Sunday 18 September 2022

Outside-in: My current philosophical endeavor

Slowly re-reading Owen Barfield's Worlds Apart (1963); I have become much more aware of a major metaphysical difference between Barfield's world view, and the usual assumptions of modern Man. Or, rather, I have become more aware of its importance. 

This is the difference between inside-out and outside-in

Our usual practice for explaining something is inside-out. 

We start by assuming an inner core or essence; and then regard this as changing that which is outside. Thus, our identity is regarded as inside us, and (it is supposed) DNA (inside the fertilized egg) is assumed to build an organism around itself. In classical geometry - we start by defining a point, then a plane, then 3D shapes...

But there is another way of explaining: from the outside-in. In geometric terms, projective geometry is an outside-in set of primary assumptions, entailing a different conceptualization of 3D space. 

For instance, in describing the development of organisms, many of the most thoughtful biologists have been impelled to assume that there are influences from outside: this is why Rupert Sheldrake was impelled to posit morphogenetic fields, within-which organisms were shaped. 

But Sheldrake remains within a positivist framework; and the Romantic Christian can more simply and comprehensibly assume some combination of the spiritual being (extending beyond the body) shaping the physical body within; in the context of the divine work of creation - which can work from outwith the body being formed. Thus morphogenesis and development generally, combine inner and outer influences. 


Where are we - our-selves? 

Usually, the assumption is that we our inside our heads, in our brains - somewhere behind the eyes. But many people have experiences (of many kinds) that suggest our-selves extend beyond the surface of our bodies - in particular that we may experience (apparently) being aware of things beyond our senses.

I think it likely that we can be non-sensorily (i.e. directly, unmediated) aware of other beings - other living, purposive, conscious entities. 

Most obviously we may be aware of other people in our environment; but also (sometimes) animals, plants; and indeed things are are generally supposed Not to be alive - such as aspects of landscape and environment (e.g. mountains, rivers; and indeed man-made entities such as cities).

I have said awareness extends beyond our bodies - but I would add that it does tend to diminish with distance; so that we are more aware of that which is nearer. 

However, awareness seems to be extendable (perhaps without any absolute limit) when there is some kind of sympathetic resonance - at strongest love, more weakly familiarity - between beings. Thus we may become aware of some remote being by attuning, imagining, or in some way symbolically depicting - in a nutshell, thinking about that being.  

Is this plausible and, if so, how is it possible? The answers depend (as usual) on what we have chosen as our fundamental metaphysical assumptions concerning the nature of reality. I tend to assume that originally we were spiritual beings that lived in a constant, unconscious, spontaneous and immersive state of non-sensory awareness of other beings - and with very little self-awareness. We were thus, largely, passively borne-along by the oceanic tides of created reality.  

Part of what made us the self-conscious and detached-feeling beings we are now, was exactly the exclusion of awareness of surrounding beings. We shut our-selves up in our bodies; and interacted more-and-more exclusively via our senses. 

Thus, modern man is all-but insensible concerning the living and purposive nature of his environment - which is perhaps how he can live in such spiritually hostile situations as the modern city, housing and workplace - in spiritual situations that may be almost unbearable (and, at least, very unpleasant) to a young child, an innocent tribal person - or someone who has re-opened his direct spiritual awareness.

The idea is that we all originally lived passively and without choice in a situation of direct (not sensory) spiritual awareness; but en route to becoming free agents we needed to cut-ourselves-off from this. But only en route, and as a transient phase, was this necessary. 

From where we now are the task is uncompleted, and we each need to make the choice to become directly aware of the beings that surround us, at all times and in all places. 

This requires a shift of attention, but since this awareness is not sensory, we should not focus on sensory input - nor indeed on memories that are remembrance of sensory knowledge.  

Furthermore, we should assume that this knowledge and awareness arises as primary thinking - neither in the form of inner perceptions (such as innerly-perceived visions or voices); nor in terms of symbols (such as inner language)... instead by direct apprehension; by thinking arising in our own thinking.  

Instead we may focus on our "feelings" - more exactly our spiritual responses to other beings; because these are often a non-conscious residual impression of direct awareness. For example, by becoming aware of our previously unconscious feelings; we may discover that we have discernments concerning the goodness or evil of another person (or other being), or the rightness or wrongness of some action. We may become aware of our environment - its threats, or its sustaining and educative aspects.  

In terms of meditation; once we have internalized the idea that we are not 'inside looking out' but that instead direct awareness of other (including spiritual) beings sometimes comes from outside-in, and that we must consciously choose to connect with this knowledge; then we will realize that many traditional meditative techniques and goals are likely to be counter-productive. And may find other directions and ways of spiritual striving that serve our purposes more helpfully. 


Francis Berger said...

This is very interesting, but I am unclear about the following:

"I tend to assume that originally we were spiritual beings that lived in a constant, unconscious, spontaneous and immersive state of non-sensory awareness of other beings - and with very little self-awareness. We were thus, largely, passively borne-along by the oceanic tides of created reality."

Is this a description of what Barfield termed Original Participation or the primordial void in which beings exist before God "creates" them into Creation? It seems to be the latter. If it is, then it may be inaccurate to describe that as a part of created reality.

Sorry for the nitpicking - I just want to make sure I properly understand.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Francis - Yes, it is original participation; and yes it is part of created reality - because outwith creation is no meaning, purpose or possibility of knowledge. It is simply an earlier era of creation for Men, than now.

Francis Berger said...

@ Bruce - Thanks. I appreciate the clarification.

Jonathan said...

I didn't know Sheldrake was a positivist. I guess I just assumed that he interprets his morphogenetic fields the same way I do, as evidence of a spirit and a "force of life" shaping the development of an organism just as much as the DNA and physical processes do. I don't know why he wouldn't take the obvious next step from morphogenetic fields to spirit.

You say that "the assumption is that we our inside our heads, in our brains - somewhere behind the eyes", which is true, but I recall reading accounts of hunter-gatherers who said they experience themselves as centered behind the solar plexus (or thereabouts). Perhaps as daily life (as it changed from pre-agricultural times to the modern era) became more visual/auditory and less reliant on touch, our sense of our own locus moved up into the head.

Bruce Charlton said...

@J - It would me more accurate to point out that Sheldrake retains considerable positivistic elements. For example, in his discussion of fields he does not mention God, nor does he refer to any overall divine purpose to 'life' - and the fields are Just There, as if a final explanation. On the other hand Sheldrake is much less positivistic than most, and regards himself as Not being positivistic! In other words, an example of what Barfield terms Residual Unresolved Positivism (which we almost all are - but should be acknowledging, repenting and moving towards full repudiation).

Bruce Charlton said...

@J - About a decade ago I exchanged some e-mails with Sheldrake (when he, generously, read and commented on a paper I was writing) in which I said that I regarded his work on morphogenetic fields as implicitly metaphysics; and that it did not really make sense to present it as science. (No amount of 'evidence' can by its nature require a change in metaphysical assumptions.)

I recall that he agreed, but said that it would not be effective to try and discuss metaphysics... I don't recall the details, but the idea was that he was trying to do metaphysics while keeping the discussion at the level of evidence and proofs. I think I said that I thought he ought to be explicit about his suggestion of a change in the metaphysical assumptions of science; but RS's attitude was that this strategy would be futile, since nobody would take any notice.

Similarly, in 2012 RS published The Science Delusion, which proposed ways of reforming existing science; whereas I published Not Even Trying - which stated that real science had ended (except among scattered amateurs), because professional research was corrupted in its aims and honesty.

So my criticism of Sheldrake is that he tries to pursue a middle path of compromise, reform, and reasonableness; whereas I regard the situation as essentially corrupted (and enlisted to evil) far beyond the reach of gradual reforms - and that (here and now) nothing short of a transformed metaphysics (different basic assumptions regarding the nature of reality) can be of value.

John said...

If anything the external soul theory was a theory of "already a Buddha, already in Nibbana, just haven't realized it yet" and the theory that the spirit is unchanging (as in Vedanta) but emanates forth successive temporary souls that change. Ultimately a nihilistic theory that denies any need of the True Self to change, and denies any ultimate importance to any change made in itself by the ephemeral self. Its a doctrine of non-action. I can't conceive any good reason ultimately to entertain such a theory beyond a 5 min thought excercise but to prop up such a doctrine of non-action. It exists only to deny any need for spiritual purification of any sort. But for what you are interested in it would be sufficient to believe once humans uncomsciously extended their souls further outside their bodies (you could posit the ability to feel when someone is staring at you or too close is this). In terms of the Buddhist denial this could even be termed the body being in the soul, as in their denial "the self is not in the body nor the body in the self." It could be the soul is in the body with the ability to extrude beyond the body, or that the body is in the soul to begin with.

Bruce Charlton said...

@J "what you suggest here, i.e. that the soul is external to the body and controlling it from outside."

I do not suggest that - nor do I believe it.

"It could be the soul is in the body with the ability to extrude beyond the body"

'Extrude' seems a misleading picture-model. I see it much more as a gradient: the soul concentrated within the body but/and radiating-out diffusely, in a diminishing way.

the outrigger said...

This post sent me scurrying for my notes on Saving the appearances as that *out to in* turn of his mind was what struck me…(eventually). And stuck!

I had/have the impression of being perfectly out of phase with Barfield; provided I remember when he is on the exhalation I am on the inhalation, I can read him. Possibly. The way in is the way out is the way in.

I had a similar sense of having to read this post out of phase (e.g., what is *withdrawn* re ‘remote tribals’ and ‘urban moderns’ is near on the polar opposite of how I understand it). No matter. I look forward to the next installment.

ben said...

Surely whether it's inside-out or outside-in or both, a person is right where they are. Right there! It seems to me that anything else would render God an implicit liar. How can people not be their faces, and humanoid forms, and fingers and toes, and such. As well as their voices, expressions, thinking, feelings.

This is probably another case of children and primitives having a better grasp of reality in some ways than people who can think more abstractly.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ben "This is probably another case of children and primitives having a better grasp of reality in some ways than people who can think more abstractly."

I can remember as a young child feeling that I was somewhat present in the surroundings around myself, aware beyond my body - but not via senses. Also I took for granted some kind of implicit 'telepathy' - that I could know other peoples thoughts, and vice versa. And this 'comes out' with brain impairment (delirium) and some kinds of psychosis as 'paranoia'.

That's what I am getting at; as something we might try to recover or reconstruct (because it is still there), but consciously - in thinking.