Episode 10: Consciousness

What follows here is a transcription of the above video by John Vervaeke
(Sectioning and transcripts made by MeaningCrisis.co)

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Welcome back to awakening from the meaning crisis. The last time we were talking more about mindfulness and trying to get an account of how mindfulness can bring about an insight. Not just a single insight into a single problem, but a modal insight, a systematic insight that is fully transformative of the Agent and Arena relationship, and bring about the alleviation of existential distress, and the affordness of enhanced meaning. And we took a look at that by getting into the machinery of attention, and seeing that attention involves two kinds of "attentional scaling". Attention in/evolves an ability to engage in a transparency-opacity shift, and also breaking up gastault into features, scaling down - the kind of thing we can enhance in meditation.

But it also involves an ability to scale up. To move from featured to Gastalt and to go from looking at something to looking more deeply into reality. And that in mindfulness, in meditation we're practicing the scaling down to break inappropriate framing and scaling up to train making better framing, and that if we can optimize by learning how to fluently flow between the two - bringing in an aspect of fluency and flow that we've already talked about - then we could optimize our capacity for much more comprehensive insight and we could take it.../ If we could take it to the depths of our-self, like we do in the pure consciousness event and the depths of reality and the resonant 'at-onement', if we could integrate those, optimize between them, we could bring about Prajñā a kind of non-duality that would be potentially transformative of the whole Agent-Arena relationship, dissipate modal confusion, enhance meaning in life by bringing about one of the most powerful kinds of mystical experience give people a sense of enhanced real-ness that will challenge, encourage and empower them to transform all of their existence and bring about a tremendous increase in meaning in life.

[We] talked about some recent cognitive science including some of my own theoretical and experimental work that seems to be supporting the claim that these higher states of consciousness can bring about these quantum changes, these radical kinds of transformative experience.

So today I want to talk about that. I want to talk about [the] transformative experience and the pivotal and really brilliant work of L.A. Paul on the notion of Transformative Experience. But before I do that we have to step back and talk a little bit about altered states of consciousness. We have to talk a little bit about what we mean by an altered state of consciousness, what we mean by this kind of transformation. And that gets us into one of the most difficult problems. David Chalmers famously called it the Hard Problem of consciousness. Arthur Schopenhauer called it the world not trying to explain consciousness is like trying to explain God. It is one of the hardest problems. I'm not going to endeavor to do all of that, although I'm going to try and make use of some of the work that myself and Anderson Todd and Richard Wu have put into trying to understand at least some of the important functions and properties of consciousness and why altered states of consciousness can be so affording of radical transformative experience.

So one way to do this is to look at two sort of questions we can ask ourselves. One is what is consciousness? How does something like consciousness emerge out of the brain? That's sort of the nature of consciousness. And a lot of people are doing a lot of work on that. And then we can also ask questions about what's the function of consciousness? What does consciousness do? Those aren't the same question. Because you may be surprised to hear that we don't have a consensus on what consciousness to justice does. Most people know that consciousness is a mystery. But most people don't realize that what consciousness does is also a mystery. I mean think about it this way: You love your consciousness. You identify with it. You don't just - and you don't know your consciousness the way you know other things. You know your consciousness by being conscious! Like if I ask you if your conscious right now you are. How did you do that. You just are conscious. And you know that you're conscious knowing and being - remember Aristotle conformity? - are the same. You participate in your consciousness.

And what would you give it up for? What if have I said to you "you could have unlimited power and wealth. All you have to sacrifice is any consciousness of it!" Would you take the deal? Of course not. But what does it do? Well you say "well it's Obvious!". No it's not obvious. Because you can do, and you [can] do most of your things, without consciousness. I have no understanding, no conscious awareness I should say - I have some scientific understanding - I have no conscious awareness of what my brain is doing that is allowing me to generate speech. Do you? You don't. This complex sophisticated thing that we still can't get artificial intelligence to do well. It's happening almost completely unconsciously.

What is Consciousness for and What Does it Do?

What's my consciousness for? What does it do? So, two really important questions. How does something as mysterious and strange arise out of matter (That's the nature question)? And what does it do? Again I am not going to presume or dare to try and answer these comprehensively. I don't need that for what we're doing here because I'm not trying to solve the hard problem of consciousness. I'm trying to solve the hard problem of meaning. One hard problem at a time please. But what I want to do is show you how a convergence of work that - some of the best work that's being done on consciousness - points towards something that will tell us why altered states of consciousness can be so valuable to us. So what about - one of the best accounts for the function of consciousness is called the Global workspace theory.

So the idea is that your consciousness functions very much like the desktop of your computer. So here's the idea you have your desktop (draws image on the board) and then you have all your files. And what you can do is you can activate a file you can bring that information into the desktop and you can activate this file and bring it into the desktop and then these pieces of information can interact with each other and then you can broadcast back to any or all or just one file the changes you brought about. That's how your desktop works. That's how you use it. Well what's the analogy? The analogy is here's all of your unconscious processing in your brain and what you do is you retrieve it, bring it into a space - something like working memory - you activate it so that the pieces of information can interact with each other and then you broadcast it back to any and all of the existing files.

Why do you want to do that? Why do you do it on your computer? Well you don't want all of your files active at the same time because that's a disaster. You want to be able - and notice what's going on here... You want to be able to select certain pieces of information that are relevant, bring them together, transform them in a way that's relevant and then broadcast the changes back that are needed. So the global workspace theory says this is - and it's gaining a lot of empirical evidence to support it - says this is what consciousness is functioning to do. Now this is very general. So more specifically - and so this theory is associated with Baars and then there was a paper by Shanahan and Baars that more specifically tried to answer the question about "yeah, but why this machinery?" (pointing at 'desk top' schematic/drawing on the board). Baars also published an attempt to answer that question more specifically in the Cambridge Handbook of consciousness. What it comes down to is the idea that what this architecture (schematics on board) is helping to do is to solve a problem that's called the "frame problem". Now I'm going to talk much later specifically what the frame problem is, so put a pin in it - we're going to come back to it. But the basic idea here is: What this is doing is helping you to zero in on relevant information. And that's very, very important because there are three areas in which this is a huge issue.

The Three Important Areas Being Worked With..

One is all of the information that's available to me right now - we're got to have to talk about this later, but technically, mathematically the amount of information that's available in this room is astronomically vast, and I can't... I can't make use of all of it. I get overwhelmed by it. So part of what I have to do is select out of all of that information what information I'm going to make use of. (2) I also have a huge amount of information in my memory. Overwhelming. It's vast, and possible ways it could be connected... I have to select from some of that. (3) And then I have to put those pieces of information together in all the ways I can put together the information and from out there and the information about here... All so vast and overwhelming. Later on I'm going to give you mathematical arguments about this. Right now I just need you to get it intuitively.

So what consciousness is doing is it's helping these problems. It's helping you zero in on the relevant information. The relevant information from out there, the relevant information from in here and the relevant information that will help put those pieces of information together for you in the way that it's needed. Just like you do that. You do that with your computer. You search through your memory, you select what's relevant, you bring it onto the desktop, you put it together in a relevant manner right and then you use it in a relevant way. But we can't use a homunculus explanation - there's no little man running inside! What's doing all of that in a self organizing fashion is your consciousness. This helps to explain why consciousness is so tightly associated with working memory, and working memory is so tightly associated with intelligence.

The Core Function

The core function of consciousness seems to be to help you realize, become aware of, actualize, put into action, 'Relevance': relevant information. We're going to come back to this in more depth. There's a more neuroscientific and psychological account by people like Bor and Seth. When we measure when people are conscious it seems to correlate with certain kinds of brain activity. What kind of brain [activity]? The brain activity that seems to be involved when people are chunking information or when they are restructuring it, like an insight. I've already showing you this. This ability to manipulate attention to afford insight. They're arguing that that's one of the key functions of conscious. But what does... what is all of that doing? It's the same thing right? The Bor and Seth model is basically saying the [that] function of consciousness is to give you a dynamic improvement in your ability to zero in on relevant information. One of the most prominent theories of the nature of consciousness right now is Tononi's is "Integrated Information Theory".

Integrated Information Theory

Now his theory is not about the function of consciousness it's about the nature of consciousness. But of course he's going to give a derived account of the function. What is consciousness according to him? It's how powerfully integrated pieces of information are. How much one piece of information in your brain is causally dependent on interacting and affecting other pieces of information in your brain. The more tightly the integration, the more powerful the processing, then what he would say is the more likely that complex, as he calls it because it's actually a complexification of information, is going to be affording consciousness. But then when you ask him "Well why is consciousness... Why...? 'That' might be what consciousness is...", I Think there's much more to consciousness, but for the sake of argument, "...that might be what consciousness is. But why is consciousness doing this massive complexification of information?" So he actually proposes something like a Turin test for consciousness. He says "you can test to see how conscious a system is by giving it anomalous pictures and figuring out if the pictures don't make good sense." Here, look, here's the idea: When I'm complexifying, when I'm doing this very dynamic integration of information, what that's tracking is how much I'm actually picking up on the patterns in the world; making sense of the world! The reason why I'm doing this (IIT) is precisely because I'm trying to, as best I can, track the complexity of the world.

So what's the main function? Well, the main function of the Integrated Information is to allow you to determine if pieces of information are relevant to each other and relevant to you. What consciousness seems to be... Now let's be careful: what I'm not saying, I'm not saying that every instance of relevance realization is consciousness. What I'm arguing is that what consciousness seems to do is the following: It seems to be a way in which you can coordinate attention and other related abilities of awareness so as to optimize how insightfully you can make sense of your world. So that's why you need consciousness for complex situations that require insight for situations and problems that have a high degree of novelty or challenge in them. It's why you can reduce consciousness when the problem has become very well-defined for you, it doesn't have a high degree of novelty, it doesn't require insight.

Sizing Up

I don't know if this is a complete account of the function of consciousness but it explains something we've already noted. That when you have an insight what do you have? You have a flash. It's like you get a sudden brightening of consciousness. It explains why you might want to alter your state of consciousness because if I alter my state of consciousness I'm going to alter what I'm finding relevant and how it is standing out for me: how it is salient for me. Let's put a lot of this stuff together: the machinery we had about attention; stuff we've talked about about fluency; stuff we talked about salience, and notice of phenomena that Matson called "Sizing up". Right.

Part of what's happening, part of what consciousness is doing, is it's creating a salience landscape for me. What does that mean for me? Well, first of all I'm picking out, out of all of the things I could pick out - and when I say "I" don't mean "me", I mean "my consciousness", I'm picking out some features ("Featurization" written on the board). You are not paying attention to every piece of information in this room. You can't. It's overwhelmingly vast. But you pick out on some. And then what you do, also is you begin... so you've already selected and you start to prioritize it and you foreground ("foregrounding" written on the board) some of it. So for example, presumably, I'm for grounded and what's around me is backgrounded. And of course we've already seen it's going both ways. Remember that right? And notice again what I'm looking at, what I'm looking through, and I'm taking the features and I'm starting to foreground them and then I'm going to gestalt those features. I'm going to "figure" (written on board) I'm going to create a figure. We use this language of "figuring out", figuring out, and making something... you're... I'm making it stand out even more (more salient to me) and I'm also configuring, con-figuring it together. So all the features, and then foregrounded, then this (cup) is getting configured (changes figure on board to "figuration"). This also is feeding back (Figuration -> Featurization). And then of course I'm "framing" problems ("framing" written on the board beyond feedback). I'm framing problems; we've been talking about that all through this series. So you've got a very complex dynamical system at work.

So what's happening right now is your consciousness is creating a salience landscape. Some things are rising up out of unintelligibility as features that are getting for grounded and configured. And then you're framing problems around them and then things are shifting and and your attention is shifting around. Other things are becoming sa[lient] and you've got this highly textured, highly flowing, salience landscape. That's what it's like to be here right now.

Now there's more going on of course, right? So part of what I'm doing, I get this salience landscape and my problem is around the cup, but I'm not quite sure, so I move around it. I try to get into an optimal position. If I get too close I lose too much of the gastalt, and if I get too far away I may see the whole thing but I'm losing the details. I need to get to the right place where I can metaphorically and also literally in this sense get what ***Marla Aponte?*** Calls "An Optimal Grip" on it. So what I'm trying to do is I'm trying to get... I'm optimizing between gestalt and feature; between looking through and looking at; I'm optimizing within this whole sizing up. So I'm taking my salience landscape and I'm using it to get an optimal grip on things. Not maximal. And 'grip' is meant here as a metaphor. It's meant for my contact, my interactional contact. How can we understand what this optimal grip is doing? Look.... When I when I get the salience landscape (using the cup again) and I adjust, an affordance opens up.

What's an affordance? This is goes back to Gibson; the idea of visual perception is this active process of landscaping. The cup is graspable to me. That's not a property of the cup per-say because it's not graspable by a praying mantis. It's not a property just of my hand because I can't.... my hand alone can't grasp. An affordance is setting up a relationship of coordination between the constraints in the thing and the constraints in my hand so that I can engage in an interaction. So it's a way of co-identifying. The cup is... This thing is... It's been made salient to me. I've got now an optimal grip on it such that I can create affordances. So it is presenting itself to me and I am configuring myself to it. It is grasping all by me. And what... And this is Gibson's point: You don't really... You don't see colors and shapes... What you see are affordances. I see that this is walkable. That this is where I can place things. That this is movable.

What Consciousness is Doing, Down to the Depth Landscape

So, do you see? You get the basics. The salience landscape gets you in contact then you start the optimal gripping and the optimal gripping gets you into the creation of affordances where basically the agent and the arena are being co-identified. I'm a grasper and this is graspable. I am presenting myself to it and it is presenting itself to me. So you have consciousness is setting up a "salience landscape", but within this you're doing this process of "sizing up" and that produces a "Presence Landscape". You get a whole bunch of... A whole affordance network is laid out for you. But that's not enough. Remember we talked about with flow... You need to be able to track the differences between correlational patterns and causal patterns. As you interact with things your brain is figuring out the causal patterns as opposed to the merely correlational. This is the "Depth Landscape". This is your ability to figure out... You see kids doing this right... You got the two year old and they got this spoon and what do they... They pick up the spoon and they drop it on the floor. You pick it up they pick [it] and they BANG BANG BANG... and they do this over and over again. Why are they doing that? Because they're trying to use their salience landscape to generate affordances. The spoon is grasping all its throwable and it's droppable.

But why are they doing...? Why do they repeatedly grasp and throw and drop? Because they're trying to figure out the causal patterns around the spoon. They're transforming the salience landscape into a presence landscape and that into a depth landscape. They're getting a deep kind of understanding - not in words - but interactionally. Of the spoon. This is what consciousness is doing for you. It's doing it right now. It's laying out... It's.... All of this is a way in which consciousness is helping you zero in on relevant information. It's creating this textured salience landscape so that certain things stand out for you and other things don't as much. And it's constantly shifting dynamically. And then within that it's creating a presence landscape of how you and what's salient are being co-identified, coupled together into an agent and arena relationship and then it's also affording you. And that's dynamic because the affordances are constantly shifting. And then that's affording you 'tracking the causal patterns', getting into deeper contact with the guts of the world. That's what consciousness is doing.

So if I were to transform my consciousness, I'm going to be transforming all of this machinery. I'm going to be transforming my salience landscape, my presence landscape, my depth landscape. The patterns I'm going to track, the kind of agent I can be, the kind of arena I can be in are going to be radically transformed. And I won't have just a flash of insight like I do with a 9 dot problem. I will have a systematic... Look, an altered state of consciousness is not a... It's not an insight in consciousness it's an insight of consciousness. It's a radical transformation of all of your landscapes, not just this particular problem. Look, I'll try and show you what I mean by this; by a "systematic insight".

A Systematic Insight

So this goes back to childhood development. Pivotal work of Piaget in psychology. And this is picking up again on one of the metaphors we were using. We use "wisdom is like enlightenment", "wisdom is like waking up" and here's another one "Wisdom, like, as the child is to the adult, the adult is to the sage. Wisdom is like growing up". OK, so you take a four year old and you do this, you count out five candies: one two three four five. You need a four year old because they can count and they understand that five is more than four, it's less than six. You count it out right and then you count out five more candies: one two three four five. You show them that like this (one line of candies more spred out than the other). And you say "which row do you want?" And they reliably... And you've counted. They know there's five here. They know that there's five here. But they confidently pick this row (the more spread out one) and here's the thing: all the kids do it and that mistake is related to a whole bunch of other kinds of mistakes they're making. They're not making just a single error.

Look, this is what made Piaget a great, great scientist... Why he's a pivotal figure in trying to understand development - and think about Aristotle and development. See there have been lots of IQ testing way before Piaget - people have been testing kids IQ for a while - and they had been throwing away the errors as garbage because what you paid attention to was what the kid got right. ("yeah... Success... And the Protestant work ethic... yeah, yeah...") Piaget had this insight and he'd say "but wait! Wait, wait! What if there's a pattern in the errors? If the errors are systematic and not random, then that would mean that there are constraints..." - remember constraints? - "...there are constraints operating in the child's cognition". And maybe we could understand... and think about Aristotle again... And biology, because Piaget was, guess what? ...A biologist! Maybe we could understand development in terms of how those constraints are shifting and how they're... how they're shaping the kid's sensory motor interaction with the world. And what he found was in fact that the errors are systematic. The kids are... all of the kids are making this kind of error and they're making a whole bunch of related errors. There's a whole system of errors. And so that points to some underlying set of constraints. Now what's going on? What's going on here (candies)? Why is the kid picking the lower row? Because it takes up more space. Think about everything we've talked about here. This variable (longer spread of candies] is super salient to them.

Their salience landscape is only picking up on that. Now you, I hope, don't fall prey to this because you're also picking up on another variable at the same time. You also make salient that the extra space is non-candy space and therefore is what? ...Not relevant. But the kid doesn't pick up on that. Their salience landscape is not sizing that up. And so they don't have the same affordance as you. Now notice this: You see through this illusion because you're salience landscape has been trained to pay attention to these multiple variables at the same time. The way you size things up, integrate them in attention means you don't fall prey to this. Part of the way in which you become wiser than the child - you don't fall prey to self deceptive illusion - is because you've trained your salience landscape to zero in on the relative information in the relevant way. Now think about 'this' (super salience)... Remember we talked about salience and how when things are super salient to you that triggers bullshitting and self-deception. If I could change my salience landscape, I don't fall prey to this, I don't fall prey to the illusion and I wouldn't act foolishly.

Now, what I need you to understand is, here's a whole bunch of these errors that the kid is making (draws on the board). They form a system and they all have to deal with the fact that the salience landscape has not been sufficiently cultivated. So the kid might have an insight here, but it doesn't really matter because they're still going to be blocked in this problem and this problem and this problem. They're still going to be locked into a particular stage of development. But what if, and this is an idea that [I'm] working out in conjunction with Juensung Kim. What if you didn't have as a single insight? What if you had a systematic insight? An insight that changed the whole system. It wasn't an insight in your consciousness. It was an insight of your consciousness, in which you're changing your salience landscaping as opposed to just changing how you're framing a particular problem.

That's what the child does when it develops. It actually changes its salience landscaping so that this whole system of errors falls away and it starts to see through an illusion and into reality. Here's the thing you need to now think (writes Child -> Adult -> Sage on the board) and you've heard me say it: You have trained your salience landscape so that you do not fall prey to the systematic illusions of the four year old. Yes? Yes! But you know what? You are falling prey to a lot of systematic illusions you're not aware of because you can only become aware of them if you can transform your salience landscape, your presence landscape and your depth landscape to get in at what is actually most relevant systematically. Not here and here. All of us can have an insight here and here. But what it is... What is it to have a systematic improvement in insight? That's to be wise.

Your Significance Landscape

when you have salience systematically tracking presence in depth so that you can wisely zero in on the relevant information and make your life more meaningful... That's your "Significance Landscape". It protects you from bullshitting. It allows you to see through illusion and into reality. And it affords you having things more present to you. It would afford you to have a more comprehensive, flowing relationship with reality.

Altered states of consciousness have this potential. To create an insight of consciousness. Now they also have the potential to do the opposite. They have the potential to screw up your salience landscaping and make yourself more prone to bullshit! More prone to self deception. That's why most altered states of consciousness are rejected as being allusory and illusory. But why is it then, why is it then that certain altered states of consciousness have the opposite? Why is it that certain altered state of consciousness feel like this (board)? Like "Wait! It all makes sense now! I'm seeing through illusion into reality in a way I haven't before. Why is that altered state more real? The 'really real'...", As Plato was fond of saying "...and this, this every day is less real". Why do I feel like I woke up? That I became an adult to my previous form, that seemed to me like a child? What's going on?

So, let's set up the problem because getting clear about the problem is half the battle. Formulating a problem well is much, much of the important work at trying to bring a solution to it. So we know that many people experience, as I mentioned, these higher states of consciousness. And what... reliably - we'll talk about the phenomenological profile in a bit - but reliably what is characteristic of these states is that people find them to be really real and and in both directions: Arena and Agent. They say "wow that's the way the world really is". And they also say "this is who I really am". So much so that I'm going to transform my everyday experience so that it comes more consonant with that realness, that enhanced realness. So there's a mutual 'moreness', a mutual more-real-ness that happens in these higher states of consciousness and it's prescriptive, it demands change. It challenges people to change. It taps into those platonic meta-drives of getting your fullness of being, your real self and getting the fullness of contact reality. It switches those on and you go "I need to have that! I've got to try it. I'm willing to transform everything in order to get back to that really real world and that really real self".


So I call this... So we have a higher state of consciousness. I call this the problem of the "Ontonormativity." Remember that "ontology" has to do with the structure of reality. Normative is when things are placing a demand on you to be better, to improve. So these higher states of consciousness are precisely 'experiences-higher' because they're challenging you to change because they're presenting you more-realness, and they're triggering those platonic meta-drives.

Now as I mentioned, these states are historically important and they're pervasive. So you can read Taylor's book "Waking from sleep". He has about one hundred and fifty interviews. You can read many of them. He presents a lot of first person narratives of these people and these experience[s]. You can take a look at Newberg's book "how enlightenment changes your brain". He did an online survey of fifteen hundred people in 2016. As I mentioned there's just larger general surveys of how often people have these kinds of experiences and they range in intensity but it's around 30 to 40 percent of the population. So we have to take these experiences seriously. We know that from the work at the Griffiths lab that what's happening in a subset of psychedelic experiences - so here's (drawing) all the psychedelic experiences; you have a subset of which people have a mystical experience; and some of those people, the mystical experience is deeply transformative - It triggers that kind of quantum change.

OK, so why is the Ontonormativity of higher states of consciousness problematic? Well here's why... The transformative experience that people undergo, the radical transformations they're willing to make, seems to be driven and justified by this (HSA -> Ontonormativity). They say/ ..."Why are you doing this?" [they say] "I'm doing this because I had this experience and it was more real and I've got to stay in touch with more real!" They justify this transformation... I mean, sorry... I don't mean to be reductive and I'm not being disrespectful but, you know, Buddhism and Taoish and Vedanta and the core of aspects of Judaism and the mystical traditions in Christianity and Islam come down to this claim: "I had this (HSC -> Ontonormativity) and it justifies what I'm telling you. It explains and motivates the changes that I underwent". But why is that problematic? Look, because it's, like I said, it is in contrast to how we treat most of our altered states of consciousness. We go into dreaming, we come back and we say that's not real. We go into these, we come back and say that was more real and this is less real.

Dreams vs HSC

Now, let me try and explicate this problem further. Look, why do you reject your dreaming as unreal? Why? Because when you're in the dream it seems real! Because when you come out, that pattern, those things that happened in your dream don't cohere with the rest of your life. You've got this overall coherent picture of your life. Intelligibility - remember Plato. This overall picture makes the most sense of the most of your experience and if Plato's right the more intelligible something is the more real it is. This picture is more intelligible. It's more real. The dream is bizarre, it doesn't fit in. Ergo: less real!

So, realness is something like the pattern of intelligibility with the widest scope. Wide and rich coherence of content. It makes the most sense of the most of your experience. Puts together your beliefs and your memories. Etc.. But look what's happening in a higher state of consciousness. It's [the] exact reverse! You have this single experience. It doesn't cohere with the rest of your life, because that's why it challenges the rest of your life. It doesn't cohere with the rest of the life, it tells you that the rest of this is illusory and you need to change it! In fact, the difference is so great that instead of rejecting it you reject your everyday experience! So the thing that you use to reject the dream... So, look at the picture: "I use all of 'this' and I reject the dream. And then I have the higher state of consciousness - again a single thing - and I use this to reject all of 'this'! What's going on?

The higher state of consciousness is a temporary experience. It does not cohere with the rest of our experience. That's how and why it can challenge and demand such radical transformation of our everyday life, our everyday self. And here's what's even more, I don't know, perplexing! It does this without providing any new intelligible content. These experiences are traditionally ineffable. You can't put it into words. They are traditionally trans-rational. You can't give any argument or explanation or justification. How is it that this temporary experience that you...? "Why? What was it? Describe the experience!" "I can't, I can't describe it!" "Well can you explain to me what...?" "I, no, I can't! I can't explain it". So there's no content, it's temporary and yet somehow it goes the exact opposite of most altered states of consciousness. These states, these so-called 'higher states' should be the ones we most reject. They're temporary. They challenge all of our intelligibility coherence. They don't produce any viable explanation. Any viable content and yet we promote them as the really-real and use them to reject our everyday experience. And that's the core of the axial revolution. This problem of the Ontonormativity of higher states of consciousness goes to the heart of the axial revolution and the way it is still informing our very cognitive grammar and our existential ways of being right here, right now.

That's the problem of the Ontonormativity of Higher States of Consciousness. Now, we know that there is a possibility that altered states of consciousness can bring about a developmental improvement. But but? How? How do we tie this (insight development) to this (HSC & Ontonormativity)? Can we give an adequate enough explanation of these higher states of consciousness? And we need to do one that will help to explain why triggering them can be so transformative. Because here's the thing: Yaden's work shows: people's lives do get better. They're not making it up. After they've had these these higher states of consciousness - this encounter with the really-real - their lives get better! By all kinds of important measures. Measures of meaning, relationship, problems... They get better!

What Do We Need to Address This Disparity?

OK so what do we need? We need... We have to solve this problem! We have to make some progress on it! We need actually two explanations that need to be integrated together. First of all I need a descriptive explanation. I need an account of the underlying processes; cognitive, brain processes - we'll talk about this - that explain the phenomenological, the experiential nature of these states. Why do people... like, when people describe what's happening in these states, why do... why does it have the features it has? It has to explain why people feel it being more real. Why it feels that it justifies, empowers, and motivates them to undergo transformative experience.

Descriptive and Prescriptive Accounting for these Claims

But in addition to something that's a descriptive account, I need a prescriptive account. I mean the first account is going to be largely psychological. This is what's happening and this is why people are experiencing the way they're experiencing it. That's descriptively adequate. But prescriptively adequate has to show me this: Is it actually a legitimate thing? Do these states actually provide a rational justification and a guide for the transformations that people are claiming on their behalf? Are these states actually, philosophically justifiable? Or is their claim to Ontonormativity all just an illusion? Is it rationally justifiable? Now this prescriptive account must integrate with the mechanisms and processes of the descriptive account in order to be overall coherent. In order to give us the best explanation of how and why these states are operating.

The Descriptive Account: The Introduction to A Cognitive Scientific Approach

So, the descriptive account... the best way to do this is to do a cognitive scientific approach. Now at some point I'm going to teach you in this series how to do good cognitive science, but one of what we're doing in good cognitive science is we're plausibly trying to integrate different levels in our descriptive analysis. My descriptive account should give me a good account of the cognitive processes that are at work in the mind. It should give me a good account - and that's going to rely largely on psychology - it should also give me a good account of the information processes that are at work. That's going to rely on ideas drawn from artificial intelligence and machine learning because that's the project when we're trying to most understand and optimize information processing. It should also draw on neuroscientific accounts of what's happening in the brain. I need an account that simultaneously elucidates each one of these - the cognitive mechanisms; the machine learning mechanisms; and the neurological mechanisms - and does that in an integrative, mutually informative fashion. I want a plausible integration. That's what I need for the good descriptive account.

That's what I'm going to give. I'm going to try and argue how we can understand why these higher states of consciousness are the way they are in terms of all of those: the cognitive, the machine learning, and the neuroscientific level. After I'm doing that I'm going to then endeavor to try and show you how those processes, the cognitive processes, the information processing processes, the neurological processes, actually provide a rational justification for the transformation that the people undertake. It's not the kind of justification you might be expecting!

What I'm going to argue for is that it is not that these states provide us with any special knowledge. Because these states are not about changing evidence, acquiring new evidence, the way science [does], and we should not use these higher states of consciousness as a way of challenging our scientific claims. And many people will do this.

But the mistake is to then think "well that's it! That's the sum total. We've shown that these higher states of consciousness don't generate reliable kinds of knowledge, so we should reject them is irrational!" No, because that's again to think that the whole point of your cognition and your rationality is to get better beliefs, and I've already been showing you through this series that there's much more to it. When the child no longer falls prey to the illusion, no new facts have been discovered! The child knew that there were five candies on top and below. No new facts. It's not like there's been a new scientific discovery about space or candies! What changed? What changed is not knowledge. What changed was wisdom. The child has learned to see through illusion and into reality. And what I want to pursue with you is this idea: That higher states of [consciousness/cognition?] are rational not because they provide us with new knowledge - Look! Look... People go into these states and they come out with exactly opposite conclusions. You can read... I've read so many of these reports! People go in and they have this higher state of consciousness and they said "oh! And i knew god!" People go and they have this higher state of conscience "and I knew there was no God!". Exactly the opposite. The content is diametrically opposite. People will say very metaphysical claims!

What's changing is not the content. Not this or that piece of knowledge. What's changing is your functioning. You're not gaining knowledge you're gaining wisdom. You're gaining skills and sensibilities and sensitivities of significance landscaping that radically transform your existential mode.

That is why, for example, that the Buddha famously refused to answer metaphysical questions about Nirvana, about enlightenment, because that's not the point. That's not what this is about. This is not about getting supra-scientific knowledge. This is about getting extraordinary wisdom and transformation. We're going to take a look more at trying to answer the problem of higher states of consciousness next time and we'll return also back to discussing more how the Buddha integrated that into trying to deal with some of the deepest problems that we face as entities that have to realize relevance; pursue salience; deal with existential anxiety; cultivate significance and meaning; try and overcome our illusions and delusions and find a fullness of being in an optimal grip on the world. Thank you very much for your time.

Other helpful resources about this episode:
Notes on Bevry
Summary and Transcript on awakeningfromthemeaningcrisis.com 

TiagoBooks.com Lecture Notes

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