Consciousness & Illusion

What is all this? What is all this stuff around me; this stream of experiences that I seem to be having all the time?

Throughout history there have been people who say it is all illusion. I think they may be right. But if they are right what could this mean? If you just say “It’s all an illusion” this gets you nowhere – except that a whole lot of other questions appear. Why should we all be victims of an illusion, instead of seeing things the way they really are? What sort of illusion is it anyway? Why is it like that and not some other way? Is it possible to see through the illusion? And if so what happens next.

These are difficult questions, but if the stream of consciousness is an illusion we should be trying to answer them, rather than more conventional questions about consciousness. I shall explore these questions, though I cannot claim that I will answer them. In doing so I shall rely on two methods. First there are the methods of science; based on theorising and hypothesis testing – on doing experiments to find out how the world works. Second there is disciplined observation – watching experience as it happens to find out how it really seems. This sounds odd. You might say that your own experience is infallible – that if you say it is like this for you then no one can prove you wrong. I only suggest you look a bit more carefully. Perhaps then it won’t seem quite the way you thought it did before. I suggest that both these methods are helpful for penetrating the illusion – if illusion it is.

We must be clear what is meant by the word ‘illusion’. An illusion is not something that does not exist, like a phantom or phlogiston. Rather, it is something that it is not what it appears to be, like a visual illusion or a mirage. When I say that consciousness is an illusion I do not mean that consciousness does not exist. I mean that consciousness is not what it appears to be. If it seems to be a continuous stream of rich and detailed experiences, happening one after the other to a conscious person, this is the illusion.

What’s the problem?

For a drastic solution like ‘it’s all an illusion’ even to be worth considering, there has to be a serious problem. There is. Essentially it is the ancient mind-body problem, which recurs in different guises in different times. Victorian thinkers referred to the gulf between mind and brain as the ‘great chasm’ or the ‘fathomless abyss’. Advances in neuroscience and artificial intelligence have changed the focus of the problem to what Chalmers (1995) calls the ‘hard problem’ – that is, to explain how subjective experience arises from the objective activity of brain cells.

Many people say that the hard problem does not exist, or that it is a pseudo-problem. I think they fall into two categories – those few who have seen the depths of the problem and come up with some insight into it, and those who just skate over the abyss. The latter group might heed Nagel’s advice when he says “Certain forms of perplexity—for example, about freedom, knowledge, and the meaning of life—seem to me to embody more insight than any of the supposed solutions to those problems.” (Nagel 1986 p 4).

This perplexity can easily be found. For example, pick up any object – a cup of tea or a pen will do – and just look, smell, and feel its texture. Do you believe there is a real objective cup there, with actual tea in it, made of atoms and molecules? Aren’t you also having a private subjective experience of the cup and the taste of the tea – the ‘what it is like’ for you? What is this experience made of? It seems to be something completely different from actual tea and molecules. When the objective world out there and our subjective experiences of it seem to be such different kinds of thing, how can one be caused by, or arise from, or even depend upon, the other?

The intractability and longevity of these problems suggests to me that we are making a fundamental mistake in the way we think about consciousness – perhaps right at the very beginning. So where is the beginning? For William James – whose 1890 Principles of Psychology is deservedly a classic – the beginning is our undeniable experience of the ‘stream of consciousness’; that unbroken, ever-changing flow of ideas, perceptions, feelings, and emotions that make up our lives.

In a famous passage he says “Consciousness … does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. … it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.” (James, 1890, i, 239). He referred to the stream of consciousness as “… the ultimate fact for psychology.” (James 1890, i, p 360).

James took introspection as his starting method, and the stream of consciousness as its object. “Introspective Observation is what we have to rely on first and foremost and always. The word introspection need hardly be defined(it means, of course, the looking into our own minds and reporting what we there discover. Every one agrees that we there discover states of consciousness. …  I regard this belief as the most fundamental of all the postulates of Psychology, and shall discard all curious inquiries about its certainty as too metaphysical for the scope of this book.” (1890, i,  p 185).

He quotes at length from Mr. Shadworth Hodgson, who says “What I find when I look at my consciousness at all is that what I cannot divest myself of, or not have in consciousness, if I have any consciousness at all, is a sequence of different feelings. I may shut my eyes and keep perfectly still, and try not to contribute anything of my own will; but whether I think or do not think, whether I perceive external things or not, I always have a succession of different feelings. … Not to have the succession of different feelings is not to be conscious at all.” (quoted in James 1890, i, p 230)

James adds “Such a description as this can awaken no possible protest from any one.” I am going to protest. I shall challenge two aspects of the traditional stream; first that it has rich and detailed contents, and second that there is one continuous sequence of contents.

But before we go any further it is worth considering how it seems to you. I say this because sometimes people propose novel solutions to difficult problems only to find that everyone else says – ‘Oh I knew that all along’. So it is helpful to decide what you do think first. Many people say that it feels something like this. I feel as though I am somewhere inside my head looking out. I can see and hear and feel and think. The impressions come along in an endless stream; pictures, sounds, feelings, mental images and thoughts appear in my consciousness and then disappear again. This is my ‘stream of consciousness’ and I am the continuous conscious self who experiences it.

If this is how it seems to you then you probably also believe that at any given time there have to be contents of your conscious stream – some things that are ‘in’ your consciousness and others that are not. So, if you ask the question ‘what am I conscious of now?’ or ‘what was I conscious of at time t?’ then there has to be an answer. You might like to consider at this point whether you think there does have to be an answer.

For many years now I have been getting my students to ask themselves, as many times as possible every day “Am I conscious now?”. Typically they find the task unexpectedly hard to do; and hard to remember to do. But when they do it, it has some very odd effects. First they often report that they always seem to be conscious when they ask the question but become less and less sure about whether they were conscious a moment before. With more practice they say that asking the question itself makes them more conscious, and that they can extend this consciousness from a few seconds to perhaps a minute or two. What does this say about consciousness the rest of the time?

Just this starting exercise (we go on to various elaborations of it as the course progresses) begins to change many students’ assumptions about their own experience. In particular they become less sure that there are always contents in their stream of consciousness. How does it seem to you? It is worth deciding at the outset because this is what I am going to deny. I suggest that there is no stream of consciousness. And there is no definite answer to the question ‘What am I conscious of now?’. Being conscious is just not like that.

I shall try to explain why, using examples from two senses; vision and hearing.

The Stream of Vision

When we open our eyes and look around it seems as though we are experiencing a rich and ever-changing picture of the world; what I shall call our ‘stream of vision’. Probably many of us go further and develop some sort of theory about what is going on – something like this perhaps.

“When we look around the world, unconscious processes in the brain build up a more and more detailed representation of what is out there. Each glance provides a bit more information to add to the picture. This rich mental representation is what we see at any time. As long as we are looking around there is a continuous stream of such pictures. This is our visual experience.”

There are at least two threads of theory here. The first is the idea that there is a unified stream of conscious visual impressions to be explained, what Damasio (1999) calls ‘the movie-in-the-brain’. The second is the idea that seeing means having internal mental pictures – that the world is represented in our heads. People have thought this way at least for several centuries, perhaps since Leonardo da Vinci first described the eye as a camera obscura and Kepler explained the optics of the eye (Lindberg 1976). Descartes’ famous sketches showed how images of the outside world appear in the non-material mind and James, like his Victorian contemporaries, simply assumed that seeing involves creating mental representations. Similarly, conventional cognitive psychology has treated vision as a process of constructing representations.

Perhaps these assumptions seem unremarkable, but they land us in difficulty as soon as we appreciate that much of vision is unconscious.  We seem forced to distinguish between conscious and unconscious processing; between representations that are ‘in’ the stream of consciousness and those that are ‘outside’ it. Processes seem to start out unconscious and then ‘enter consciousness’ or ‘become conscious’. But if all of them are representations built by the activity of neurons, what is the difference? What makes some into conscious representations and others not.

Almost every theory of consciousness we have confronts this problem and most try to solve it. For example, global workspace (GW) theories (e.g. Baars 1988) explicitly have a functional space, the workspace, which is a serial working memory in which the conscious processing occurs. According to Baars, information in the GW is made available (or displayed, or broadcast) to an unconscious audience in the rest of the brain. The ‘difference’ is that processing in the GW is conscious and that outside of it is not.

There are many varieties of GWT. In Dennett’s (2001) ‘fame in the brain’ metaphor, as in his previous multiple drafts theory (Dennett 1991 and see below), becoming conscious means contributing to some output or result (fame is the aftermath, not something additional to it). But in many versions of GWT being conscious is equated with being available, or on display, to the rest of the system (e.g. Baars 1988, Dehaene and Naccache 2001). The question remains; the experiences in the stream of consciousness are those that are available to the rest of the system. Why does this availability turn previously unconscious physical processes into subjective experiences?

As several authors have pointed out there seems to be a consensus emerging in favour of GWTs. I believe the consensus is wrong. GWTs are doomed because they try to explain something that does not exist – a stream of conscious experiences emerging from the unconscious processes in the brain.

The same problem pervades the whole enterprise of searching for the neural correlates of consciousness. For example Kanwisher (2001) suggests that the neural correlates of the contents of visual awareness are represented in the ventral pathway – assuming, as do many others, that visual awareness has contents and that those contents are representations. Crick asks “What is the “neural correlate” of visual awareness? Where are these “awareness neurons”¾are they in a few places or all over the brain¾and do they behave in any special way?” One might think that these are rhetorical questions but he goes on ” … this knowledge may help us to locate the awareness neurons we are looking for.” (Crick 1994, 204). Clearly he, like others, is searching for the neural correlates of that stream of conscious visual experiences. He admits that  “… so far we can locate no single region in which the neural activity corresponds exactly to the vivid picture of the world we see in front of our eyes.” (Crick 1994, 159). Nevertheless he obviously assumes that there is such a “vivid picture”. What if there is not? In this case he, and others, are hunting for something that can never be found.

I suggest that there is no stream of vivid pictures that appear in consciousness. There is no movie-in-the-brain. There is no stream of vision. And if we think there is we are victims of the grand illusion.

Change blindness is the most obvious evidence against the stream of vision. In 1991 Dennett reported unpublished experiments by Grimes who used a laser tracker to detect people’s eye movements and then change the picture they were looking at just when they moved their eyes. The changes were so large and obvious that under normal circumstances they could hardly be missed, but when they were made during saccades, the changes went unnoticed. It subsequently turned out that expensive eye trackers are not necessary.  I suggested moving the whole picture instead, and this produced the same effects (Blackmore, Brelstaff, Nelson & Troscianko 1995) . Other, even simpler, methods have since been developed, and change blindness has been observed with brief blank flashes between pictures, with image flicker, during cuts in movies or during blinks (Simons 2000).

That the findings are genuinely surprising is confirmed in experiments in which people were asked to predict whether they or others would notice the changes. A large metacognitive error was found – that is, people grossly overestimated their own and others’ ability to detect change (Levin, Momen & Drivdahl 2000). James long ago noted something similar; that we fail to notice that we overlook things. “It is true that we may sometimes be tempted to exclaim, when once a lot of hitherto unnoticed details of the object lie before us, “How could we ever have been ignorant of these things and yet have felt the object, or drawn the conclusion, as if it were a continuum, a plenum? There would have been gaps¾but we felt no gaps” (p 488).

Change blindness is not confined to artificial laboratory conditions. Simons and Levin (1998) produced a comparable effect in the real world with some clever choreography. In one study an experimenter approached a pedestrian on the campus of Cornell University to ask for directions. While they talked, two men rudely carried a door between them. The first experimenter grabbed the back of the door and the person who had been carrying it let go and took over the conversation. Only half of the pedestrians noticed the substitution. Again, when people are asked whether they think they would detect such a change they are convinced that they would – but they are wrong.

Change blindness could also have serious consequences in ordinary life. For example, O’Regan, Rensink and Clark (1999) showed that dangerous mistakes can be made by drivers or pilots when change blindness is induced by mudsplashes on the windscreen.

Further experiments have shown that attention is required to notice a change. For example there is the related phenomenon of ‘inattentional blindness’ (Mack & Rock 1998) in which people attending to one item of a display fail to detect the appearance of unexpected new items, even when these are clearly visible or in the centre of the visual field. However, though attention is necessary to detect change, it is not sufficient. Levin and Simons (1997) created short movies in which various objects were changed, some in arbitrary locations and others in the centre of attention. In one case the sole actor in the movie went to answer the phone. There was a cut in which the camera angle changed and a different person picked up the phone. Only a third of the observers detected the change.

What do these results mean? They certainly suggest that from one saccade to the next we do not store nearly as much information as was previously thought. If the information were stored we would surely notice the change. So the ‘stream of vision’ theory I described at the start has to be false. The richness of our visual world is an illusion (Blackmore et al 1995).Yet obviously something is retained otherwise there could be no sense of continuity and we would not even notice if the entire scene changed. Theorists vary in how much, and what sort of, information they claim is retained.

Perhaps the simplest interpretation is given by Simons and Levin (1997). During each visual fixation we experience a rich and detailed visual world. This picture is only detailed in the centre, but it is nevertheless a rich visual experience. From that we extract the meaning or gist of the scene. Then when we move our eyes the detailed picture is thrown away and a new one substituted, but if the gist remains the same our perceptual system assumes the details are the same and so we do not notice changes. This, they argue, makes sense in the rapidly changing and complex world we live in. We get a phenomenal experience of continuity without too much confusion.

Slightly more radical is Rensink’s (2000) view. He suggests that observers never form a complete representation of the world around them – not even during fixations. Rather, perception involves ‘virtual representation’; representations of objects are formed one at a time as needed, and they do not accumulate. The impression of more is given because a new object can always be made ‘just in time’. In this way an illusion of richness and continuity is created.

Finally, O’Regan (1992) goes even further in demolishing the ordinary view of seeing. He suggests that there is no need for internal representations at all because the world can be used as an external memory, or as its own best model – we can always look again. This interpretation fits with moves towards embodied cognition (e.g. Varela, Thomson and Rosch, 1991) and towards animate vision in artificial intelligence (Clark 1999) in which mind, body and world work together, and sensing is intertwined with acting. It is also related to the sensorimotor theory of perception proposed by O’Regan and Noë (in press). On this view seeing is a way of acting; of exploring the environment. Conscious visual experiences are generated not by building representations but by mastering sensorimotor contingencies. What remains between saccades is not a picture of the world, but the information needed for further exploration. A study by Karn and Hayhoe (2000) confirms that spatial information required to control eye movements is retained across saccades. This kind of theory is dramatically different from existing theories of perception. It entails no representation of the world at all.

It is not yet clear which of these interpretations, if any, is correct but there is no doubt about the basic phenomenon and its main implication. Theories that try to explain the contents of the stream of vision are misguided. There is no stable, rich visual representation in our minds that could be the contents of the stream of consciousness.

Yet it seems there is doesn’t it? Well does it? We return here to the problem of the supposed infallibility of our own private experiences. Each of us can glibly say ‘Well I know what my experience is like and it is a stream of visual pictures of the world, and nothing you say can take away my experience’. What then do we make of the experiments that suggest that anyone who says this is simply wrong?

I suggest that we all need to look again – and look very hard, with persistence and practice. Experimental scientists tend to eschew personal practice of this kind. Yet I suggest we should encourage it for two reasons. First, we cannot avoid bringing implicit theories to bear on how we view our own experiences and what we say about them. So perhaps we should do this explicitly. As we study theories of consciousness, we can try out the proposals against the way it seems to us. As we do so our own experience changes – I would say deepens. As an example, take theories about change blindness. Many people find the evidence surprising because they are sure that they have rich visual pictures in their mind whenever they are looking at something. If you ask “What am I conscious of now?” again and again, this certainty begins to fall apart, and the change blindness evidence seems less surprising. This must surely help us to become better critics. At the very least it will help us to avoid dismissing theories of consciousness because of false assumptions we make about our own experiences.

The second reason is that this kind of practice can give rise to completely new hypotheses about consciousness. And this in turn can lead to testable predictions and new experiments. If these are derived from a deeper understanding of one’s own awareness then they are more likely to be productive than those based on the mistake of believing in the stream of conscious.

Note that what I am proposing here is first person practice – first person discipline – first person methods of inquiry. But the results of all this practice will be words and actions; saying things to oneself and others. This endeavour only becomes science when it is put to use in this way and it is then, of course, third person science.

How does one do it? There have been many methods developed for taking ‘the view from within’ (Varela and Shear 1999) but I am suggesting something quite simple here. Having learned about the results of the change blindness research we should look hard and persistently at our own visual experiences. Right now is there a rich picture here in my experience? If there seems to be, something must be wrong, so what is wrong? Look again, and again. After many years of doing this kind of practice, every day, it no longer seems to me that there is a stream of vision, as I described at the start. The research has changed not only my intellectual understanding of vision but the very experience of seeing itself.

The stream of sounds

Listening to what is going on it might seem as though there is a stream of sounds to match the stream of pictures. Suppose we are listening to a conversation, then turn our attention to the music in the background, and then to the conversation again. We may say that at first the conversation was in the conscious stream while the music remained unconscious, then they reversed and so on. If asked ‘what sounds were in your stream of consciousness at a particular time?’ you might be sure that there definitely was an answer, even if you can’t exactly remember what it was. This follows from the idea that there is a stream of consciousness, and sounds must either be in it or not.

Some simple everyday experiences cast doubt on this natural view. To take a much used favourite, imagine you are reading and just as you turn the page you become aware that the clock is striking. You hadn’t noticed it before but now you feel as though you were aware of it all along. You can even remember that it has struck four times already and you can now go on counting. What has happened here? Were the first three ‘dongs’ really outside the stream (unconscious) and have now been pulled out of memory and put in the stream? If so what was happening when the first one struck, while you were still reading? Was the sound out of the stream at the time, but after you turned the page it just felt as though it had been in there all along – with the contents of the previous page – even though it wasn’t really? Or have you gone back in time and changed the contents of the stream retrospectively? Or what? You might think up some other elaborations to make sense of it but I don’t think any will be very simple or convincing (in the same spirit Dennett (1991) contrasts Orwellian with Stalinesque revisions). The trouble all comes about because of the idea that there is a stream of consciousness and things are either in or out of it.

There are many other examples one could use to show the same thing. For example, in a noisy room full of people talking you may suddenly switch your attention because someone has said “Guess who I saw with Anya the other day – it was Bernard”. You prick up your ears – surely not – you think. At this point you seem to have been aware of the whole sentence as it was spoken. But were you really? The fact is that you would never have noticed it at all if she had concluded the sentence with a name that meant nothing to you.

Even simpler than this is the problem with all speech. You need to accumulate a lot of serial information before the meaning of a sentence becomes unambiguous. What was in the stream of consciousness while all this was happening? Was it just meaningless words? Gobbledegook? Did it switch from gobbledegook to words half way through? It doesn’t feel like that. It feels as though you listened and heard a meaningful sentence as it went along, but this is impossible.

Or take just one word, or listen to a blackbird trill its song. Only once the trill is complete, the word finished, can you know what it was that you heard. What was in the stream of consciousness before this point? Would it help to go even smaller? to try to break the stream down into its constituent bits? Perhaps there is a stream of raw feels, or indivisible bits of conscious stuff out of which the larger chunks are made. The introspectionists assumed this must be the case and tried – in vain – to find the units. James did a thorough job of disposing of such ideas in 1890, concluding “No one ever had a simple sensation by itself” (James 1890, i, 224) and there have been many objections since. There is no easy way to answer these questions about what really was in the stream of consciousness at a given time. Perhaps the idea of a stream of consciousness is itself the problem.

Of course we should have known all this. Dennett (1991) pointed out much the same using the colour phi phenomenon and the cutaneous rabbit. To produce colour phi a red light is flashed in one place and then a green light flashed a short distance away. Even on the first trial, observers do not see two distinct lights flashing, but one moving light that changes from red to green somewhere in the middle. But how could they have known what colour the light was going to turn into? If we think in terms of the stream of consciousness we are forced to wonder what was in the stream when the light seemed to be in the middle – before the second light came on.

There’s something backwards about all this. As though consciousness is somehow trailing along behind or making things up after the fact. Libet’s well-known experiments showed that about half a second of continuous cortical activity is required for consciousness, so consciousness cannot be instant. But we should not conclude that there is a stream of consciousness that runs along half a second behind the real world; this still wouldn’t solve the chiming clock problem. Instead I suggest that the problem lies with the whole idea of the stream.

Dennett (1991) formulated this in terms of the Cartesian Theatre – that non-existent place where consciousness happens – where everything comes together and I watch the private show (my stream of experiences) in my own theatre of the mind. He referred to those who believe in the existence of the Cartesian Theatre as Cartesian materialists. Most contemporary consciousness researchers deny being Cartesian materialists. Typically they say that they do not believe that ‘everything comes together’ at a point in the brain, or even a particular area in the brain. For example, in most GWTs the activity of the GW is widely distributed in the brain. In Edelman and Tononi’s (2000) theory the activity of groups of neurons in a widely distributed dynamic core underlies conscious experience.

However, many of these same theorists use phrases that imply a show in the non-existent theatre; such phrases as ‘the information in consciousness’, ‘items enter consciousness’, ‘representations become conscious’, or ‘the contents of consciousness’. But consciousness is not a container – whether distributed or not. And, if there is no answer to the question “what is in my consciousness now?” such phrases imply that people are assuming something that does not exist. Of course it is difficult to write clearly about consciousness and people may write this way when they do not really mean to imply a show in a Cartesian Theatre. Nevertheless, we should beware these phrases. If there is an answer to the question ‘what is in my consciousness now?’ then it makes sense to speak of things ‘entering consciousness’ and so on. If there is no answer it does not.

How can there not be an answer? How can there not be a stream of consciousness or a show in the theatre of the mind? Baars claims that “all of our unified models of mental functioning today are theater metaphors; it is essentially all we have.” (1997, 7) but it is not. It is possible to think about consciousness in other ways – I would say not just possible but necessary.

Dennett’s own suggestion is the theory of multiple drafts. Put simply it is this. At any time there are multiple constructions of various sorts going on in the brain – multiple parallel descriptions of what’s going on. None of these is ‘in’ consciousness while others are ‘out’ of it. Rather, whenever a probe is put in – for example a question asked or a behaviour precipitated – a narrative is created. The rest of the time there are lots of contenders in various stages of revision in different parts of the brain, and no final version. As he puts it “there are no fixed facts about the stream of consciousness independent of particular probes”.  “Just what we are conscious of within any particular time duration is not defined independently of the probes we use to precipitate a narrative about that period. Since these narratives are under continual revision, there is no single narrative that counts as the canonical version, … the events that happened in the stream of consciousness of the subject.” (Dennett 1991 p 136)

I would put it slightly differently. I want to replace our familiar idea of a stream of consciousness with that of illusory backwards streams. At any time in the brain a whole lot of different things are going on. None of these is either ‘in’ or ‘out’ of consciousness, so we don’t need to explain the ‘difference’ between conscious and unconscious processing. Every so often something happens to create what seems to have been a stream. For example, we ask “Am I conscious now?”. At this point a retrospective story is concocted about what was in the stream of consciousness a moment before, together with a self who was apparently experiencing it. Of course there was neither a conscious self nor a stream, but it now seems as though there was. This process goes on all the time with new stories being concocted whenever required. At any time that we bother to look, or ask ourselves about it, it seems as though there is a stream of consciousness going on. When we don’t bother to ask, or to look, it doesn’t, but then we don’t notice so it doesn’t matter. This way the grand illusion is concocted.

There are some odd implications of this view. First, as far as neuroscience is concerned we should not expect always to find one global workspace, or other unified correlate of the contents of consciousness. With particular sorts of probes there may, for a time, be such a global unification but at other times there may be several integrated patterns going on simultaneously, any of which might end up being retrospectively counted as contents of a stream of consciousness. Second, the backwards streams may overlap with impunity. Information from one ongoing process may end up in one stream, while information from another parallel process ends up in a different stream precipitated a bit later but referring to things that were going on simultaneously. There is no requirement for there really to be only one conscious stream at a time – even though it ends up seeming that way.

This is particularly helpful for thinking about the stream of sounds because sounds only make sense when information is integrated over appreciable lengths of time. As an example, imagine you are sitting in the garden and can hear a passing car, a bird singing, and some children shouting in the distance, and that you switch attention rapidly between them. If there were one stream of consciousness then each time attention switched you would have to wait while enough information came into the stream to identify the sound – to hear it as a passing car. In fact attention can switch much faster than this. A new backwards stream can be created very quickly and the information it uses may overlap with that used in another stream a moment later, and another, and so on. So at time t was the bird song really in your stream of consciousness or was it the children’s shouting? There is no answer.

Is it really this way? Do you want to protest that it doesn’t seem this way? As with vision it is possible to look harder into one’s own experience of sound and the results can be quite strange. Thinking about the chiming clocks, and listening as sounds come and go, the once-obvious linear stream begins to disappear.

Looking harder

I have suggested that we need to look hard into our own experience, but what does this mean? How can we look? If the models sketched above are correct then looking means putting in a probe and this precipitates a backwards stream. So we cannot catch ourselves not seeming to be having a stream of consciousness. As William James so aptly put it “The attempt at introspective analysis in these cases is in fact like seizing a spinning top to catch its motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks.” (James, 1890, i, 244).

The modern equivalent is the metaphor of the fridge door. Is the light always on inside the fridge?  You may keep opening the door, as quickly as you can, but you can never catch it out – every time you open it, the light is on.

Things, however, are not quite that bad for the stream of consciousness. We do, after all, have those obvious examples such as the chiming clock and the meaningless half a word to go on. And we can build on this. But it takes practice.

What kind of practice? A good start is calming the mind. There are many meditation traditions whose aim is to see the mind for what it really is, and all of these begin with calming the mind. You might say that at first it is more like a raging torrent or even a stormy ocean than a stream. To see whether there even is a stream we need to slow everything down. This is not easy. Indeed it can take many years of diligent practice, though some people seem to be able to do it much more easily than others. Nevertheless, with a calm mind it is easier to concentrate, and to concentrate for longer.

Now we can ask “What am I hearing now?”. At first there seems always to be an answer. “I am hearing the traffic” or “I am hearing myself ask the question in my head”. But with practice the answer becomes less obvious. It is possible to pick up the threads of various sounds (the clock ticking, the traffic, ones own breathing, the people shouting across the road) and notice in each case that you seem to have been hearing it for some time. When you get good at this it seems obvious that you can give more than one answer to the question “what was I hearing at time t”. When you can do this there no longer seems to be a single stream of sounds.

My purpose here is not to say that this new way of hearing is right, or even better than the previous way. After all, I might be inventing some idiosyncratic delusion of my own. My intention is to show that there are other ways of experiencing the world, and finding them can help us throw off the false assumptions that are holding back our study of consciousness. If we can find a personal way out of always believing we are experiencing a stream of consciousness, then we are less likely to keep getting stuck in the Cartesian Theatre.

I asked at the outset ‘What is all this? What is all this stuff – all this experience that I seem to be having, all the time?’. I have now arrived at the answer that all this stuff is a grand illusion. This has not solved the problems of consciousness, but at least it tells us that there is no point trying to explain the difference between things that are in consciousness and those that are not because there is no such difference. And it is a waste of time trying to explain the contents of the stream of consciousness because the stream of consciousness does not exist. 


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  7. Damasio, A. (1999) The Feeling of What Happens: Body, emotion and the making of consciousness. London, Heinemann
  8. Dehaene, S. and Naccache, L. (2001) Towards a cognitive neuroscience of consciousness: basic evidence and a workspace framework. Cognition, 79, 1-37
  9. Dennett, D.C. (1991) Consciousness Explained. London, Little, Brown & Co.
  10. Edelman,G.M. and Tononi, G. (2000) Consciousness: How matter becomes imagination. London, Penguin
  11. James,W. (1890) The Principles of Psychology, London; MacMillan
  12. Kanwisher, N. (2001). Neural Events and Perceptual Awareness. Cognition, 79, 89-113
  13. Karn, K. and Hayhoe, M. (2000) Memory representations guide targeting eye movements in a natural task. Visual Cognition, 7, 673-703
  14. Levin, D.T., Momen, N. and Drivdahl, S.B. (2000) Change blindness blindness: The metacognitive error of overestimating change-detection ability. Visual Cognition, 7, 397-412
  15. Levin, D.T. and Simons, D.J. (1997) Failure to detect changes to attended objects in moton pictures. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 4, 501-506
  16. Levine, J. (1983) Materialism and qualia: The explanatory gap. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 64, 354-361
  17. Lindberg, D.C. (1976) Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler, University of Chicago Press
  18. Mack, A. and Rock, I. (1998) Inattentional Blindness, Cambridge MA, MIT Press
  19. Nagel,T. (1974) What is it like to be a bat? Philosophical Review 83, 435-450
  20. Nagel,T. (1986) The View from Nowhere, New York; Oxford University Press
  21. O’Regan, J.K. (1992) Solving the “real” mysteries of visual perception: The world as an outside memory. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 46, 461-488
  22. O’Regan, J.K. and Noë, A. (in press) A sensorimotor theory of vision. Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
  23. O’Regan, J.K., Rensink, R.A. and Clark, J.J. (1999) Change-blindness as a result of “mudsplashes”. Nature, 398, 34
  24. Rensink, R.A. (2000) The dynamic representation of scenes. Visual Cognition, 7, 17-42
  25. Simons, D.J. (2000) Current approaches to change blindness. Visual Cognition, 7, 1-15
  26. Simons, D.J. and Levin, D.T. (1998) Failure to detect changes to people during real-world interaction. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 5, 644-649
  27. Varela, F.J. and Shear, J. (1999) The view from within: First person approaches to the study of consciousness, Thorverton, Devon, Imprint Academic
  28. Varela,F.J., Thomson,E. and Rosch,E. (1991) The Embodied Mind. London, MIT Press

There is no stream of consciousnes – This paper is published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, Volume9, number 5-6, which is devoted to the Grand Illusion.  See This paper is based on a conference presentation by Dr Susan Blackmore at ‘Towards a Science of Consciousness 2001, in Skövde, Sweden, 7-11 August 2001.

Cognition and Spirituality

Relations between Two Modes of Cognition: Rational-Scientific and Intuitive-Spiritual

Considerable evidence indicates that the human cognitive system comprises two subsystems, one rational-scientific and the other intuitive-spiritual. Differences as well as harmonies and interactions between the two subsystems are described. The advent of systems science has improved the understanding of the harmonies and interactions. Consideration of cultural differences is important for understanding spirituality and communicating about it.

Twenty years ago I read about an Australian medicine man whose soul travelled to the center of the earth, where in a bright cave he saw the two Ungud serpents, the fundamental creative force of life and the earth (1), and I still remember, how I immediately conceived the reading of this story as a peak of my scientific career. Not for a moment did it occur to me that the language and background of the medicine man, so different from my own, were of any importance for the relevance of his spiritual experience to my own vision of scientific research: a striving to see (understand) the most important features of life and nature.

“Spiritual” is not a well defined term, but study of the literature shows that a number of knowledgeable authors have developed the opinion that a spiritual essence exists and can be understood cross-culturally (2 – 6). This view with its philosophical ramifications is often called the “Perennial Philosophy”. Other authors, also knowledgeable, believe that the cultural differences are more fundamental (7), but all seem to agree that every mystic or spiritual person expresses or has expressed him/herself in the language and general frame of reference of his/her own culture.

In the sessions of the Spirituality group in the International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS) we have had several valuable inputs from non-Western cultures (Japanese,Indian, American Indian, Aboriginal Australian etc.), but for those of us who are rooted in Western scientific culture it seems that we will obtain our best chance for communicating about spirituality by expressing ourselves on the background of our familiar scientific attitude. A better understanding of both simlarities and differences among the cultures may then become possible.

Here it must be recalled, however, that during its relatively short history modern science has undergone several fundamental changes, called paradigmatic shifts in the literature on the philosophy of science (8). I find that the advent of modern systems science constitutes such a paradigmatic shift, and one which is important for the communication about spirituality. Thus a spiritual experience is often said to have a strong feature of unity, an intuition that everything is connected with everything. This general idea can also be expressed and understood in systems science, but not so readily in old fashioned science with its focus on one cause – one effect. Systems science does not replace or even describe the spiritual experience, but I think, it can give a correspondence with spirituality in words or mathematics which is helpful in our attempts to communicate and perhaps obtain intersubjective agreement.

In the International Society for the Systems Sciences, ISSS some people have expressed concern about spirituality being discussed in a scientific society like ISSS, apparently because they think that there may be some disagreement or even conflict between science and spirituality. In the beginning this came as a complete surprise to me, as may be understood from the first paragraph above. Now I understand the reasons for these concerns better. One reason seems to be that some spiritual people do not live up to the ideals of science concerning a critical attitude. Lack of critical reflection is, however, also observed with many non-spiritual people and within science itself; and conversely, some persons to whom spirituality is important do practice the level of criticism ideally required by science. From an engineer’s viewpoint it may also be a matter of concern, that spiritual people often envisage or relie on empowerment coming from spirituality, while engineers tend to presume that everything is done by rational means and individual willpower. The engineers viewpoint is, however, not an inevitable consequence of science; rather the difference of opinion is a problem amenable for further study, within both science and spirituality.

Considerable evidence indicates that our cognitive system consists of (at least) two subsystems, one rational-scientific and the other intuitive-spiritual (9). Since these subsystems work on overlapping data bases, it seems understandable that sometimes they come up with comparable results as briefly mentioned above. Only, these results are experienced consciously in widely different ways. Further, although the two subsystems are working in parallel, they probably influence each other, because the human person appears to function as a self-organizing system.This is also brought out by more detailed studies: intuitive and spiritual ideas can be contemplated rationally and in the end give rise to rational-scientific conclusions, which may again give rise to new intuitive ideas (9), so that a progressive develpopment of knowledge occurs. Indeed, our discussions in the ISSS may be regarded as an example of this self-organizing interaction in progress.

1. Lommel, Andreas 1969, Fortschritt ins Nichts. Atlantis: Zürich. See in particular pp. 137, 156-158.

2. Ferrer, Jorge N. 2000, The Perennial Philosophy Revisited. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology Vol. 32 (1): 7-30. Many references.

3. Forman, Robert K. C. (ed.) 1997. The Problem of Pure Consciousness. Oxford University Press: New York. Chapters by Donald Rothberg, Stephen Bernhardt, and Norman Prigge & Gary Kessler.

4. Randrup, Axel 1998, The Perennial Philosophy. Lecture 42nd Annual Conference of The International Society for the Systems Sciences, 1998 Publ. on CD rom ISBN 0-9664183-0-1, eds. Janet K. Allen and Jennifer Wilby. With references.

5. Smith, Huston 1987, Is There a Perennial Philosophy? Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 55 (3): 553-566.

6. Underhill, Ruth M. 1965. Red Man’s Religion. University of Chicago Press: Chicago. USA. See particularly p. 94 and chapter 23.

7. Katz, Steven (ed.) 1992, Mysticism and Language. Oxford University Press: New York.

8. Brier, Soeren 1994, Verdensformlen der Blev Vaek. Aalborg Universitetsforlag: Aalborg, Denmark. Much on paradigmatic shifts.

9. Marchais, P., Grize, J.-B., Randrup, A. 1995, Intuition et psychiatrie. Annales Médico-Psychologique, Vol.153 (6): 369-384.

Axel A. Randrup, International Center for Interdisciplinary Psychiatric Research, CIRIP,

Spirituality & Science

British psychiatry has largely focused on the biology of mental disorder, supported over recent years by advances in the neurosciences. There has been a somewhat awkward fit with psychology, since psychology is based on the concept of mind, and how the mind and brain are related is far from clear. The view taken by many is to regard mind as epiphenomenal, on the basis that the brain itself is somehow generating consciousness.

In this model of the psyche, there is no need to postulate a soul. We are nothing but the product of our genes, as Richard Dawkins (1976) would have us believe. Such an assertion comes at the tail end of an epoch that began 300 years ago with the intellectual giants, René Descartes and Isaac Newton. Descartes set down a lasting blueprint for science, that he would hold nothing to be true unless he could prove to his satisfaction that it was true. Newton laid the foundation of a mechanical universe, in which time is absolute and space is structured according to the laws of motion, a cosmos of stars and planets all held in place by the forces of momentum and gravitation.

Both Descartes and Newton were deeply religious men. Descartes’ famous saying, “Cogito ergo sum”, led him simply to argue that God had created two classes of substance, a mental world and a physical world, while Newton spent more time engrossed in his alchemical researches than working out the laws of motion. Yet their discoveries led to an enduring split between religion and science with which we live to this day. The Church could no longer claim to understand how the universe worked, for its mediaeval cosmology had been swept aside. As the mental and physical worlds drifted further apart, God became a shadowy figure behind the scenes, whose only function was winding up the mainspring of the universe. In the past 100 years, the science of psychology has redefined the mental world along essentially humanist lines, a mind-set that can be traced back to Sigmund Freud (1927), who saw religion as a massive defence against neurosis. Even Carl Jung was careful to stay within the bounds of psychology when defining the soul as “the living thing in Man, that which lives of itself and causes life” (1959: p. 26).

Our patients have no such reservations. We know from a survey carried out by the Mental Health Foundation (Faulkner, 1997) that over 50% of service users hold religious or spiritual beliefs that they see as important in helping them cope with mental illness, yet do not feel free, as they would wish, to discuss these beliefs with the psychiatrist. Need there be such a divide between psychiatrists and their patients? If we care to look at some of the advances in physics over the past 75 years, we find good cause to think again.

In the light of quantum mechanics, Newton’s view of a physical world that is substantial, fixed and independent of mind is no longer tenable. For example, the famous wave–particle experiment shows that when a beam of light is shone through a narrow slit so that it falls on a particle detector, subatomic packets of light called quanta strike the detector screen like miniature bullets. Change the apparatus to two slits side by side and the light coming through the slits generates a wave interference pattern, just as ripples criss-cross when two stones are dropped side by side into a pond. Particles become waves and waves become particles. Both of these dimensional realities have equal validity and cannot be divorced from the consciousness of the participant–observer. This is but a window onto a greater vista, for current superstring theory postulates many more dimensions than our local space–time can accommodate.

No longer is the electron thought of as a particle that spins around the atom like a miniature solar system. Instead, it is conceptualised as ‘virtual’, being smeared throughout all space in a quantum wave that only collapses as a particle into our physical space–time when the consciousness of the observer is engaged in the act of measurement. Nor can its velocity and position ever both be known at the same time, for when the quantum wave collapses, there is only a statistical probability that the electron will turn up where it is expected. It may just materialise hundreds, thousands or even millions of miles away. When it does so, it arrives at that place instantaneously, transcending the limits of both space and time. Here is what three eminent physicists have to say.

“The fundamental process of nature lies outside space–time but generates events that can be located in space–time.” (Stapp, 1977: p. 202)

“Ultimately, the entire universe (with all its particles, including those constituting human beings, their laboratories, observing instruments, etc.) has to be understood as a single undivided whole, in which analysis into separately and independently existent parts has no fundamental status.” (Bohm, 1983: p. 174)

“The universe exists as formless potentia in myriad possible branches in the transcendent domain and becomes manifest only when observed by conscious beings.” (Goswami, 1993: p. 141)

When consciousness collapses the wave function into the space–time of our perceptual world, mind and matter arise simultaneously, like two sides of one coin. The brain, of course, is crucial in this; mind, the capacity for individual self-awareness, is constellated with each physical self. Consciousness is then perpetuated through repeated further collapse of the wave function. (The process can be compared with the individual frames of a film flowing together to create movement.) In this way, we are continually generating what we think of as ‘reality’, characterised by memories, our personal histories and an enduring sense of identity. (Fortunately for us, our shared world of sense perception has structural stability, not because it is independent of consciousness but because the probability wave from which it arises has been collectively generated by all conscious beings throughout time.)

Quantum effects show up most readily at the subatomic level, but empirical research into largescale systems has also demonstrated that mind can influence matter. For example, random number generators have been shown, over thousands of trials, to yield scores correlating with the mental intention of the experimenter (Schmidt, 1987). More striking still are those unaccountable events we call miracles. Since the wave function contains, in potentia, all that ever was, is and shall be, there is no limit in principle to what is possible. Why should not a mind of such exceptional power as that of Jesus collapse the wave uniquely and thereby turn water into wine?

Evidence for the non-locality of consciousness was first demonstrated over 25 years ago, when it was shown that experimental subjects who are emotionally attuned can synchronise their brain waves at a distance from each other (Targ & Puthoff, 1974). Remote viewing and precognition have since been firmly established on an empirical basis (Radin, 1997). The efficacy of prayer has been researched (Byrd, 1988), as have more than 150 controlled studies on healing (Benor, 1992). Such findings merit the epithet ‘paranormal’ only if we view them through Newtonian glasses. Who can therefore say what does not exist in the quantum domain, from the supreme consciousness we call God, to those sensed presences (often of the newly departed) that psychiatrists refer to as pseudo-hallucinations, down to unruly spirits that, according to the traditions of many societies, blight the lives of those they persecute?

When we enquire into the beliefs our patients hold, such matters deserve to be discussed with a genuinely open mind. We do not have the answers and indeed our patients may sometimes be closer to the truth than we know. Nor are we required to affirm a particular religious or spiritual viewpoint but simply to treat the often strange experiences told us by our patients as authentic. This can sometimes be uncomfortable, for we are trained to judge with confidence the difference between fantasy and reality and to diagnose accordingly. Yet it comes a whole lot easier once we concede the limitations of space–time, which we can do by taking an unprejudiced intellectual position or experientially through spiritual practice.

People in sound mental health, who sense that beyond the doors of perception lies a greater world, can use such awareness to enrich their lives, be it through prayer, mediumship or mystical reverie. But where there is mental turmoil, whatever its cause, that same sensitivity brings profound distress (Powell, 1988, 2000). Then the psychiatrist who takes into account biological, psychological and spiritual aspects alike is well placed to help. The stigma that so often burdens our patients is not only the result of social opprobrium. It is fuelled by the experience of estrangement from humankind, one that we as psychiatrists can surely help to overcome.


Benor, D. (1992) Healing Research: Holistic Energy Medicine and Spirituality. Munich: Helix.Bohm, D. (1983) Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London: Ark Paperbacks.

Byrd, R. C. (1988) Positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer in coronary care unit population. Southern Medical Journal, 81, 826–829.Dawkins, R. (1976) The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Freud, S. (1927) The Future of an Illusion. Reprinted (1953–1974) in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (ed. and trans. J. Strachey), vol. 21. London: Hogarth Press.

Goswami, A. (1993) The Self-Aware Universe. New York: Putnam.

Jung, C. (1959) Archetypes and the collective unconscious. In The Collected Works of C. G. Jung (Eds H. Read, Fordham & G. Alder, trans. R. F. C. Hull), Vol. 9, Pt London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Faulkner, A. (1997) Knowing Our Own Minds. London: Mental Health Foundation.

Powell, A. (1998) Soul consciousness and human suffering: psychotherapeutic approaches to healing. Journal Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 4, 101–108. ––– (2000) Beyond space and time – the unbounded psyche. In Brain and Beyond. Edinburgh: Floris Books (in press).

Radin, D. (1997) The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. New York: Harper Edge. Schmidt, H. (1987) The strange properties of psychokinesis. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 1, 103–118.

Stapp, H. P. (1977) Are superluminal connections necessary? Nuovo Cimento, 40B, 191–204.

Targ, R. & Puthoff, H. E. (1974) Information transmission under conditions of sensory shielding. Nature, 251, 602–607.

(Spirituality and science:a personal view by Andrew Powell. Andrew Powell is former consultant psychotherapist and honorary senior lecturer at the Warneford Hospital and University of Oxford. He is Chair of the Spirituality and Psychiatry Special Interest Group, Royal College of Psychiatrists (correspondence: c/o Sue Duncan, Royal College of Psychiatrists, 17 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PG)

Spirituality and Rationalism

Prolific Robert Solomon’s latest book is an upbeat reworking of The Joy of Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1999). In that earlier work, Solomon criticized contemporary Anglo-American academic philosophy for desiccating and destroying the joyful quest for wisdom that enticed him (and many others) into philosophy in the first place. In this short book, borrowing liberally from “Joy” and other published writings, Solomon seeks to provide a positive account of what philosophy, conceived in light of its rich heritage, can provide toward living a full and vibrant life here and now. What it can provide, according to Solomon, is “Spirituality” (which I shall capitalize to signal Solomon’s distinctive version), a protean category that, Hegel-like, engages and absorbs everything in sight-from passion, rationality and cosmic trust to tragedy, fatalism and the soul. It is a virtuoso performance by a masterful teacher, engagingly written and surely attractive to a popular audience. Yet its scholarly philosophical impact, as Solomon surely knows, is likely to be minimal, for reasons I will mention later.

But first, a synopsis. Spirituality is wrestled away from religion and naturalized as “the thoughtful love of life” (his “hallmark-card phrase” (ix)). Religion has apparently long seemed largely repellent to Solomon, its history “a horror story” (xiii), its dogmas incredible, its organizations dangerous, its piety stifling to true Spirituality. Instead, he seeks “a nonreligious, noninstitutional, nontheological, nonscriptural, nonexclusive sense of spirituality, one which is not self-righteous, which is not based on Belief, which is not dogmatic, which is not antiscience, which is not other-worldly, which is not uncritical or cultist or kinky.” (xii) More positively, Spirituality is both thought and passion:

Spirituality means to me the grand and thoughtful passions of life and a life lived in accordance with those grand thoughts and passions. Spirituality embraces love, trust, reverence, and wisdom, as well as the most terrifying aspects of life, tragedy, and death.” (6)

It is a “mode of being” (9) that is an “expansion of the self” (7), a Nietzschean process of self-overcoming and growth, the full rich Good Life for a human being whose only world is this world.

Chapter 1 distances Spirituality from religion, makes friendly with science, and basically identifies Spirituality with philosophy. Solomon firmly excludes recourse to anything transcending this life; views of the Beyond are stumbling metaphors, and mystical experiences are rare and ineffable, unavailable and unhelpful. “In place of the dubious purpose of transcending life, let us defend the ideal of transcending ourselves in life.” (24) Granted, traditional religion “is primarily belonging” not believing (12) (hence the essential irrelevance of theology), and this is something Solomon endorses, but the belonging he seeks includes everyone, not just some favored sect. Naturalized Spirituality is not science, but there is no conflict, only synergy, between them. Philosophy as “an attempt to come to grips with the perennial, personal, and universal human problems of meaning” (26) was once kin to Spirituality, though now it seems a distant relation. But philosophy can reclaim its rightful inheritance, by embracing myth, passion and fate. “Philosophy, as Plato clearly saw, is a spiritual practice.” (27)

Chapter 2 explores Spirituality as passion. In Solomon’s view, passion is not necessarily irrational; indeed, some passions-particularly (erotic) love, reverence and trust-are “definitive of rationality” (28). A passionate life is “defined by emotions, by impassioned engagements and quests, by embracing affections.” (29) Certain emotions, to be sure, are ruled out: envy, resentment, war hysteria, racism-even fanaticism for Texas football (31). Yet Nietzsche had it right in conceiving of “the overflowing spirituality of a passionate life” (43).

Chapter 3 examines Spirituality as “cosmic trust,” “a determined stance toward the world” (44), “. way of being in the world” (45). It is “authentic trust,” an acceptance born of experience, refined by reflection, and intentionally chosen. Once again envy and resentment emerge as the villainous opposites (53f), but beyond them lie contentment and forgiveness-indeed, “forgiving the world for the misfortunes it (inevitably) inflicts upon us.” (57)

Chapter 4 construes Spirituality as rationality, not dry abstracted thought, but engaged passionate thoughtfulness. Reason is not the enemy of the passions, but their friend. Indeed, says Solomon, “I want to suggest that reason and the passions are not only complementary. They are ultimately one and the same.” Reason thus understood is “contingent on our human natures, and on our particular cultures as well;” emotions constitute “our ultimate ends in life, the things we really do and should care about,” and reason helps to achieve those ends and thereby enrich our lives (61). Rationality is not limited to instrumental reasoning or abstract ratiocination. Nor is it the pursuit of self-interest narrowly construed. Instead, rationality is “having the right emotions, or caring about the right sorts of things” (70).

Chapter 5 is entitled “Facing Up to Tragedy,” and that is what Solomon wants philosophy to help us to do, by giving meaning to suffering. He rejects causal stories that allow us to affix blame for tragedy; concepts of justice, desert and entitlement are inapplicable, for “tragedy, not justice, is the ultimate upshot of life” (80). Since tragedy cannot be explained, Solomon foregoes all heavens and hells, however “sweet” and “understandable” they may be (82). Life is simply not fair, and we need to “embrace” tragedy “as an essential part of the life we love and for which we should be so grateful” (88).

In Chapter 6, Solomon insists that Spirituality entails a certain sort of fatalism-not a rigid determinism but something compatible with existential freedom. “Freedom, responsibility, and an acceptance of one’s fate go hand in hand and in may ways depend upon one another.” (91) Fatalism is not an excuse for lack of effort, but acceptance of what is beyond one’s control-one’s culture and times, one’s contingent yet enveloping situation. Fate is freedom’s rootedness, and the appropriate response to one’s fate should be gratitude (“an emotion,” Solomon notes with tongue in cheek, that is “too little appreciated in ethics or in philosophy generally” (104)). We should be grateful because “we are the beneficiaries of a (more or less) benign universe,” even if there is no one to whom we should be grateful: “We might say that one is grateful not only for one’s life but to one’s life-or rather to life-as well.” (105)

Chapter 7 explores the meaning of death. Spirituality accepts “death as the completion of life, as the closure that gives an individual life its narrative significance in a larger whole” (107-8). Solomon berates various philosophical and religious traditions-from ancient Egyptian to modern American-for denying death in various ways, chiefly by fleeing to a transcendent afterlife and forgetting that death will happen to oneself. But he also has critical words for those who make a fetish of death, glorying in the “death experience” (this includes not only “the S and M crowd” and Calvin Klein fashions but also Heidegger and Foucault), and those stoics for whom “death is nothing” (if this slogan implies that life is nothing). Instead, “the meaning of death comes down to the meaning of life, nothing less, and nothing more.” (119)

The culminating Chapter 8 links Spirituality to self, soul and spirit. Spirituality is “enlargement of the self” (123), expanding our self-identity (or is it our sense of identity?) from the isolated individual to the social soul-full self. (Solomon here takes a three-page excursion into Asian philosophy (130-132).) Rather than a Cartesian (or Augustinian) “vast and largely unexplored inner cavern” (133), the soul should be pictured in social terms: “One’s identity is a social construct. An identity crisis is a social crisis.” (136) Soul is not a “metaphysical eternal nugget” but a process of transformation from narrow and impoverished individuality through discipline and Spirituality to broad and rich relationship with the world (139-140).

Reactions to this book will vary with the audience. Undergraduates will enjoy Solomon’s lively prose and vivid presentation of Existentialist views that connect to their tender and burgeoning sense of self. Humanists hankering to talk about the meaning of their lives-or seeking a “philosophy of life”-without recourse to transcendence will gladly join in Solomon’s quest for wisdom and a “thoughtful love of life.” People who retain, or seek, a sense of transcendence will be alternately bemused by Solomon’s tethering of spirit to this world and appalled at his broad-brush caricatures of religion.

But what about Anglo-American (chiefly but not solely “analytic”) academic philosophers? Since they are the targets of much of Solomon’s polemics, will they rise up in wounded indignation to set him straight? Not likely. More probably, their reaction will be a collective shrug, and then back to business. Solomon simply has not presented a case in ways that they will find clear and cogent enough to engage. It is not that he writes turgid prose; on the contrary. The problem rather is his affinity for thinking, as he puts it in the Introduction, “in the spirit of Hegel,” where large concepts and themes are painted with broad brushes, layered over with colorful anecdotes, and connected by the copula “is” to many apparently quite different concepts. Thus Spirituality for Solomon is identified in one way or another with philosophy, rationality, passion, fate, self, soul, reverence, trust, contentment, forgiveness, and Lord knows what else. In this kind of light, everything “is” something else, maybe everything else, and careful analysis of distinctions and connections goes out the window. Moreover, almost everything is grist for Solomon’s mill-from Heidegger to Lao Tzu to TV shows-with little concern for levels of depth and significance. Solomon’s popularity comes at a price.

In a way the inevitable neglect of this book by professional philosophers is a pity, for Solomon is pursuing broad and vital themes that could well be engaged by others, for both private and public benefit. Moreover, the fault lies on both sides. Solomon would point a nagging finger at academic professionals, so caught up in their scholastic desk jobs that they have lost all sense of philosophy as a way of life. But Solomon needs to make a more enticing offer to these academics-by entering into their painstaking labors of analysis and argument. There is much in his work that a sensitive contemporary thinker who has given up on transcendence can enjoy. But there is much more work-more rigorous and careful work-to be done before that enjoyment can become truly philosophical enlightenment.


Solomon, Robert C., Spirituality for the Skeptic: The Thoughtful Love of Life, Oxford University Press, 2002, 159pp, $26.00 (hbk), ISBN 0195134672 (Reviewed by William Lad Sessions, Washington and Lee University)