I, on the other hand, tend to agree with the
perennialists, although I admit that since spiritual experiences are often
felt as ineffable, transverbal, it is difficult to discuss the idea of the
Perennial Philosophy in words. My positive attitude to this philosophy therefore
rests on intuition more than on reason (Randrup 1998).
In the special integration group Spirituality and Systems within the International
Society for the Systems Sciences the Perennial Philosophy is widely accepted,
and on this basis it seems possible that some intersubjectivity might be obtained
through communication. Since 1991 such communication has been performed at
annual meetings in this group (Randrup 1997a). The exchange has lead to better
understanding of both differences and similarities between the participants,
and the exchange is still going on. For me personally the direct communication
with colleagues from other cultures (Japanese, Indian, American Indian, Aboriginal
Australian etc.) has been particularly illuminating. In the group we have abstained
from attempts to define spirituality, but rather try to understand it by means
of the examples presented at our meetings.
Based on all these experiences and exchanges I think that the immediate
spiritual experience is the foundation of all spiritual beliefs and their
ontology. This applies to occidental and oriental religions, Aboriginal
Australian belief systems, shamanism etc.
Shamanism is described in various ways, but Wautischer (1989) finds
that shamanic experiences are intersubjectively accessible. These
experiences often involve a certain state of mind in which a
journey to another world or reality may be experienced. Anthropologist
Michael Harner, a pioneer of neo-shamanism has written about
the ontology of this other world:
In shamanic experience, when one is in non-ordinary reality things
will seem quite as material as they are here. One feels the
coldness or warmth of the air, the hardness or smoothness of a
rock; one perceives colors, sounds, odors and so forth. All the
phenomena that characterize the so-called material world will
appear just as real and material there as they do here if it is an
extremely clear shamanic journey (Harner 1987, p. 4).
Harner goes on stating that the shaman does not regard these non-ordinary phenomena
as a projection of his own mind, but rather as another reality which exists
independently of that mind. Harner's own view on the ontology of this "other
reality" is more cautious as expressed later in the same paper (p. 15): "As
a person who has followed the path of shamanism for a long time, I am inclined
to think that there is more to the universe than the human mind".
(Italics by the present author).
These two views, the alternate world as an independent external reality or
as a mental projection are described and discussed in the literature by several
authors (Peters 1989, p. 118, Peters and Price-Williams 1980, pp. 405-406,
Turner 1992, Vaughan 1995, p. 7, Walsh 1989, pp. 30-31, Wautischer 1989, Wiebe
2000). This problem is completely parallel to the problem about the ontology
of the material world in modern science: does it exist independentally "out
there", or is it rather a mental projection or heuristic concept based
on regularities in the occurrence of the immediate experiences ? In science
the view of an external material reality has run into contradictions as described
above. An idealist ontology based on conscious experiences seems to be a more
viable alternative, but this does not mean that we can control the processes
of sense experiences at will (Berger and Luckman 1966, Introduction, p. 1,
Diettrich !995, pp. 96, 103-105, Randrup submitted) and the same seems to be
true for shamanic experiences. The shamanic world view as well as the scientific
can be seen as mental constructs useful for structuring the immediate experiences
in the Now.
Religion. God, Rationality, Spirituality
Turning to the religions more familiar in the West we may say,
rationally that God can be seen as a something (or a nothing) which
brings coherence to both sensory and spiritual experiences and
to the felt urges to behave ethically. Even fear of God may be
seen as fear of performing something unethical which may harm family,
society, nature, and oneself.
All this is a rational account, but religion is rather experienced or known
in an intuitive-spiritual mode. Spiritual experiences are usually regarded
as mainly ineffable, beyond words, but it may be said that spiritually God
is imagined either as like a person or in a more abstract way. It seems to
me that my rational account above agrees with the abstract spiritual imagination
of God, as well as rationality can ever agree with spirituality. This suggests
that there is a difference but no principal conflict between science and religion.
When these things dawned to me, it was felt as a great relief.
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