Researching the Formless
We began this book with a question about what the cognitive sciences could tell us about consciousness and ourselves as human beings. In that introduction, we saw how human beings have been brutalized at various times through scientific efforts to understand and change human behavior. We saw this in the case of behaviorism and psychosurgery, for example. Today, perhaps the greatest brutalization comes from the assumption that consciousness can be understood in terms of form at the cost of leaving out the formless. The identification with form is something the Western intellectual tradition at large needs to recognize as erroneous, not only the cognitive sciences. Another danger with the psychological sciences is the ever increasing array of labels produced to identify various psychological conditions. How many of those labels of identification with form would be necessary if the formless were taken seriously? The whole strand of mindfulness-based therapies that are now emerging can be seen as exploring this question to some extent. Perhaps we will see a reversal in the multiplication of form-based therapies in favor of those favoring mindful being. Perhaps we will one day live in a modern society where psychology’s main contribution is no longer to repair broken egos or to classify them with labels, but to offer ways of transcending the egoic human mind through conscious awareness.
The first step in getting in a position to adequately research the formless is to realize our limitations. Thought cannot understand consciousness as the formless. Philosophers who don’t understand this have tried to understand consciousness in terms of thought structures, but consciousness is not content; consciousness is free from content. Consciousness is the formless and cannot be grasped by form. We can manipulate and control consciousness through the brain, and perhaps even one day—like our fictional character Ben—discover the causal determinants of consciousness in the brain. But that does not mean we have understood consciousness in its formless nature. It means we have a causal account of its conditions of operation—nothing more, nothing less. It wouldn’t, for example, show that a physicalist account of consciousness is right, or that the physical must take primacy over the formless. Western subjectivism has still not learned the lessons of Hume and Kant. It consistently attempts to do with reason what reason cannot do, and this has now left us with a simplistic and false monistic materialist picture of the universe, including consciousness and the essence of who we are.
The mystery of the formless, as essentially not graspable by thought, suggests a far more complex, pluralistic universe than that depicted by Western subjectivism. A pluralistic view that affirms many possible dimensions of reality is the most plausible. It may be that physics is moving in this direction of a pluralistic universe, as the numbers of theories and ideas about a multidimensional universe are increasing. Physicists are becoming increasingly open to the idea of us understanding only certain dimensions of reality. It could be that the more we learn about the universe, the more mysterious it appears. Weinberg appears to have become more open to the potential mysteries of the universe, and even open to it being conscious, because he ran together strands of thinking about the fundamental laws of physics with explanations of consciousness as he recently pondered our limited intellectual resources and the quest for a grand unified understanding of the world:
We may . . . run out of intellectual resources—humans may not be smart enough to understand the really fundamental laws of physics. Or we may encounter phenomena that in principle cannot be brought into a unified framework for all science. For instance, although we may well come to understand the processes in the brain responsible for consciousness, it is hard to see how we will ever describe conscious feelings themselves in physical terms. (Weinberg 2015, p. 268)
Perhaps we are living in a time when consciousness will be increasingly seen as part of the universe, even in the hard sciences.
An integration of Eastern and Western thought, through a discussion of how the two traditions have viewed mind and consciousness, would be beneficial for the cognitive sciences. There are two main ways of coming to “understand” consciousness in the meditative traditions. One would be through negation. The Zen tradition teaches the formless or nothingness in this way. This could be appealing to the Western mind because there is some mental content that is negated and hence something for the thinking mind to engage with. In many of the Eastern meditative traditions, the engagement with negative teaching is the first step in the teachings. Often the negative teachings involve paradoxical thinking, which is supposed to help the student see the limits of thought. The other way of teaching the formless is through meditation, in which thought arises naturally, but against the background of the formless. There may be much initial resistance to such teaching because of how our minds have been conditioned to operate in instrumental modes of reasoning. The mind asks, what is the point of emptiness and what do I get out of this? Remember how Heidegger pioneered existentialism on the assumption that our whole lives revolve around unfinished projects. From an Eastern perspective, that whole strand of existentialism is symptomatic of overheated minds that have turned all of life into instrumental projects and forgotten about the unconditioned—the formless. The fact that existentialism never merged with Eastern thought to change the philosophical tradition in the West, or led to a new synthesis, further testifies to how strong the Western identification with subjectivism was and still is today. There is little willingness to step out of essentially troubled, alienated selves—whether in their existential, postmodern, or materialist forms—to discover the formless.
If we assume that consciousness is form, the consequences are devastating, as we can see in the case of materialism in general and most evidently in the case of Dennett’s view, which denies consciousness to insufficiently form-manipulating creatures, including human beings without language (prelinguistic infants and humans with mental disabilities that make it impossible for them to acquire language) and animals without language, such as dogs, apes, dolphins, and whales. The assumption that consciousness is form also leads to a picture of a universe that, as a whole, contains nothing but form, and one that is—perhaps not surprisingly— meaningless. A conscious universe is one in which absolute meaninglessness is an illusion of form. It is one in which creativity arises from the formless and is plain for everyone to see. The mind that sees only form can neither spell out the meaning of the universe in terms of form nor see its creativity. For the one for whom the formless is possible, everything is possible in a creative and meaningful universe, to paraphrase and extend Nagarjuna’s saying. The seeing of the universe under the aspect of form is a kind of seeing that is ultimately instrumental, but Kant knew that we cannot see things that way if we want to find meaning. Meaning is inherent to humans, as meaning is inherent to a conscious universe. That’s why Kant came to make it his first moral principle: that we should treat ourselves as ends and not merely means. From an Eastern perspective, we might say that this value comes from the formless or consciousness, irrespective of how we find ourselves in the world of form, and irrespective of what we say, think, and do.
What is suggested here is really not much new if we examine both the Eastern and Western traditions. It may be seen as a synthesis of Eastern and Western thought or a rediscovery of consciousness in terms of the formless. For we have of course always known the formless, and we all experience it to a greater or lesser extent in our lives. As mentioned earlier, there was a time not so long ago in Western philosophy and science, when spirituality was a natural part of those traditions. So a physicist, such as Einstein, could discuss his views of God, Spinoza, and a spiritual universe without it appearing strange in any way. Similarly, Whitehead could, around the same time, formulate a spiritual theory of the universe that encompassed the mind, consciousness, God, and the latest discoveries from physics. If we accept the formless as part of the universe, we might open the door to further spiritual discussion of our place in our universe as spiritual beings. Indeed this seems inevitable if we assume that we are the kinds of beings that are interested in how we find ourselves in the universe.
We have learned about some mistakes regarding our view of ourselves within the cognitive sciences and the Western intellectual tradition. The one mistake that is the most pressing now for our generation is the assumption that we are conditioned entities of form, living in a form-based, pointless universe. The perpetuation of this dogma might be doing more harm than many other misconceptions because of how it perpetuates Western subjectivism. An affirmation of the formless would open up the possibility of seeing the universe under the aspect of the formless and its creative expression. Would such a picture be mysterious and nonscientific? It would be mysterious, but that is just the nature of our universe. The universe is mysterious, and consciousness is a big part of that mystery. Would it be unscientific? No; the formless is a part of our universe, even if scientific thought can reach this conclusion only as a kind of negation—something other than form that cannot be grasped through form.