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Friday, November 09, 2007

Intellectual clarity

I've been debating a friend about meditation. He wants to maintain that intellect is limited and that there are forms of awareness that transcend thinking. I maintain that everything passes through intellect. As Pascal remarked, "thinking makes the whole dignity of the human." Here's my recent reply:

"Intellect" at root covers everything from perception & sensation through comprehension & analysis. In fact, however, we now use it primarily to mean the latter type of functions. Awareness covers more than consciousness, of course. But in order to argue for your claims, you must, like everyone, think about "awareness", etc. There's a tradition of attributing significance (another form of thinking) to the kinds of awareness which precede or underlie conscious thinking, i.e., the kind that takes place in words. What I want to stress is that this act of attribution is itself thinking, i.e., an intellectual action. I agree that restrictive kinds of thinking--e.g., analysis, classification--do not exhaust experience or encompass it.

But everything we actually do, including arguing for the importance of anything, is an instance of thinking. This includes evoking things like "context," which is itself a decision about classification ("What surrounds or contains this experience?"). So the whole history of dhyana is inevitably a history of thinking about it--including Buddha's original invocation of it as the ultimate stage of the path. Buddha makes this point himself and in general appeals to his audience to think, about what causes (an analytical term) dukha, and so on. Finally, I suggest what meditation achieves is the revelation of thinking, as a process, not the suspension of it. Remember that the other key claim Buddha makes is that there is no self--that is, the "I" we construct around our memories and desires is fictional. Strictly, then, any appeal to "my own experience" is a kind of illusion. Meditation reveals that thoughts just go on--localizable in the active brain, of course--but "mine" in only a temporary and fragile sense, sooner or later to be dissolved...jb


Anonymous Michael Schuetz said...

Hi John,

I've also been intrigued with the idea of mediation lately, from an existential angle. I doubt that meditation alows one to transcend anything - thinking, being or whatever. Probably the reverse it true: it has the potential to bring one in closer in touch with thinking and being. At least that's what it seems to do for me. By temporarily suspending the constant reel of thoughts, meditation reminds me of the ultimate value of immanence, of the here and now. Personally, anything that reminds me not to rush through live is worth a shot. Though, I should add, I'm quite uneasy with all of the surrounding mysticism.

5:55 AM  
Blogger Alexandra said...

A response: isn’t the revelation of thinking as a process itself a suspension of thought as much the ‘fictional’ stories with which we construct our “I” shape what occurs?

I wonder, is it that “I” is only temporary because of the struggle between the infinitely potential “I’s” which could exist and do, or could there be infinitely many “I’s” existing all at once whose accumulation in each of us is an infinitely regressive progression? Another wording might be, ‘isn’t the finite, the word, the ‘I’ an expression of infinity such that we are nothing but?’

I keep thinking of uv light—we are affected by it, and even though we can’t see a color distinction the ways of (our) awareness have changed because of it.

2:23 AM  
Blogger DR JOHN BAILIFF said...


(Is this you, Alex?)

The aim of meditation is the "suspension" of thought, in the sense that one employs consciousness to "notice" the process of thinking as it unfolds, etc. What one becomes aware of is the fact that consciousness is just this manifold and fluid process (called "thinking"). The temptation--aided by the duality-grammar of our language--is to imagine "another" level of consciousness (or perhaps "infinity" as you use it here, if I understand you correctly), like the familiar other "realms"--like heaven, etc.--which litter human history. My main point is simple and radical: there are no other realms and all there is is open to conscious exploration. What there is is perhaps not infinite, but likely inexhaustible.

One of the things there isn't is a single "I" for each or any of us. This claim is radical too: the "I" constructed by me is both an assembly of elements of my past--both real and imagined--and subject to change. There isn't some "real" me, or a "true" one or set. Part of the evidence for this is revealed by the tenacity with which we each of us cling to the picture we've drawn of ourselves; then some crisis threatens or sabotages it, and we change. Or not. If not, sometimes we prefer death to acknowledging that all we've lived for and with--especially guilt, etc.--is a fiction we've built ourselves. The "regress" part occurs if we ask "who" is doing all this assembling, building, etc. That's just an artifact of our language, which must put a pronoun before the verb; it's just the metaphor that breaks down. The process is perfectly clear...

What do you think?...jb

8:57 PM  
Blogger DR JOHN BAILIFF said...

Michael--The "surrounding mysticism" is indeed off-putting. Objections to it haven't changed since the Buddha himself articulated them. I agree with you: meditation restores me to the moment, though I would have called it "imminence." cheers...jb

9:01 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Yes, you're right, "imminence".

Drifting off into the other discussion: I think of the concept "I" as I would think of any object. This table, for example. It is at the same time a multitude of atoms and a solid object. It will never be the same from one moment to the next, but we need to pragmatically refer to it. And it is not wrong to do so. We have fallen into this language and there is no remedy. What is painful is that most people do not see the problem with platonic, absolutist, thought. There must be the correct or perfect "I", or the "real" Table. Could it be that the entire history of "humanity" has been stricken with a mild form of psychosis? Unfortunately, this is what I have come to believe.

4:49 AM  
Blogger DR JOHN BAILIFF said...


Less psychotic than wishful, in my view. Quine once pointed out that we can't think (in the sense of generalize or manipulate symbols) without abstraction. Your example--like Plato's--illustrates the utility of abstracting "table" from molecular processes (or simple aging & repair) to confer a functional continuity. We do the same thing with "self". The wishful part--the error--comes in when we become attached to abstractions; we want to reify them, just as Plato did. I still recall vividly the first time it occurred to me in my `teens that "god" was an example of wishful thinking, too...jb

9:22 AM  

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