What does nonduality mean for us? In another essay, free will and its necessary absence is discussed and argued. From a materialistic view, based on current evidence, free will is illusory. Extrapolating from this, if we presume the rest of the universe works similarly, based entirely on causal events and physical laws that are, apart from in extraordinary circumstances that necessarily have no effect on the remainder of reality (ie the theoretical singularity of a black hole, in which the laws of physics break down), reality as a whole must be deterministic as well. But where, then, does our awareness come from? Is it, as suggested in the essay on free will, simply an adaptation of our neurology? If not, where does it come from? What is “I” made of?
It’s entirely plausible, perhaps probable if we assume the simplest answer to the question of free will, that the illusion of having conscious control over our internal world and our decisions, is an evolutionary adaptation, sprung from the necessity of organizing complex mental phenomena and learning from experience. Consciousness, however, seems to expand beyond this. It’s been noted that we are conscious of our emotions, and perhaps other internal phenomena as well, despite having no direct control over them. Our decision-making processes also often fail us; we sometimes focus on processing that which doesn’t need focusing on, while ignoring what is important. We fail to learn from our mistakes. Further, from a more ideological perspective, would limiting consciousness purely to the illusion of free will as an adaptation built around complex processing therefore limit it to human beings? Most animals might be said to have limited complex processing. They still learn, however, and even arguably have rich emotional lives, exhibiting symptoms of anger, sadness, depression, elation, fear, anxiety. (Dawkins, 2000) Still, their survival, unlike ours, does not usually hinge on their complex decision-making skills; usually, at least in the wild, their instincts and basic learning would be enough to sustain them. Emotion may even be considered maladaptive, especially for less social species, and yet they still have them, and we would still instinctively ascribe them awareness. A robot capable of complex machine learning could arguably perform just as well!
We have no evidence for this awareness, of course; it’s purely instinct. In fact, we don’t have evidence for awareness in anyone but ourselves. And yet, we’re reasonably sure that awareness, or consciousness, used interchangeably here, exist in individuals without us. We cast off solipsism. Individuals without language, such as the severely handicapped or severely socially deprived, are deemed to still have awareness. Animals, too, are allowed awareness in our worldview, albeit perhaps, we think, a little less. This might depend on the animal; our beloved horse may have as rich of an internal world as we do, while the beetle you mashed probably barely had a concept that it exists at all. How far down does it go? Do plants have awareness? Studies exist to suggest that they respond to stimuli in ways analogous to emotion. What about fungi, or single-celled organisms? Bacteria? Organisms barely on the fringe of life, like virii? Inorganic matter, such as rocks? There is an observable sliding scale of complexity; the human brain is the most complex concise object we have discovered, with more potential neural connections than there are atoms in the universe, and we descend very gradually from there, to mammalian brains, reptilian brains, beings with a brainlike component, to no brain at all but a nervous system, to a nervous system analogue, to cellular components that act similarly. Where does consciousness begin and end? Am I the benchmark for complexity, and anything (or anyone) less complex than me lacks self-awareness? Do we embrace solipsism, or is there a method?
It would be sensible to presume that, just as there is a sliding scale of neural and neural-analogue complexity, there is a similar scale in the complexity of awareness. More complex systems form more complex awarenesses. And if we presume this, then we presume that awareness is not a product of any one organ (an organ that has been posited many times but never discovered), but rather of the system as a whole.
We then must ask, does it need to be a neurological system? Is there something about neurons that creates awareness? Something about neurological system analogues that mirror it to some extent? This is where opinions differ, but some neuroscientists have come to the conclusion that awareness is actually a product of complex systems, ie Koch (2014).
If this is the case, then the rabbit hole goes deeper: If awareness is a sliding scale based on complexity, then it follows that the least complex systems must have the least amount of awareness. Note that this does not mean that they lack awareness, but incredibly, that they must have some awareness. Therefore, that every part of the universe has some level of consciousness, that that consciousness builds as systems are formed. This idea has led to a resurgence in panpsychism, and the notion that consciousness may in fact be the ultimate basis of all things.
Whether this notion is the truth or not, there is something that must be considered: That within a complex awareness, there are many smaller awarenesses, and smaller awarenesses within those. It isn’t difficult to imagine, and seems likely given the philosophical story so far, that we human beings are ourselves part of a more complex awareness still. Awareness at this point ceases to be a concise entity and is instead a single piece in an endless fractal, beginning at the subatomic level, extending into the known universe and potentially beyond, where it can be viewed as a single, unified whole, potentially one on which the basis of all space-time is founded. Ultimately, there exists only a single thing making up all things, which is awareness. We have arrived at non-duality, or monism — specifically, mentalistic monism or idealism.
In a non-dual worldview, distinct entities cease to exist, ontologically, just as how, when we are discussing the function of a human cerebral cortex, we ignore the fact that it is ultimately made up of quarks. The quarks are simple, deterministic, and only exist to play their infinitesimal role in the function of the brain. In the same way, our lives are tiny and insignificant; brief little particles that play their role in the goings-on of the universe.
This prospect is a troubling one to many. We want to believe we have some level of importance. We live our lives striving to make an impact, whatever that impact may be. On a grander scale, we even read science fiction with lust for a time when the human race has reached out into the stars and overcome the tininess that accompanies existence upon only a single rock in space. We want to believe we can do it all because we make it happen, and to be told that, in fact, we’re motes of dust, bits of awareness that only think we are significant but are only a sliver of thread in the gigantic tapestry of existence bothers many of us.
Simultaneously, though, we look up at the stars, and we feel our smallness, and find some odd solace in the overwhelming humility of it. There is something to be said for recognizing that as crucial as our every action might seem to us, it truly doesn’t matter. Our mistakes, our bad luck, our failures, even our successes, the things we wonder if we deserve, our privileges, everything that bothers and excites us, is the equivalent to an extra, a member of a sprawling crowd with barely a frame of screen time, in a film a thousand years long. And if we assume a deterministic perspective, in which our mental script is not our own, but written for us through the chain of causation, all of which is created by the measurable and theoretically predictable physics of the universe — which is, itself, ultimately aware — the metaphor of the film is very useful.
We become characters in the biggest film that has ever been produced, all played by the same actor, which is defined as awareness. Like the characters in the film, we go through enormous hardships, and we overcome evil — or we fail. But either way, it adds to the film; when a character suffers in a good film, our attachment to them grows; and when they surpass their difficulties, we marvel at their growth. They make the film, for us, in that instant. The question of evil comes up so often when discussing ontology, and the answer is here: Evil happens, disasters happen, sadness happens because it must. What growth can there be, what progress, realistically, can occur without a problem? What story has no conflict, no suffering?
And that character doesn’t know they are a character in a film; for the purpose of the film, the character is unaware that they are merely a speck, an idea spawned by a writer. The actor behind them knows every word of the plot, knows what will happen, but the character themselves have no idea. But what if they did? What happens when characters break the fourth wall? Even the most dire of situations becomes a comedy. The character is now godlike, perhaps not in physical or even mental strength, but in their imperviousness to everything that is happening around them. They know it’s all just a story that they’re a part of, and through that knowledge they become liberated, truly in the dharmic sense.
Thus, we have arrived, through a scientific process with some liberties taken, at an explanation for nonduality. We have defined a concept of God, as best we can, as a potentially infinitely large system, and ultimate awareness. We have recognized our place within that system, and through acceptance of determinism, and analogy, glimpsed what this bizarre concept could mean when applied to our daily lives. And finally, we have identified the process, and result, of the achievement of what amounts to the real concept of liberation.
Dawkins, M. (2000). “Animal minds and animal emotions”. American Zoologist 40(6). pp. 883–888.
Koch, C. (2014). In which I argue that consciousness is a fundamental property of complex things. MIT Press.