Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Origin of Mind

If mind does not arise from matter, its origin becomes a metaphysical question by definition and hence escapes empirical proof. Mind is a phenomenon in the original sense of that word, meaning a fact or an event (from the Greek “to show”), but mind is not a phenomenon in the restrictive modern sense meaning something knowable by the senses rather than by thought or intuition. Positive science can only study phenomena it can access by light, contact, chemical, or electromagnetic means. Hence, to use a common analogy, it can only study the radio and never the meaning of the newscast that comes across the airwaves: the brain but not the mind. In similar fashion science can study metabolism and enzymes but cannot come to grip with life itself. It treats both mind and life as emergent phenomena, another word I’d rather render as “transcendent,” meaning that the phenomena cannot be reached by instruments.

Looking at mind in this way suggests that our most fundamental experience of life, being here and knowing that we are, cannot be studied or understood by methods that produce anything but subjective certainties. The operation of the will is a fundamental aspect of the mind. Not surprisingly, therefore, some portion of humanity will always disagree with what might be a common consensus of humanity. The human view of gravity is quite uniform by contrast for the simple reason that those who defy it tend to depart.

Here we have a situation where we know, in a way, but not in another. It’s a common human ailment. Some few have very strong and vivid experiences of transcendental states, but the rest of us must rely on an intuitive judgment of the traditional explanations and then go from there. What are these explanations?

To look at these it is best to stop using “mind” and using “soul” or “self” instead. Tradition prefers these latter expressions. The traditions divide into two big streams. There are many others, but two serve to illustrate the human consensus.

In one, the tradition principally of the West, the soul originates in God and departs in a manner of speaking to live in the midst of the creation. It is destined ultimately to return once more to God. The West thus sees a process of descent followed by an ascent, a cycle of existence with God, away from God, and then once more united. Such a description must not be understood too literally—as if God had a location. The intent here is to indicate a subjective experience of distance even if, as we used to recite in our Unity congregation, “There is no spot where God is not.” In this tradition God creates the soul at a point in time and, as it were, in the form of a seed that must develop through its experiences which, ultimately, result in the completion of the cycle.

The other stream of tradition, exemplified by Hindu beliefs, sees each soul as an emanation from the divine Self, identical to but still a separated part of the divine. It plunges into the lower depths of the creation and, doing so, becomes occluded—but also able to experience itself in new ways by means precisely of this delimitation. The soul occupies a vast range of different bodies in this process until it has shaken off its illusion of limitation and once more becomes one with the Self—thus returns to itself. This too is a descent and an ascent. The difference here lies principally in the definition of the soul. In Hindu beliefs the higher aspect of the soul is God. In the Western tradition, the soul is a creature.

A stark summary such as the above helps the mind focus on the question before us, the origin of mind. A vast literature surrounds these simple descriptions spinning fantastic accounts that elaborate the fundamental idea—which is simply that mind, in both cases, originates in the highest form of being imaginable by a human…mind. In the Western case this mind of ours is formed in the “image and likeness” of its Creator. In the Eastern version, it is the Creator limiting itself deliberately in order to experience its own creation. There is an arbitrary element present in both versions. In one God creates because—well, because he does. In the other the divine Self shrouds itself voluntarily in order to experience. This arbitrary element, however, is strongly present in us as well—and should therefore not surprise us.

The striking aspect of this view of origins is that the human mind, when it looks out at the chaos of the cosmos, when it strains in order to understand what it is and how it might have come about, sees, on looking, an image of itself writ large.

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