Apr 02, 2024, 06:27AM

The Co-creation Tango

Mind, matter and Marxism.

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Two of the most important people in my life are Dave Westacott and Andrew Ling. I met them both at my first year in Cardiff University in 1971. They were a little older than me, Dave by one year, Andrew by two. Andrew had lived and worked in Notting Hill in London and was a radical freak. He had long, black hair and wore a rabbit skin waistcoat and a headband. He’d taken LSD. Dave admired Jim Morrison of the Doors and wore leather trousers in emulation of his hero. He told me that the shop assistant had pulled up the zip on his crotch to help get them on. Such behavior appealed to my youthful fantasies. I was still very much a virgin.

You’ll notice how I defined people by what clothes they wore. I suspect that’s one of the qualities of youth. But what really made Dave stand out was that he was a communist. I’d never met a communist before. His mum and dad were communists. His step-dad was a communist. His sister and brother-in-law were communists. His uncle Fred was a communist. Communism was like their family business. When I moved into a flat with him, sometime later that year, we lined our books up around the living room walls. Many of his books were from the communist canon: Marx and Engels, Lenin, Gramsci, even Stalin. Stalin’s books were written in an aggressively polemical style, like he was slapping the reader around the face with a half-thawed fish.

I was an instinctive, but not a learned, anarchist: a hippie. Anarchism was in the air, and the commune movement was in vogue. Later I found out that this was an essentially anarchist concept, associated particularly with Leo Tolstoy, the Russian novelist and Christian anarchist of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. It was arguing with Dave—so much more well-read than me—that shifted my perspective. One of the lines that convinced me was when he said that the world we lived in was already anarchist. It was already lawless and ruled according to principles of unmediated power.

Andrew was a from a poor, working-class background on one of the sprawling council estates on the outskirts of London. Both of his parents were blind. He was, still is, one of the most uncompromisingly class-conscious people I know. He hated the middle class with a vengeance. His interest was in psychology and Eastern mysticism. He read Jung and Hesse and other associated works of spiritual enquiry. It was Andrew who first introduced me to the I-Ching, which has remained with me as a constant companion ever since.

It was between these two perspectives that I formulated my own worldview; what you might call “spiritual socialism.” I took on the requirement for revolutionary social change while acknowledging the need for personal transformation at the same time. I became—in my own head at least—a revolutionary, but was never quite convinced by Dave’s full-blown Marxist materialism. It seemed to me that that was its weakness: the failure to acknowledge anything beyond matter; anything, for want of a better word, “spiritual.” In Dave’s head, spirit is a delusion. In mine it has been a life-long pursuit.

What do I mean by “spiritual”? It’s from the Latin, spiritus, meaning breath. Its cognates are: to inspire (to breathe in), to expire (to breathe out), to aspire (to breathe towards), to conspire (to breathe together); also respiration (to breathe repeatedly), spirit (the energy of life and the essence of an alcoholic drink) and sprite, a creature composed of air. The equivalent Greek term is psyche. It refers to an invisible animating principle in the universe that, like the air itself, enriches and sustains life. One of the fastest growing belief systems in the world today is the one that declares itself “spiritual but not religious.” I guess I must belong to that category.

Dave’s philosophy is guided by the three M’s: Monism, Marxism, Materialism. Monism means that the universe is composed of only one thing, that is, matter; matter in all its various states. All phenomena, including consciousness, are derived from material processes. I’ve always found that concept slightly difficult. I also think it’s why the masses have never really taken to Marxism. They like the egalitarianism. They like the pursuit of social justice. But are we really only the result of blind material forces clashing together to create an accidental and isolated consciousness in one species’ sloppy brain-computer, 13.7 billion years after the universe had inadvertently plopped into being in the Big Bang? Most people would find that idea absurd, without being able to marshal the arguments against it. Dave and I have debated the point endlessly over the years. We’ve never fallen out over it, but the arguments have gotten very heated at times.

The question that lies at the heart of my ongoing debate with Dave is where consciousness lies in the hierarchy of being. To be conscious is to know the world. Dave denies the existence of spirit, and would say that consciousness is a by-product of the brain and body, an epiphenomenon.

Marxism is principally a philosophical system. Marx was a philosopher before he was a political theorist. Many of the questions I bring up have already been discussed within Marxist circles, and effectively dismissed. Debating with Dave means being confronted by philosophical terms that I then have to go and look up in a dictionary. Dave accuses me of solipsism. He tells me that what I’m asserting is called phenomenalism and has already been debunked by Lenin in his book, Materialism and Empirio-criticism.

Lenin’s book was published in 1909 and rehearses arguments that were current at the time. In particular he picks on Ernst Mach, a physicist who denied the existence of atoms. Mach was debunked by Einstein who demonstrated that “the statistical fluctuations of atoms allowed measurement of their existence without direct individuated sensory evidence.” Einstein demonstrated that atoms were real, and had no connection to the mind or consciousness that observed them, and by this validated Lenin's theories on the nature of objective reality.

My own views are derived from observations that are more contemporary, particularly the work of Federico Faggin, an Italian inventor, computer scientist, physicist and entrepreneur who had an extraordinary experience of consciousness a few decades ago that altered his view of what consciousness is. Prior to that he took the standard view, that consciousness is a product of the brain. Theoretically, if consciousness is a material phenomenon it should be reproducible in the lab. So this is what he set out to do: to create a conscious computer. It was his confrontation with the sheer impossibility of this that led to his direct experience of consciousness itself, which he described in the following terms:

“It was in this milieu that I had an extraordinary experience of consciousness. It was spontaneous. It was unexpected and I would never have expected it… In short I experienced myself as the world that observes itself, with my point of view… On top of that, in that experience I understood that this stuff that I was experiencing, which was a white, scintillating light, that felt like love, but a love so intense, so unbelievably satisfying, and joyful, and at peace that I couldn’t imagine that I could be the source of that love, because I felt that love coming out of my chest and at one point it exploded and everything was filled with this love that was me. I recognised me in that love. So that kind of experience changed completely my perspective of who I am. Before I was separate from everything else in the world, and now I am the world that observes itself. My body was vibrating. Like every cell in my body was following this experience. My emotion was love, joy, peace. And my thought was, my God, this is what everything is made of, this white, scintillating light, this stuff, whatever you want to call it, out of which everything is made.”

When I say that my own views are derived from listening to what Faggin has to say, I’m not quite telling the truth. I was already of that view, it’s just that Faggin confirmed it for me. In particular, his description of “this white scintillating light, this stuff… out of which everything is made” chimes with my own experience, which I described here.

It also reminds me of something Arthur Eddington said: “The stuff of the world is mind-stuff.” Eddington was the first English-speaking follower of Einstein in the years after WWI. He led an expedition to observe the solar eclipse in May 1919 that provided one of the first confirmations of Einstein’s theory. It was Eddington’s proof of Einstein that made the headlines that year, and became world-wide news, that catapulted Einstein to international fame.

Here’s a longer quote: “The mind-stuff of the world is, of course, something more general than our individual conscious minds... The mind-stuff is not spread in space and time; these are part of the cyclic scheme ultimately derived out of it... It is necessary to keep reminding ourselves that all knowledge of our environment from which the world of physics is constructed, has entered in the form of messages transmitted along the nerves to the seat of consciousness... Consciousness is not sharply defined, but fades into subconsciousness; and beyond that we must postulate something indefinite but yet continuous with our mental nature... It is difficult for the matter-of-fact physicist to accept the view that the substratum of everything is of mental character. But no one can deny that mind is the first and most direct thing in our experience, and all else is remote inference."

This is not to say that the world doesn't exist. It’s saying that consciousness is primary: that we know the world, first, through consciousness.

Faggin expands on this idea. He posits two distinct realms: the quantum and the classical. The classical realm is characterized by its determinism. If we know the position and trajectory of every atom, every molecule in the universe at any given point we can, theoretically, predict what’s going to happen next and the entire unfolding of the universe from that moment on. The classical universe is the universe of atoms and molecules bumping into each other that we live in and experience in our daily lives. The quantum universe, the universe of the very small, on the other hand, isn’t deterministic, but probabilistic. It can’t be predicted. It is this, according to Faggin, that gives it its quality of consciousness. It’s this unpredictability that Faggin interprets to mean that there are free-will decisions being made. The universe, at this level, is unpredictable in the same way that human behavior is unpredictable, not because it’s unknown, but because it’s unknowable: the product of a decision being made in private by someone other than yourself.

Human beings, he says, are quantum-classical hybrids. We represent the emergence of quantum consciousness into the material world. We’re the free-will actors that upset the deterministic apple-cart. We’re engaged in a dance with the universe, a co-creation tango, in which consciousness and matter spin each other around on a metaphysical dance floor.

The problem with all of this is that it’s unprovable. It’s unrepeatable under lab conditions. If someone says to you that they’ve had an extraordinary experience of consciousness, such as Faggin describes, all we can do is to either believe them or not. There’s no science yet that can fathom the depths of human experience, that can quantify the taste of chocolate, or weigh the love we feel for our children. Science has been extraordinarily successful at understanding and manipulating the physical world, but that’s as far as it can go. It can tell you the how, but never the why. It can give you the measure, but never the meaning. In the end that’s up to us to decide.

Follow Chris Stone on X: @ChrisJamesStone


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