In Praise of Woo

There is a story that Socrates used to visit the markets regularly. When asked why he does so he replies that it is because he enjoys looking at all the things he can do without. This seems eminently sensible. Materialism in any form does not seem nearly so sensible.

If consciousness is an illusion of some sort, the epiphenomenal steam from the whistle of a steam-driven train in Ryle’s suicidal metaphor, then so are the contents of consciousness. In this case materialism is false. All scientific data would be illusory. It is ironic. After all, if consciousness is an illusion then nothing really exists, just as the Buddhist sage Nagarjuna goes to so much trouble to logically prove in the second century. On the hand, looking on the brighter side, if consciousness is not an illusion then materialism is false.

This illustrates the muddle that ensues when we do not make a clear distinction between what philosophers of the school of Chalmers and Dennett would call ‘consciousness’, and what a mystic might call ‘pure’ or ‘pristine’ awareness. If we fail to make this distinction then terminological, conceptual and logical chaos ineluctably ensues. We will not have the language or concepts that would be required for a coherent and comprehensible explanation of consciousness. We are left with a permanent gap in our theories that prevents us from completing them, a missing ingredient, and no general solution for metaphysics.

The ‘easy’ problem of consciousness, the filling in of all the details, may be an infinite and endlessly complex task, and probably an increasingly dull one. The ‘hard’ problem is finite and simple. The solution would be to suppose that ‘awareness’ is fundamental and then reserve the term ‘consciousness’ for whatever this awareness is aware of. What it is aware of may be defined as Maya, the phenomenal world, and counter-posed to this our little ‘self’, constructed like a bower-bird’s nest out of a hustle and bustle of thoughts, images, perceptions, sensations, hopes, fears, dreams and desires. Awareness can be none of these things so must be prior.

Using this trinitarian terminology the missing ingredient in the problem of consciousness would be ‘awareness’. We would draw a clear distinction between the contents of consciousness, that of which we are aware, all that moves and changes, all that could ever be an object for intentional consciousness or a subject counter-posed to it, and the simple fact of awareness. As well as ‘I think’ there would be ‘I Am’.

This simple fact is so completely simple that it defies intellectual analysis. As a consequence it is easily overlooked in any strictly scholastic philosophy. The definition ‘strictly scholastic’ would actually demand that we overlook it. We must talk of awareness in terms of ‘woo’, as if the whole idea is ridiculous, and ignore the vast and global literature of the one and only discipline that empirically studies the relationship between intentional or temporal consciousness and awareness.

In any strictly scholastic philosophy we certainly cannot consider the idea that when we attempt to reduce the world to the subjective or the objective, as we have been trying to do for thousands of years now, we are creating a problem that has no solution other than to stop trying to do it. We would be doomed to a lifetime of not being able to quite pin down what we are talking about when we say ‘consciousness’.

Explanations are categorical, dualistic. We explain one thing in terms of another. Explanations reside in the world of Yin and Yang, of dualism and relativity. In order to bring an explanation to an end, to reduce this two-valued logical system to its foundation, we would require three terms, one of which must transcend the dualism of the system.  This allows a final reduction. Fortunately, all formal axiomatic systems of explanation require at least one undefined term, and so we can kill two birds with one stone by making this meta-systematic third term our initial axiom. ‘Tao’ would be a traditional place-holder.

This is the solution for consciousness and origins in my opinion. The whole of it. It is mysticism. It is not ‘woo’. It is merely a more subtle and sophisticated idea than those who believe it is ‘woo’ can currently imagine in their wildest dreams. It would embarrass a materialist to learn what the use of this dismissive terminology gives away to anyone conversant with the literature of mysticism or who has some empirical knowledge of the origin and functioning of consciousness, as would the large number of people who fall into one or both of these categories.

Woo is the secret of the universe. Until we see this we will be trapped in intellectual and perceptual chains, fearful of death and ultimate meaninglessness, unable to describe Nature except as incomprehensible to us, doomed to be forever banging our heads against a thousand metaphysical dilemmas. The evidence for the truth of this is there for anyone to see.

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22 Responses to In Praise of Woo

  1. cabrogal says:

    Nice post overall, but I think you’ll find most materialists don’t claim consciousness is illusory but rather that it’s an emergent phenomena of the brain (as they also believe intelligence to be).

    Dennett is pretty close to being an exception. He seems to be a hard line (non-Randian) objectivist with no concept of subjectivity whatsoever. I sometimes suspect he’s a p-zombie ;).

    David Chalmers is not a materialist with regards to consciousness at all. He is a mind-body dualist in that respect, believing that consciousness comes from somewhere outside the organism, outside the chain of causality and is fundamentally inexplicable in terms of anything but itself. He also believes that every mental faculty other than consciousness is completely explicable materialistically and deterministically and that consciousness itself has no objectively discernible effect on behaviour. Needless to say I find his theories less than satisfying. However some of his other takes on ‘the problem of consciousness’ seem to be very well thought through to me and are well worth reading. I’ve gotten into arguments with him about consciousness on a couple of occasions and both times he debated rings around me. With due respect, I’m confident he could also take you apart regarding your ‘solution’ to the hard problem of consciousness. Unlike most Australian academic philosophers he is far from ignorant of eastern metaphysics and has a very solid grounding in epistemology and ontology. Like me he’s an ontological anti-realist so would not hesitate to take you on on your own ontological grounds, but reveal the slightest internal inconsistency and you’re a goner.

    • PeterJ says:

      Hi Cabrogal. Thanks for the comment.

      I’m using ‘illusion’ as a casual and general word to cover epiphenomenalism, eliminative materialism and some other views. Bit sloppy but it saves words. At any rate, both Chalmers and Dennett define consciousness as I suggest. I’d agree with you that the former makes a great deal more sense than the latter on this topic. Some people would straightforwardly call consciousness an illusion and this is written in response to a recent case.

      Chalmers would certainly not ‘take me apart’. My view is one that cannot be taken apart, and this is precisely the problem Chalmers cannot solve. He insists on trying to make sense of some other view and wonders why he cannot succeed. .I do believe, however, that he is coming around to the view expressed here, and see him as some years ahead of Dennett.

      Good point about internal inconsistencies. There are none in the view that I endorse, and this is demonstrable, which is why I endorse it.

  2. donsalmon says:

    Interesting. PJ and DC – a good one. Peter, this is perhaps the clearest thing you’ve written yet (except for that wonderful Holmes story – but here you give away the solution to the “crime”).

    I’ve read a lot of Chalmers and he seems massively confused on consciousness (as would anybody who thinks dualism is a solution to anything – Ed Feser, anybody? – you should see the mess Feser makes of reincarnation by trying to fit it into his hylmorphic dualism; he claims he’s disproved it even though he accepts the data that Ian Stevenson accumulated; he also misrepresents Indian spirituality as “monism”

    But I digress. Chalmers’ version of panpsychism is often caricatured – I don’t really think he believe that rocks and thermostats “think” the way humans do. But he still retains a strange brew of physicalist assumptions PLUS consciousness.

    Ulrich mohrhoff allows for a methodological interactive dualism for those who can’t accept Peter’s transcendental factor. I don’t think this is a bad way to get one’s foot in the door, but I also think times are changing (Ulrich wrote an article on his interactive dualist proposal in the late 90s for journal of consciousness studies – i think even he is inclined these days to speak more of integral non dualism, which was always his root view anyway).

    Anyway, good one Peter, really good. Maybe I’ll write an essay on integral woo, one day.

    • cabrogal says:

      as would anybody who thinks dualism is a solution to anything

      I’m not so sure.

      I’m a radical monist myself but concede that dualism is just as internally coherent and offers more robust and articulable answers to many of the questions of intelligence and consciousness than do most forms of mind-body monism.

      As it happens my most recent blogpost attempts to show that both non-dualism and dualism provide valid potential mechanisms for unconditional love, though I don’t think I make a secret of which one I lean towards.

      I know I can’t provide external validation for my own monism so I don’t hold it against dualists that they can’t externally validate their worldview either. Ontologically speaking dualism and non-dualism are no more opposed than, say, religion and science. They rest on different sets of axioms and attempting to critique either from the perspective of the other (as, say, Creationists do to science or New Atheists do to religion) is easy but meaningless.

      • PeterJ says:

        Hmm. I would say that nondualism is directly opposed to dualism and monism, and that this is why it has a different name. Only one of the three can be correct. It would be its insistence on endorsing dualism or monism that places science in opposition with ‘true’ religion and with logic, and which prevents it from creating a fundamental theory. .

      • cabrogal says:

        I distinguish between monism and non-dualism but see no contradiction as they exist in different categories. But I’ve gotta admit I’m often less than precise in my usage, often using ‘non-dualism’ in it’s neo-Advaitist sense which I find indistinguishable from radical monism. The term ‘monism’ carries a lot of baggage so I’m inclined to avoid using it if I’m not prepared to go to a lot of effort carefully defining my terms.

        Basically radical monism is a philosophical outlook stating that at a fundamental level everything is actually one thing. (There’s a variation which states that everything is one substance but I don’t subscribe to it). It doesn’t necessarily hold that all differences are unreal or illusory, nor that unity is a ‘higher’ form of reality. Just that everything is ultimately resolvable into one thing. I’m agnostic as to whether that ‘thing’ is equivalent to ‘consciousness’, ‘awareness’ or something else entirely.

        I use the term ‘radical’ to distinguish it from less exhaustive forms of monism such as mind/body dualism or ethical dualism. I avoid ‘universal’ monism because it connotes universalism which is definitely something I don’t buy into. I once used ‘cosmological monism’ but I kept having to refute the assumption I was limiting myself to physical cosmology when my monism is also conceptual in nature. I think ideas as well as physical ‘things’ all resolve into one thing.

        Taoism is cosmologically a form radical monism in that it acknowledges the reality of both yin and yang but unifies them in qi. The ‘true Tao’ itself though is an allusion to non-dualism.

        Non-dualism is not a philosophical outlook at all and I don’t think I can validly say anything about it. I could say I ‘experience’ it rather than believe it but that wouldn’t be true because there is no ‘experience’ or ‘experiencer’ in it. I could say it’s an altered state of consciousness but that would be untrue for similar reasons.

        Dualism and non-dualism are not opposed. If non-dualism could be opposed to anything it would be merely a face of dualism. However the philosophical outlooks of dualism and monism can be opposed but, as with Taoism, that is not a given.

        Hopefully you have now got the gist of the distinction despite my inability to articulate what non-dualism is to me (even saying ‘to me’ is deceptive as it’s something that negates ‘me’.).

        It would be its insistence on endorsing dualism or monism that places science in opposition with ‘true’ religion and with logic, and which prevents it from creating a fundamental theory.

        Science is a set of practices, not a philosophy (and no, the philosophy of science is not science either). I believe you may mean Scientism.

        Scientism is a universalist world view and so comes into conflict with other universalist world views in practice. But if you ask me there’s something akin to a category error there too. It would be as if basketball players were to criticise rugby players for running with the ball. IMHO inspiration and faith can produce a world view just as valid (and invalid) as evidence and skepticism but you shouldn’t be surprised or outraged if you start with a different list of ingredients and end up with a different kind of cake. Nor should you claim it’s the only possible cake.

    • PeterJ says:

      Hi Don. I presume that Ulrich’s ‘methodological interactive dualism’ is the same as Chalmers’ ‘nonreductive naturalistic dualism’, It seems to be the only sensible option for someone who doesn’t want to ‘go transcendental’ and peer outside of the system. It would be to stick with two theoretical terms and ignore the need for a third, thus avoiding the perils of metaphysics for a non-reductive and comfortingly limited view. .

      • donsalmon says:

        I’m not sure, but I suspect Ulrich’s version allows for a LOT of esoteric, occult stuff that Chalmers wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole. And it’s actually not Ulrich’s own position – he’s just suggesting it for people who are afraid of the third term.

  3. PeterJ says:

    If you’re around Cabrogal – What is a radical monist? I don’t know that one. Just for information, I don’t want to pick a fight.

  4. PeterJ says:

    Don – I think Chalmers’ view would allow for all the esoteric stuff. It makes no comment on it, just sweeps it under the carpet. It is agnostic on the truth, that is, so allows it to be whatever Ulrich says it is. Chalmers would not want to speculate in this direction, hence his nonreductive approach, but his idea leaves us free to speculate if we want to. He just says that such speculation would not be ‘naturalistic’ (for reasons I cannot understand).

    Cabrogal – Thanks. I see what you mean by ‘radical monism’. Could it be called ‘metaphysical monism’? And yes, you’re right, I did mean what could be called ‘scientism’. But it is a form of scientism that afflicts most people. It is the reification of distinctions, thus the denial of unity. It isn’t only scientists who do this. It is very difficult to avoid doing it.

    Where I would profoundly disagree with you all day is on the idea that nondualism is not a philosophy. I’d agree that it is not only this, of course, but would have to mention Radhakrishnan’s wonderful book, ‘Philosophy of the Upanishads’ as counter-evidence, and the fact that Nagarjuna’s exposition of the theory of emptiness is considered the philosophical foundation of Mahayana Buddhism. I would agree that it would be a major mistake to see it as no more than a theoretical or logically derived philosophy, but it stands up as one if we choose to see it as such.

    Dualism must be abandoned for nondualism so even if they are not direct opposites they are at least incompatible. I would place monism and dualism in opposition with each other and then nondualism in opposition to both of them, where the first two have some truth in them but only the last would be an ultimate view. For this we would have to transcend the idea of distinction and thus number, even if the number is ‘One’.

    This is all ‘as I see it’, of course, and I am aware of that, but it seems to fit with analysis and what the sages tell us.

    • cabrogal says:

      Dualism must be abandoned for nondualism so even if they are not direct opposites they are at least incompatible. I would place monism and dualism in opposition with each other and then nondualism in opposition to both of them, where the first two have some truth in them but only the last would be an ultimate view.

      Well, from the ‘perspective’ of non-dualism I can’t begin to imagine what ‘ultimate’ or ‘view’ might mean. From outside that ‘perspective’ I don’t know what non-dualism could be. So I really can’t see the utility of your notions. From where I sit you seem to be stuck with the same blockage that leads you to believe that the quadrilemma of negation says something about non-dualism, rather than delineating what cannot be said.

      And if Taoism fails to give you an understanding of how dualism and monism are not necessarily in opposition and that non-dualism is of a completely different category, perhaps you should take a look at Kashmir Shaivism. It tends to be heavier on the metaphors but goes to more effort to clarify the distinction between non-dualism, monism (monistic idealism in it’s case, which I subscribe to in combination with cosmological monism) and dualism.

      And yes, I could my outlook ‘metaphysical monism’ but that would fail to distinguish it from the many other forms of metaphysical monism out there.

  5. PeterJ says:

    No, I’m okay with Taoism. It is clearly a rejection of dualism and ordinary monism.

    I’ve never come across anyone who endorses both dualism and nondualism so I’m not quite sure where to go with this. I would have thought it impossible. Non-dualism is not in a different category, hence the word ‘dualism’ appears on both sides of the divide. Does not ‘non-dualism’ mean ‘not-dualism’?

    By ‘ultimate’ I would mean what Nagajuna means. That is, the view corresponding to the third ‘turning of the wheel’, as contrasted with the ‘conventional’ view which is dualistic.

    I think we are at odds. Not sure why though.

    I think it must be because you are someone who sees Nagarjuna’s proof as the rejection of all philosophical views, as opposed to being a proof of his own view. Is that it?

  6. johsh says:

    nice article, thanks for sharing. Are you familiar with ramana maharshi and nisargadatta, they subscribe to advaita (non duality), where the focus is conciousness, awareness and their play.

    consciousness happens to awareness, and awareness to “you”. so who are “you” ? The problem with these questions, is that most of us are stuck in elementary stages (consciousness), we need to evolve to pure awareness, and only then can we grasp whats behind.

    So the answer to that question keeps evolving as our consciousness evolves. So, if we claim it is mystic or some “woo”, what does that really mean.

    • PeterJ says:

      Hi Josh. Yes, It would all be the same doctrine. Advaita or ‘not-two’ would be what I’m promoting here, the idea that for a fundamental theory we would have to assume that the world is a ‘unity’, as opposed to a ‘One’ or a ‘Two’. If it were a ‘One’.or a ‘Two’ then we would not have to use the phrase ‘not-two’.

      Consciousness may evolve but, as you say, this would be something that happens to, or in, awareness, not an evolution of awareness. Or not if we use my suggested terminology. I don’t really like it myself, but it would be one solution for the problem of using two terms when we need three. Mind and Matter has been a dilemma long enough.

      What does ‘woo’ actually mean? It seems to be a term used to indicate the incomprehension and scepticism of the user in respect of an idea that he or she does not understand but which looks like it might be connected in some way with religion. .


      • johsh says:

        agree,its an all encompassing state, if anything its perfection itself. It has to “allow” everything – both one, and/or duality;

        I like the word “unity” or union (as in set theory), the unity of all thats possible…so nobody can “definitely” say it is such and such.

        As they say, “its undefinable”, as once you start defining, you are bounding it.

      • johsh says:

        “not an evolution of awareness”

        at any point we make sense of something with what ever state(consciousness) we are at that time. So, if there is evolution in awareness, or if awareness is the ultimate, we cant really say (until we transcend consciousness).

        I believe it is possible to “see” awareness…meaning, there is something behind.

        If you can see something, like everything else, it has movement/change/evolution – thus “evolution of awareness” is a possibility in this sense.

  7. PeterJ says:

    But you cannot see awareness…

    • johsh says:

      well atleast not like we “see” consciousness, it is vivid.

      But certainly awareness can be felt, realized. So, who is this that is feeling, or realizing this ?

      consciousness -> awareness -> non-duality
      duality -> one -> non-duality
      2 -> 1 -> 0

      no wonder, indians had no problems (inventing) seeing “zero” 🙂

      to get 100% non-duality, we need to evolve from duality, to an intermediate stage where we stop identifying with things (this is awareness), and there is a final stage (non-duality) where …i am lost for words 🙂 (awareness is an emergent thing)

    • PeterJ says:

      Josh – We cannot equate the nondual principle with zero or ‘Nothing’. It is tempting to do so but zero is a number, a numerical quality, a distinction. We have to go one step further, beyond set theory and the foundations of mathematics,. Likewise, Al-Halaj criticises people for saying ‘God is One’;. We would have to go deeper. Not this, not that.

      • johsh says:

        agree, i am not suggesting literally nothing or zero. Its often wrongly translated nagarjuna’s sunyata meant nothing or emptiness, I believe his argument is “not this, not that”….basically “not even nothing”; So what is it ? Its everything and nothing. Quite contradictory, its an all encompassing state.

        Round and round we go, trying to find (or define) the ultimate – this is what is meant dukkha by buddha. Dukkha – The human tendency to create worlds out of their karma. The solution is to transcend karma.

        In advaita, this dukka is what is considered “identification with consciousness”. Once you transcend dukka/consciousness (meaning you identify with awareness, not the on-off-on consciousness), You are at a state where awareness is you, but still there is that “you”, and it has been suggested you need to transcend that too (to get to the undefinable, ultimate state, that is beyond a definable awareness). See deep sleep states or turiya

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