Evolving inquiry: the unconscious as bridging the intellectual/spiritual and the academic/personal
Interesting conversation with Bharath last week, one based on a shared interest in the "unconscious view of thinking" and exploring some of its implications with regard to the relation between the professional and the personal, the "intellectual" and the "spiritual."
I've always thought that my interests/motivations were "intellectual" rather than "spiritual," but I may need now to rethink that, or at least rethink the notion of a sharp distinction between the two. What I've been interested in, always been interested in, is finding new ways to make sense of things, ways that don't have any of the problems of known ways of making sense of things. I've called this "getting it less wrong," and presumed, without thinking too much about it, that one could assess "less wrong" with some objectivity: there is a problem thinking about X as simply Y since there is an observation inconsistent with Y, therefore conceive a Z which makes sense of the inconsistent observation as well as the ones X successfully accounts for. Bingo, "less wrong."
I still like that idea, and still think it has lots of attractive features (among them that it allows inquiry to proceed and make progress without the necessity to presume there is a fixed or unique answer to be reached). But in practice inquiry is rarely sufficiently focused enough to make the assessment fully adequate. Z may be demonstrably less wrong with regard to a particular well delineated array of observations but create additional new problems in a whole host of other realms. How do I deal with that?
I think I have to admit I don't even attempt to consciously assess whether something is actually "less wrong" across the sum of all possible relevant contexts (in fact, I don't think that is, even in principle, doable). Instead, I let my gut make the assessment or, more accurately, I leave it to my cognitive unconscious to do it: something is less wrong in wider contexts if it feels less wrong, if I experience the world as larger, more open, richer in opportunity, and myself as in better touch with it. It turns out there are some pretty good reasons to do that, given contemporary observations on the brain. The cognitive unconscious consists of a large number of different processors, each evaluating things in a different way, so when they're all more or less in agreement on something its a pretty good bet its broadly "less wrong," and at least a better bet than when I rely on my conscious processes (which work best with smaller numbers of more simply related variables).
But there is also something oddly "spiritual" about this process, both in its intent and its outcome. Indeed, I once coined the phrase "touching the navel of Nature" to describe the feeling I got when a set of experimental observations suddenly made sense to me, not only in and of themselves but in broader terms. That experience is perhaps not too different from what Freud called the "oceanic feeling" and others might call "seeing the face of God". It is a sense of a new, broader, and more satisfying connectedness to things larger than oneself.
The notion of the "oceanic feeling" as a "state of the nervous system in the absence of any experience of conflict" has come up before in the context of a discussion of the relationship between neurobiology and psychoanalysis. And it continues to intrigue me a lot as a way to bridge between what might otherwise seem conflicting "intellectual" and "spiritual" perspectives.
People with intellectual aspirations and those with spiritual ones clearly share a common interest in finding "new, broader, and more satisfying" ways to make sense of things "larger than oneself." What is often seen as differentiating the two is how they describe what they are looking for - "Reality" in the one case and "God" or "Spirit" in the other - and the methods they emphasize as central (material observations on the one hand, and transcendent experiences on the other). Perhaps though, as suggested in my own case, people with intellectual aspirations and those with spiritual ones actually both use a mix of material observations and transcendent experiences, with the latter corresponding not to a closer contact with some external "reality" or "spirit" but rather to the internal state of having a new, broader, and more satisfying sense of agreement among the disparate parts of oneself?
Does that actually constitute connection to something "larger than oneself?" I think it does, if by "oneself" one means what one is consciously aware of, since one's unconscious (largely unknown to one) is continually collecting observations about a much larger array of things around one. But it doesn't mean one is getting any closer to either "Reality" or "Spirit." Indeed, it leaves entirely open the question of whether there is any such thing "out there" and so obviates any need to argue about whether what is out there is "matter" or "spirit" or both. Both, this perspective suggests, are nothing more (and nothing less) than terms we use as guides to what we think are effective ways to achieve an improved integration of our brains.
My guess is that not everyone will be happy doing away with a distinction between intellectual and spiritual quests, to say nothing of suggesting that one is searching for something that has no name nor any criteria for success other than how one feels. Still more discomforting, perhaps, is that that transcendent feeling is probably transient at best, a way station and not a completion. Given the ongoing fluctuations in the nervous system and the world it is unlikely that "an absence of any experience of conflict" can persist for any extended period of time.
On the other hand, there is something very appealing (to me at least) about a genuinely open-ended intellectual/spiritual quest, one that is driven by what is reliably inside oneself, that offers periods of achievement and contentment, and that will continue whatever is found, by oneself or others. It is a picture of an infinitely extended journey with rest stops in appealing locations, of inquiry (and perhaps life itself) as ongoing evolution.
The picture of inquiry as evolution is additionally appealing (again, to me at least) in that it provides not only a bridge between the intellectual and the spiritual but also one between the academic and the personal. If indeed "transcendent experiences" are the best measure of successful inquiry, and those in turn reflect "having a new, broader, and more satisfying sense of agreement among the disparate parts of oneself," then the distinction between "academic" and "personal" ceases to make operational sense, and we all need a better understanding of inquiry that explicitly encourages rather than discourages consideration of the personal. What's important is not the "personal" qua "personal" (nor the "academic" qua "academic") but rather the interplay between exploring how one makes sense of the world oneself and the sense made of it, both individually and collectively, by others.
A life of inquiry that bridges the academic and the personal, the intellectual and the spiritual, that locates the "larger than oneself" within oneself and one's interactions with one's surroundings (human and otherwise), that replaces well-defined objectives with a process that both makes use of objectives and redefines them as it proceeds .... that appeals to me. To others? Is it "less wrong," ie operationally different from what we are used to? Achievable? On both individual and institutional scales? Looking forward to seeing what others think.