In previous posts on Free Will I have characterized the human mind as a kind of benevolent oracle that speaks the truth when asked to prognositcate on a future events and can plan ways of avoiding these future events by thinking up alternative courses of action. This generous description is certainly true compared to our reports of the Delphic oracle, or a deceptive Cartesian daimon, but in truth, the human mind is not always such an attentive listener. Though it of course becomes more and more “user-friendly” the more we exercise it, the fact remains that our oracle can be coy, obfuscatious and can be a down right hostile witness sometimes! However, the conscious ego is quite clever itself, and can often find a way around such a cognitive filibuster.
Carl Jung noted this cognitive work-around in his introduction to the I Ching, a book of divination (literally an oracle preserved in print). Jung writes, “any person of clever and versatile mind can turn the whole thing around and show how I have projected my subjective contents into the symbolism of the hexagrams. Such a critique, though catastrophic from the standpoint of Western rationality, does no harm to the function of the I Ching. On the contrary, the Chinese sage would smilingly tell me: ‘Don’t you see how useful the I Ching is in making you project your hitherto unrealized thoughts into its abstruse symbolism?’”
Sometimes the resources of our conscious mind fall short of being able to simulate how we might think or feel in a given situation. Sometimes we actually don’t want to know the answer, though we ask the question anyway. In these cases, the unconscious can be made to divulge its secrets by a little slight of hand. Certainly, we have all had experiences of serendipitous coincidence. Because these stick out so prominently against a backdrop of random events and absurd coincidences, they seem more meaningful, as if someone, somewhere were trying to communicate with us or help us. In fact, this is not far from the truth, but instead of looking out towards the heavens, we should be looking in towards the deep, dark unconscious for an explanation. When we leave the house to think over a hard problem and are surprised to see a pattern in the wisps of cloud, or run into a chatty subway passenger who seems to be unwittingly talking precisely about our problem, or receive a reassuring phone call from a loved one just in time to prevent our acting on the despair that our problem fills us with, we are in fact experiencing a cosmic and mysterious communication from the noumenal world. Unlike our usual empirical perceptions, this message is coming from within the body as “thing-in-itself.” It is not originating on the surface of an object and traveling first through the media of air, water, or electromagnetic fields, but is instead originating from within your body and directly traveling through it as medium. Put less metaphysically, it is simply an oblique message from our own unconscious mind telling us some fact about ourselves that we didn’t know yet.
If you were looking for guidance on what career to pursue, and you consulted the I Ching, the New Testament, or Tolstoy’s War and Peace and were actually hit by a mysterious epiphany, you are most probably touching a deep truth about yourself. Ever wonder why god or the I Ching seems to know exactly which way you were leaning on that decision, even though you couldn’t articulate why you were leaning that way or really even admit it to yourself? It is because your oracle knows much more about your mind (the oracle itself) than the conscious part of that mind (your conscious ego) is privy to. If you see the visage of Christ in a piece of toast, your oracle is telling you that you really want to find Christ. If you run into a random acquaintance who gives you a piece of advice that sends chills down your spine about something that they couldn’t possibly know about you, disregard their advice but preserve and analyze your response to it as if it had come form the almighty, because the truth that you have discovered came from an even better source: yourself! You are of course free to interpret such coincidences any way you like. In fact, it is sometimes better to go with supernatural explanations in order to better hack a stubborn oracle and in this way literally squeeze truth out of pure deception.
But here’s the thing. The conscious mind has to provide the “deception.” Just like the “unrealized thoughts” could only be coaxed out via an earnest effort by the conscious mind to engage with some “abstruse symbolism” in the case of Jung’s I Ching readings, so the conscious mind must provide a disingenuous but yet earnest effort to decipher some complex pattern or situation in order to coax out projections of his unconscious mind more generally. Isn’t this why people go for a “walkabout,” or just take a long drive, or start drinking out on the town? They want to get lost so that they are forced to process way too much information, inevitably get confused, and in that confusion of half-digested patterns, problems, and distractions, coax out a solution from deep inside–one that felt like it came from their intestines, but looked like it came from god. Other people might just smoke a joint or procure a hallucinogenic drug of some kind. Huxley’s view of such cognitive experiments starts with a description of the mind as a remarkably good filter of reality, which only provides practically necessary information to the conscious mind while disregarding most of the other impressions from the world. If one were to blunt this fantastic filtering device, he suggests, one would allow more “pure perception” to flow through your cognitive filters, thus realizing more of reality. Whether through purposeful exhaustion, fasting, getting lost, or taking drugs, it is quite possible to weaken your unconscious mind’s ability to keep things repressed. I am all for insight and psychological integration, though I may shy away from some of the more drastic measures used to attain it, and I have a lot of respect for those who can achieve it, by whatever means, given the endemic diffulty of the task.
This endemic difficulty does, however, raise interesting questions about books like the I Ching, given their reported success. The writers of the I Ching must have been profoundly insightful students of the human mind. How seamlessly and with what great fidelity the book manages to interface with human minds who are separated from the above writers by millenia of cultural evolution! To bypass weeks of sleep deprivation, fasting, drunken wandering, or concerted introspection with a few coin tosses and a couple pages of reading is no small feat! This view of the I Ching makes it seem merely like a remarkably well-engineered and successful Rorschach test though, which doesn’t exactly do justice to the quality of the book. Richard Dawkins describes the genome as “info, a book on ‘how to survive and reproduce in that prior environment.'” We tend to think of our genes as our essence in some sense, though we understand that nurture will also shape the development of the phenotype. When we have a baby we think that we have given them a very real part of our fundamental being; that the baby not only has “our” nose, but also some of our mental qualities like stubbornness or mental acuity. However, we can also pass on various mental qualities and states through the nurture side of the equation by talking with our children, interacting with them, or writing a book for them. In fact, many people feel as if they are passing on their intellectual essence through producing various works of literature, insofar as the work contains enough of their subjective mental states (opinions, gut feelings, personal experiences, beliefs and so forth) that their mind can literally be reproduced in the reader to some degree of fidelity. These people may take Schopenhauer literally when he says that “reading is equivalent to thinking with someone else’s head instead of with one’s own.” Without suggesting some kind of reincarnation of souls through an “avatar,” I would posit that Schopenhauer is quite right. We can understand other people’s minds, reproducing models of them with high fidelity sometimes and it is not entirely absurd to think that you are in some way passing on a part of yourself to posterity when you write a memoir or produce a book infused with the greater part of your experience and understanding. In fact, if your genome is essentially “info,” as Dawkins tells us, and information can be imprinted on a vast array of different physical media—from brains to hard drives to hardcover books—then wouldn’t it be possible to transfer part of your essence via other physical media as well? The reason I bring this up is not to suggest that the writers of the I Ching somehow fomented immortality by transferring their genetic essence into the book, but instead to suggest that the book surprisingly matches Dawkins’ description of the genome: that it is information in a book “on how to survive and reproduce in that prior environment.” This shouldn’t be very controversial, as whatever one’s metaphysical beliefs about the Bible, it is nonetheless a book on how to flourish in a prior environment. However, I would argue that the I Ching is much more successful to that end because whatever it lacks in outright rules or specific descriptions of ancient environments, it more than makes up for by distilling the essential, apparently unchanging patterns that human beings will face in any age, thus rendering it easier to relate to because it is less encumbered by ancient parochial idiosyncrasies. Not only must the I Ching function as a remarkably suggestive Rorschach test, but it must also confront the reader each time with not mere complexity, but a complex pattern of elements in a context that will most likely have something to do with whatever is bothering them, regardless of which millennium they live in! Though Dawkins asserts that some of the operations of the genome act like a blueprint, as the product could be reverse engineered because of a one-to-one correspondence between its components and that of its blueprint, he emphatically asserts that the genome is more like a recipe, as the product lacks a one-to-one correspondence between its parts and that of the recipe. In much the same way the I Ching is like the product of a recipe instead of a blueprint; a collection of ingredients that are mixed together when we toss the coins, ingested when we read, and that manages to nourish us with information about how to survive in an earthly environment. If you try to digest the I Ching like you would the Bible, by reverse engineering the instructions in the blueprint, you will likely be very disappointed to find that it is neither a blueprint nor a recipe for a flourishing life, but is rather a generous helping of memetic material whose brilliant recipe need not be reverse engineered at all. It somehow distills the essential qualities of the human condition (and by extension its environment) into a sort of instruction packet that is communicable and adapts to any environment which it finds itself in. How remarkable! Perhaps I should simply defer to William Faulkner here, who asserts that “the aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again.” Though I would hesitate to say that the book is alive, it does seem to rank among a curious set of mysterious objects like the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001 that can catalyze psychological evolution. There is a trivial way in which all art can do this by acting like a springboard for the imagination–feeding it interesting materials to build with. Stare long enough at a Pollack painting and you might come to a realization or see an interesting pattern. The worlds sacred literature, however, offers catalysis in a less than trivial way. The I Ching, for instance, is a springboard that accosts the inquiring ego with just the right materials, creating a fertile environment for connection with the self. Perhaps the worlds sacred recipes or blueprints contain good summaries of what mankind has discovered about his true nature over the centuries by such methods of inquiry, among others. However, given the discrepancies between them all, it seems clear that great religious thinkers and ordinary people alike often make the mistake of taking a particular truth for a universal one. For example, it is true that cheese cake really is “good” for you (nutritionally it is energy-dense), but if we find ourselves shoving one down our throat every day we have probably taken a particular truth for a universal one.
Despite how remarkably good such devices are at fostering personal breakthroughs or insight, the problem of course with any form of self-deception is that you run the risk of doing too good of a job. One can convince himself to pursue a course of action that deep down he knows to be against his long term interests (cheesecake is good!) much more easily through “hacking his oracle” than through sober, consistent introspection. However, I find it remarkable that personal breakthroughs are so consistently reported through the use of sacred literature, which suggests that whoever wrote this literature did have a good understanding of human nature and the human condition. Also interesting is the fact that my own description of what is really going on in such cases doesn’t differ very dramatically from what a religious person may believe is going on. I surmise that one is coming into greater and greater contact with his true self, with the most integrated picture of his various psychological components. In this sense, his “true self” is his best self. Isn’t this precisely what a Christian might believe about finding meaning in experiences of coincidence, revelation, and inspiration through contact with the scriptures, prayer, or another person? They believe that they are accessing the “divine spark,” the “holy spirit,” or some aspect that we share with god. In any case, they believe they are accessing their best possible self, all metaphysical trappings aside, and on this much we can agree. This similarity between my own psychological journey and most people’s explicitly religious one paved the way for a possibly better way of relating to the meaning of religion.
I used to have trouble relating to or imagining what people meant by god, despite the fact that I have even had what some may call a “religious experience,” in the sense of an experience where I lost my sense of self and was aware of my interconnection with all of material existence. However, this experience of melting into the cosmos, of realizing how grand it is in comparison to my puny habitual mind, is a remarkably similar feeling to what I now believe religious people to be seeking. Just like the vast expanses of interstellar space loom over and around us, inspiring us and so forth, so the unconscious mind looms over and around us, inspiring awe, sometimes revelation, and quite often fear. Perhaps this is what the “god hole” really is: the realization that our conscious mind is incomplete and may just be the tip of a much larger cognitive iceberg. Perhaps this sneaking suspicion has literally been haunting humanity for millenia and gave rise to the concept of god. The Hindu concepts of Brahman and Atman would thus be a symbolic projection of the bicameral structure of consciousness! I initially thought of the “god hole” as perhaps an artifact of the experience of having parents who always had more information and whose intellectual powers dwarfed ours. However, these were accessible beings whom we could talk to and whose presence hopefully was not mysterious or ominous to most of us, especially after we became adults ourselves. The unconscious mind, however, is something that we all come to experience as we grow up that is mysterious and quite ominous. The unconscious actually matches many other criteria typically associated with god. The subconscious mind knows us better than we know ourselves, has computing capacity beyond what we can consciously utilize, ferries thoughts, inspiration, and feeling across the divide into consciousness, and when coaxed into the world of conscious experience it can produce a blissful feeling of oneness—that is, a relaxing of the tensions between various parts of the mind such that they are better integrated with each other and work better as a whole. If this intuition is true that our religious impulse is in fact an artifact of the bicameral structure of consciousness, then it should not surprise us that people report many experiences in explicitly religious terms that a psychologist would simply describe as insight or self-integration. However, even an experience that a psychologist might write off as a hallucination is not without its wisdom. A man who sees the face of Jesus in a piece of toast and feels comforted to know that he is not alone, that he has some cosmic connection to a greater power and so forth is having a profoundly true experience! He is not in fact alone, for he has himself to discover and grow closer to and this is a connection with a greater power, whom in deed was the source of the projected face of Jesus on the piece of toast and was trying to communicate with him. This view sheds light on the nature and appeal of prayer as well. Prayer is not a pointless activity even if there is no personal god on the other end of the line, because there is at least someone on the other end of the line; namely your oracle or unconscious mind. People may obtain the same benefit from a therapist or trusted friend, but even these cases are often predicated on a prerequisite amount of deep soul-searching, which prayer is a form of.