"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi


These notes are presented in three sections, what I believe, why I believe it, and how my life in the world should reflect my beliefs.
 -- Bernard Godden --

What I Believe
The foundation of my personal philosophy results from my conviction that there is more to the workings of my mind than its electro-chemical activity. I find it helpful to have some word to signify what is left of mindful activity when brain activity is subtracted from it. To avoid religious implications, it should be a word without connotations. I shall use the German 'geist'. 

To illustrate the need for such an  invention, consider the following quote from Freeman Dyson's  Templeton Prize acceptance address.1

“The universe shows evidence of the operations of mind on three levels. The first level is elementary physical processes, as we see them when we study atoms in the laboratory. The second level is our direct human experience of our own consciousness. The third level is the universe as a whole. Atoms in the laboratory are weird stuff, behaving like active agents rather than inert substances. They make unpredictable choices between alternative possibilities according to the laws of quantum mechanics. It appears that mind, as manifested by the capacity to make choices, is to some extent inherent in every atom. The universe as a whole is also weird, with laws of nature that make it hospitable to the growth of mind. I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension." 
 I admire and accept what I think Dyson means, but it is geist, not the flesh-and-blood brain, to which he refers.

I think human minds are constituationally incapable of discovering the nature of geist. No spoken language would be  able to provide it with an accurate and concise definition. It is easier to consider what it is not. Clearly, it has no extension in DesCartes sense.2 

An important  question is: 'Can there be cognition without brain activity?' In a neurological context this can be recast as, “Does the absence of brain activity mean the absence if cognition?”  Or, alternatively, “Can one communicate with a person in a coma?” These queries are more likely to be answered definitively by introspection rather than by neurology. 

The next question that suggests itself is: “If the geist is real, does it persist after death?” The essence of geist-hood is its non-materiality. What then would distinguish between a dead and a live geist, and why would the death of a brain lead to the non-existence of the related geist? My thinking on this topic was influenced by Fred Hoyle describing an imagined intelligent creature in 'The Black Cloud.'3
“Between two absolutely identical individuals, if that were possible, no communication at all would be neccessary because each individual would automatically know the experience of the other.” 
No two geists have the same first-hand experiences. Otherwise complete interchanges of meaning and content would be possible, if both parties so wished, without the use of language.

To DesCartes, memories, or any other completely abstract ideas, are real though completely inaccessible to our senses. There are no exactly Euclidean surfaces in nature, but the truth of Euclid's geometry seems to be demonstrable in principle, even to non-human brains.
Emotions, the reverse of abstract, usually seem to be accompanied by brain activity, but in inverse proportion to their beneficence. It is hard to distinguish between the cause and effect of a feeling of satisfaction especially in a relativistic universe. The outstanding characteristic of emotion is the difficulty of communicating them between individuals.

God is, amongst other things, the sum of all geists

Emotions seem to be more easily shared  between individuals of one species than between aliens.  Pushed to an extreme, communications among the social insects smudge the distinction between individuals and swarms. If communication were perfect there would be no individuals, just instances of manifestations.

To me, my geist is individual, the product of experience, but of exactly the same nature as that of everyone else.

Why I Believe as I Do

I will discuss evidence relevant to the three domains mentioned by Dyson above.

The first domain is the 'mind/body' problem in quantum physics. There is a vast literature on the topic using a bewildering variety of terminology. It is generally agreed that calculations accurately predict the probabilities of the possible outcomes of a given activity. There is, however, a wide spectrum of disagreement over what determines the outcome in practice.

Towards the middle of this spectrum there is a group of opinions known collocqually as 'consciousness causes collapse.' This means that the probabilities are all the solutions of the quantum wave function, and the outcome is determined by an observer. Crucially, the observer must not be material, since materiality would merely add another layer of possible factors to the wave function. It is the consciousness of the observer - or in my terms, his geist - which does the collapsing.

The second domain is my experience of my own consciousness. 

Of the many deniers of the existence of geist, G. M. Edelman makes the argument that seems most compelling to me.4  A Nobel-laureate, his neurological evidence is unimpeachable. He notes that the areas of the brain interpreting sensory inputs send their outputs through massively re-entrant connections all over the cortex and thalamus where, by processes of selection and integration, a scene is constructed in primary consciousness. Edelman states that, "Even during life there is no scientific evidence for a free-floating spirit or consciousness outside the body." 

I suggest that there is no scientific evidence against it either. There is simply no evidence that meets the 'scientific' requirement of reproducibility and predictiveness. 

I concede that the network he describes is always necessary, and often sufficient, to provide the sensation of consciousness. I question, however, whether it is can provide a set of values to relate to that sensation in order to make and effect decisions.

Frequently, when I am aware of brain activity which I find distasteful I can, by an exercise of will, stop or change the activity. Surely the 'I' in such instances is my geist. If it were merely a matter of feedback from such distasteful activity to the brain, the consequence would be either no brain activity if the feedback were negative - or insanity, if it were positive.

I wonder, if sufficiently unobtrusive brain scanners were available to two people wearing them, would simultaneous reactions be recorded when they made eye contact? I think that would prove the non-material nature of the difference between my geist and Edelman's 'consciousness.'

Another phenomenon which I think is relevant is the empathy which I feel with people who are not present to give me visual or other signals. This amounts to telepathy. As evidence it is of doubtful value since I cannot be sure of the other persons mental state at the time, but to the extent that I can check, it seems to be real more often than not. Since the feeling is strongest when the other is someone I love, it may be a case of wish-fulfillment. A weaker but  more convincing piece of evidence is the feeling of blissful resignation I sometimes get from spiritual contemplation.

The third domain concerns the universe as a whole. I admit to being skeptical of those people who believe some miracles but deny others. That however is my own position. I do not know of any cosmologist who denies that the universe is aging, and most seem to believe that it has had at least one beginning. Surely that beginning would be the ultimate miracle. Anything after would be an unusual circumstance by comparison. Such a beginning would be non-random by definition, and must therefore have had a cause and a creator.

Evolutionists believe that, given random variation in inheritance, natural selection is sufficient to account for all evolution. Invoking any other cause is unreasonable. A snide way to put this position is to say that evolutionary biologists believe that God is an evolutionary biologist.

How My Life In the World Should Reflect My Beliefs

If creation has a purpose, and I believe it has, then I think that an attempt to understand God, although pre-ordained to failure, is in line with that purpose. Consequently I feel that proselytizing is a cardinal sin. Similarly, in my ignorance of other peoples motives, I try to avoid forming a judgment of anyone unless third party considerations supervene.

Compared to my peers, I attend church quite regularly. I am not a member of the church I attend  because I do not accept its tenets. Technically this makes me a heretic. Fortunately they welcome heretics, and I am comfortable provided that I play no part in church governance. I attend because I  feel the spiritual activity in the congregation facilitating my own spiritual activity. This seems to be exactly what  the  'Society of Friends' take to be the value of silence in their meetings.5
Language is the bane of religious, or any other philosophic discourse. When God spoke to Moses he didn't use words.  So I have little interest in sacred books nor much in sacraments.
I do agree with Margaret Somerville that there are universally held 'secular sacreds,'6 and I do feel some convergence among religious philosophies as illustrated in Aldous Huxley's, 'The Perennial Philosophy.'7 

There seems to be a growth of respect between science and religion as argued by Stephen Jay Gould,8 but their fields overlap so much that an attempt to keep their jurisdictions separate harms them both.

Religious absolutism seems to have done as much harm in history as any other human failings. Distorted science and bad governance have given them plenty of competition. Fascism, communism and anarchy have been tried as a mode of governance and have failed. Unregulated markets work, if at all, only while growth of consumption continues without limitation. 

The exponential growth of communication facilities holds some promise of bottom-up government.  Recent history holds such reasons for optimism as the fall of the Berlin wall, the overthrow of Marcos in the Phillippines, and the recent Egyptian revolution.  

If we put more effort into enjoying what we have rather than trying to get more, we would prosper.

Once, while I had a fairly responsible job, I was criticized by someone higher up the ladder for not being 'pushy' enough. He was right in suggesting that I could achieve more of what we both wanted by pushing harder, but that was not a price I was prepared to pay. I'm a 'push-ee' not a 'push-er'. 

Being satisfied 'with the skin one is in' is a necessary and sufficient condition for happiness.
Perhaps the new communications technologies mean that we will be able to improve the world just by wanting to. What could be more optimistic?

  1. http://www.closertotruth.com/participant/Freeman-Dyson/31
  2. http://www.iep.utm.edu/descarte/
  3. Penguin Classics, London. 2010  (978-0-141-19640-4)
  4. Wider Than the Sky, Yale University Press. 2004 (ISBN 0-300-10229-1)
  5.  http://www.religioustolerance.org/quaker.htm
  6. The Ethical Canary: Science, Society, and the Human Spirit. 2000 (ISBN 0-670-89302-1)
  7. The Perennial Philosophy, 1945. Harper-Collins (ISBN 0-586-06496-6)
  8. Rocks of Ages, Random House, New York. 1999 (ISBN 0345-43009-3)