Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Roots of Dualism

In consciousness the presentation of content must be viewed as separate from the perception of content. William James does that, in effect, by discussing the role of attention. The materialistic mode of thought, however, by speaking of attention rather than of the soul or the self, obscures what in effect can be seen as a radical duality. James himself (in Talks to Teachers) rejects the possibility that consciousness can be the consequence of mechanical processes. In this context he means the composite of presentation and perception. The nature of whatever it is that bestows attention to the flow of consciousness is altogether inaccessible to observation, as James himself notes. That this whatever picks and chooses what to notice and what to neglect is the basis for the faculty we call the will. James holds for a free will but thinks that its freedom cannot be proved. To lean in one direction or the other is itself a choice.

The traditional approaches to the mind are based on a narrative of reality in which responsibility is central. In effect you cannot have a meaningful narrative without real characters, thus agents. Agents without freedom of will cannot claim to be agents. Whatever cosmic narrative we choose, the characters within it must have freedom of choice. They need very little else. Angelic communities may rebel, for instance, and this alongside a presumption that they are immaterial. You might say that from the traditional perspective the fact that humans have bodies is almost incidental to their core being. In that agency must have free choice and free choice cannot be conceptualized without understanding of the choices before the agent, the very notion of agency includes consciousness and will in a single complex; you cannot remove one without negating the other.

The content of consciousness must be separate from the act of perception if language is to correspond to reality in any meaningful way. When I say "I am aware of XYZ," I'm positing two distinct phenomenal realities. One is awareness and the other is XYZ. Aquinas argued that the self cannot become aware of itself except by its acts. We can examine this assertion by pondering Franklin Merrell-Wolff's notion of consciousness-without-an-object, M-W's idea of the absolute. That phrase is without meaning. Consciousness-without-an-object is akin to the paradoxical concept of Aristotle's potential, a capacity out there in some ontological limbo without actuality.

In this relationship I discern a fundamental dualism beneath reality. If consciousness is, something else must be there too. The object seen cannot at the same time be the object that sees. Once we accept this, we have a reasonable basis for looking at reality. We have minimal orientation. Neither a materialistic nor a pure idealistic position is tenable. The materialistic view denies the reality of an agency. The idealistic denies the reality of anything over against the agency; it treats everything as a mirage produced by the mind.

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