What is Mysticism? – Part 1

Background:

In a comment on my previous post, I wrote:
“My working definition of mysticism is:
Any claim about reality (not just the self) which cannot be verified by another person.”

“If you say that your mind tells you X and my mind does not tell me X, and there is nothing in external reality that can validate X, clearly we are at an impasse. No further communication is possible, which, not surprisingly, is the core of all mystic claims”

To which Ajit Jadhav replied:
The matters of truth and falsehood are not established in reference to other people. It’s all between your own self, and reality, full-stop. The objective standard is (your grasp of) reality, not other people. And, note, “reality” also does include consciousness, i.e., “self” (and the selves of others). Primacy of existence doesn’t deny that fact. Consciousness is real.

the issue really is only with the qualifier: “external.” Agreed? If so, would you please tell me why you insert that qualifier? And, could you offer me a definition of the term “external?”

Main post:

The exchange above raises the crucial question: How does one evaluate claims related to consciousness- such as telepathy?

Quoting Rand:

A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something.

Directly or indirectly, every phenomenon of consciousness is derived from one’s awareness of the external world. … It is only in relation to the external world that the various actions of a consciousness can be experienced, grasped, defined or communicated.

Communicated, yes. But experienced, grasped and defined too? Can one not experience pain or pleasure without relation to the external world? What exactly does external mean here? Consciousness (mine as well as other people’s) is a part of reality. It exists too. Does the external world include the consciousness of other people but not one’s own? Does it exclude all consciousness?

All concepts are formed by a process of abstraction. One cannot form a concept from a single unit. That holds for the concept of consciousness too. Before a consciousness could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of other entities having consciousness. A baby raised in total isolation with no conscious entity around it, could not conceive of consciousness, could not conceive of any difference between the external world and the products of its own consciousness, could not achieve certainty about anything. It should be clear now that what one perceives and infers about other people’s consciousness is crucial to the concept of consciousness as such.

For instance, a child may see people walking around a table instead of colliding with it. This allows him to infer that the table exists external to the consciousness of these people and his own. The child sees (readily) that his mother does not understand what he wants. This allows him to infer that his desire is internal to his own consciousness and is not accessible to his mother. The child sees (readily) that he does not understand what his mother wants. This allows him to infer that her desire is internal to her own consciousness and is not accessible to him. Without such an understanding of what is internal and what is external, the child would not be able to develop the concept of consciousness at all.

The external world is those aspects of reality to which other people have access. Or, employing the concept of consciousness, the external world is those aspects of reality to which any consciousness has access. With this understanding of the external world Rand’s “It is only in relation to the external world that the various actions of a consciousness can be experienced, grasped, defined or communicated” makes sense.

That is enough for this post. I will pursue this later.

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3 Responses

  1. In this reply, for the most part, what I’ll do is to copy-paste from the Ayn Rand Lexicon (ARL), adding my own emphasis inbold, and then, if at all necessary, supplying a comment or two, always in square brackets [like this].

    One cannot form a concept from a single unit. That holds for the concept of consciousness too. Before a consciousness could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of other entities having consciousness.

    From the Ayn Rand Lexicon:

    A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something. [Ajit Jadhav: Notice, AR says something, not “other conscious beings.”]

    The units of the concept “consciousness” are every state or process of awareness that one experiences, has ever experienced or will ever experience ( as well as similar units, a similar faculty, which one infers in other living entities ).

    Since axiomatic concepts are identifications of irreducible primaries, the only way to define one is by means of an ostensive definition—e.g., to define “existence,” one would have to sweep one’s arm around and say: “I mean this.”

    Two fundamental attributes are involved in every state, aspect or function of man’s consciousness: content and action—the content of awareness, and the action of consciousness in regard to that content.

    [Ajit Jadhav: Can one “sweep”, say, one’s “mental arm” around on the content of others’ consciousnesses in the same way you can do for yours? No? That’s why we call it an inference. The inference that others’ have consciousnesses is secondary, not primary. It can be analyzed. In contrast, axioms are irreducible primaries. Others’ consciousness does not at all matter in the primary sense of the term.]

    Consciousness is the faculty of awareness—the faculty of perceiving that which exists. Awareness is not a passive state, but an active process.

    Extrospection is a process of cognition directed outward—a process of apprehending some existent(s) of the external world. Introspection is a process of cognition directed inward—a process of apprehending one’s own psychological actions in regard to some existent(s) of the external world, such actions as thinking, feeling, reminiscing, etc.

    To form concepts of consciousness, one must isolate the action from the content of a given state of consciousness, by a process of abstraction.

    [Ajit Jadhav: So, in introspection, reference is made to one’s own psychological actions. Obviously, there must be a content corresponding to these actions, too.]

    * * * * *

    Now, my own writeup:

    Leaving aside a lot of other closely related issues, I think, the important issue is something like this:

    To be aware means having one’s consciousness in a certain state. It also means having some mental content. The fact that this mental content must ultimately refer to reality is clear. It also is clear that reality includes consciousness—including one’s own. Yet, Ayn Rand keeps on saying “external reality” in the context that she does. How do we resolve the resultant riddles?

    I will jot down a few seemingly disparate statements by way of hints to the answer, and close for today.

    Consciousness is a word that can be taken in two senses: as a faculty, and as a state of awareness. Consciousness can focus on its own content. In this case, what does the distinction of the external vs. the internal refer to? the Content? the State? the Process? The Direct Referents of the content? The Ultimate Referents of the contents? All of these, as distinguished from material reality—i.e. all of reality minus consciousness(es)?

    Some states of X’s consciousness may not fall within the range of the states that Y’s consciousness has assumed. (Easy. For example, I cannot run a mile within 4 minutes. My body has never assumed the state of being on Mt. Everest. Similarly, for my mind. Or, others’.] What are the implications of this fact towards the idea of “contents”? To the correspondence of such a content with reality? What part of reality does it refer to? That part which includes all consciousnesses? Or the part that includes material reality + X’s consciousness alone? Or, that part of reality which is X’s consciousness, alone? Or, none, all such claims on X’s part being arbitrary?

    Think about it all… 🙂 If you have some comments in the meanwhile, I will return later. I, too, will see how I can frame this issue of external vs. internal in a better, more streamlined manner…

    Best,

    –Ajit
    [E&OE]

  2. Those quotes from the lexicon do not change my position. In fact I had missed the second quote “The units of the concept “consciousness” are every state or process of awareness that one experiences, has ever experienced or will ever experience ( as well as similar units, a similar faculty, which one infers in other living entities )”. The paranthetical part is pretty much what I was arguing. That other people’s consciousness (inferred, doubtless) serves as units in the formation of the concept of consciousness. I do not believe one could form the concept of consciousness without an external example of consciousness in action.

    The fact that other people’s consciousness is inferred has no great bearing on the matter. Axioms are irreducible primaries. They are implicit in all reasoning. Grasping the axioms and the axiomatic concepts only comes after the formation of simpler concepts – If I remember correctly, Rand calls them first-level concepts. By the time one forms concepts such as existence or consciousness, one has already learnt to infer various things.

    Awareness of reality is one thing. Identifying ones own state of awareness is another thing entirely. I think that identification can only happen simultaneously with the identification of awareness in others.

    “Some states of X’s consciousness may not fall within the range of the states that Y’s consciousness has assumed. What are the implications of this fact towards the idea of “contents”?”
    That is pretty much the core of the issue of mysticism. I am not yet prepared to answer that.

  3. Axioms are irreducible primaries. They are implicit in all reasoning. Grasping the axioms and the axiomatic concepts only comes after the formation of simpler concepts – If I remember correctly, Rand calls them first-level concepts. By the time one forms concepts such as existence or consciousness, one has already learnt to infer various things.

    From Ayn Rand Lexicon:

    Whatever the degree of your knowledge, these two—existence and consciousness—are axioms you cannot escape, these two are the irreducible primaries implied in any action you undertake, in any part of your knowledge and in its sum, from the first ray of light you perceive at the start of your life to the widest erudition you might acquire at its end. Whether you know the shape of a pebble or the structure of a solar system, the axioms remain the same: that it exists and that you know it . . . Existence is Identity, Consciousness is Identification.

    * * * * *

    Come back on the other points I raised and we will discuss it further.

    The title of this post suggests a series. If so, here is an additional question regarding Objectivism (i.e. Ayn Rand’s formulation of it).

    First, quotes from the Lexicon:

    It is only man’s consciousness, a consciousness capable of conceptual errors, that needs a special identification of the directly given, to embrace and delimit the entire field of its awareness—to delimit it from the void of unreality to which conceptual errors can lead. Axiomatic concepts are epistemological guidelines. They sum up the essence of all human cognition: something exists of which I am conscious; I must discover its identity.

    It is axiomatic concepts that identify the precondition of knowledge: the distinction between existence and consciousness, between reality and the awareness of reality, between the object and the subject of cognition. Axiomatic concepts are the foundation of objectivity.

    [Ajit Jadhav: The question is this: Parse the emphasized statements and underline what you think should qualify as axioms. I can count four, thus: something (identity) exists (existence) of which (identity) I (self/soul/subject of cognition) am (existence) conscious (consciousness); I (self/soul/subject of cognition) must (ethics) discover (all axioms) its (existence) identity (identity). Except for ethics, all should be axioms. But self/soul/subject of cognition is not an axiom. Why?

    More generally. Why do you think Ayn Rand does not talk a lot about the soul? Does the usage of the term necessarily imply mysticism? Or is it that she simply didn’t know any better?

    Another question: Ayn Rand obviously meant that only living beings could be conscious. If so, life is a precondition of consciousness. If so, why not have life as an axiom. That is, why not ascribe an axiom (life) to the phrase “I am,” in the above parsing?

    Have fun. But more important is the point that you have not taken up the questions from my previous reply as yet, I will repeat, with a bit of editing for better wording:

    To be aware means having one’s consciousness in a certain state. It also means having some mental content. The fact that this mental content must ultimately refer to reality, in some sense, is clear (assuming no conceptual errors occurred). It also is clear that reality includes consciousness—primarily, one’s own. Yet, Ayn Rand keeps on saying “external” world in the contexts that she does. How do we resolve the resultant riddles?

    Bye for now. I will check back after a week or so. But, overall, no, I will never buy the Christians etc.’s or materialists/skeptics etc.’s ideas of what constitutes mysticism. It is far too easy to do so—and can be an easy tool of putting down Indians in general, and me in particular. I would fight back. Especially those philosophers who didn’t know (and still don’t) an honest idea of what soul means, who could cheerfully prescribe tabula rasa as a model for human soul, thereby repeating a 2500 year old mistake. Even when 10000 year old literature hadn’t committed that mistake, that literature is to be berated by slapping all its contents as “mystical”—such a pathetic 2500 year old Abrahamic snootiness!

    Little wonder that I was immediately turned down no sooner than I tried to merely broach up the topic of soul, even at HBL—not just with random “Objectivists” without integrity and with a grab-all attitude (as perhaps taught/encouraged in those KV/convent schools in India).

    Bye, and best,

    –Ajit
    [E&OE]

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