How to Be a Mystical Materialist

I interviewed psychologist Susan Blackmore 20 years ago while doing research for my book Rational Mysticism. Here, lightly edited, is my description of her:

“Her hair was dyed orange, red, and yellow, dark-rooted, cut short as a boy’s, with sideburns plunging like daggers past each multi-ringed ear. Words spewed from her pell-mell, accompanied by equally vigorous hand signals and facial expressions. She was keen on onomatopoeic sound effects: Ahhhhh (to express her pleasure at finding other smart people when she entered Oxford); DUN da la DUN da la DUN (the galloping noise she heard as she sped down a tree-lined tunnel in her first out-of-body experience); Zzzzzzt (the sound of reality dissolving after her second toke of the psychedelic dimethyltryptamine). We were talking in the dining room of the inn where she was staying, and twice we had to move to a quieter spot when employees or patrons of the inn started talking near us. One side effect of her spiritual practice, she explained, is that she has a hard time ignoring stimuli. ‘I think it is one of the bad effects of practicing mindfulness. I’m so aware of everything all the time.’”

Blackmore began her career as a parapsychologist, intent on finding evidence for astral projection and extrasensory perception. Her investigations transformed her into a materialist and Darwinian (one of her best-known books describes humans as “meme machines”) who doesn’t believe in ESP, God or free will. And yet she is a mystic, too, who explores consciousness via meditation and psychedelics. In other words, Blackmore pulls off the trick of being both a hard-nosed skeptic and an open-minded adventurer. What more can one ask of a mind scientist? Curious about how her thinking has evolved in our mind-boggling era, I e-mailed her a few questions. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

Horgan: Do you ever wish that you were less skeptical?

Blackmore: No, absolutely not. If by “skeptical” you mean curious, questioning, asking for evidence, and being willing to shift one’s opinions, then that’s how I aspire to be. But if by “skeptical” you mean being a close-minded, lazy disbeliever who isn’t even interested in finding out, then I know how easy it is to slide into and I try to avoid it.

Horgan: My skepticism toward extrasensory perception and other parapsychological phenomena sometimes wobbles when I meet believers like Rupert Sheldrake, Freeman Dyson or Stuart Kauffman. Does that ever happen to you?

Blackmore: No. It is precisely with people like this that I try to be most skeptical. What is he saying? Does it make sense? Do I need to find out more? In the case of Sheldrake, I looked into his work thoroughly a long time ago, including collecting data for one of his experiments. I became disillusioned by that early work and not convinced of his claims, but I have not studied his later work in the detail I would need to come to a firm conclusion. Whenever I meet him, we enjoy wide-ranging, friendly discussions and continue to disagree.

As for Dyson and Kauffman, that’s very different. They challenge fundamental ideas about the universe, not by making psychic claims which take us nowhere, but by exploring deep ideas about matter, information, the origins of life, order and complexity, and (although limited by my poor maths and physics) I love their work. I too speculate endlessly about the nature of the universe, and people like these two are inspiring.

Horgan: What’s your take on the recent popularity of panpsychism and other challenges to conventional materialism?

Blackmore: Materialism is hopeless because as soon as it confronts the problem of consciousness it becomes dualist. Dualism is hopeless because it cannot explain the close relationship between matter and experience. When neuroscientists go looking for the “neural correlates of consciousness,” they treat consciousness as though it is something created by or arising from the brain and become mired in the “hard problem.” Defined in terms of how subjective experience arises from objective brain activity, it’s the wrong problem. It’s insoluble because it starts from false premises.

At the other extreme are believers in “mind beyond the body,” “endless consciousness” and “consciousness first.” These are doomed in the opposite way; they cannot explain the brain/consciousness relationship either, nor can they explain how we seem to have a shared material world. The problem is deep and interesting. Materialism cannot account for consciousness; idealism cannot account for matter. We need a nondual understanding of the world and, as yet, we do not have that.

Panpsychism may, or may not, help but has certainly not proved itself yet. For me, traditional panpsychism (e.g., every atom, molecule, stone or house has experience) makes no sense. Philip Goff’s interesting version does not seem to work either. Where I find panpsychism attractive is an idea I have often played with, and even wrote about in a conference paper back in the 1980s! In consciousness studies, we ask, “What is it like to be a bat?” I say that’s the wrong question. There is nothing it is like to be the actual physical bat—there is only what it is like to be the bat’s model of itself as a bat. “What it’s like” for bats (or any creature) is whatever those representations say it’s like. Simple!?

As for human animals, we build even more complex representations and at multiple levels, through sensory systems, motor systems, memory and imagination. Lording over them all is our false sense of “me”—a model of a central, controlling, experiencing self which does not really exist—so that’s what it’s like to be “me.” Yet underlying that self-model are multiple other representations. My kind of panpsychism implies that at all these levels from the simplest ephemeral constructions to that great illusory self-model, there is something it is like to be them—whatever those representations say it’s like. I play a lot with such ideas, both in very disciplined and structured thinking, and in my daily meditation and psychedelic self-explorations. But I am not convinced that this, or any other version of panpsychism, yet solves the great mystery of our minds!

Horgan: Daniel Dennett’s claim that consciousness is an “illusion” makes no sense to me. What am I missing? 

Blackmore: Ha ha. You are indeed missing a lot!

I make that claim too, as do many people who study their own minds with deep perplexity. You are missing taking a good hard look at your own assumptions about consciousness—what you take for granted and don’t even question because it seems so obvious. You may be as deluded as most people are, but of course I do not know what you are assuming.

You might, for example, imagine that you are some kind of inner self that has consciousness and free will, that “you” can direct your consciousness to some things and not others, that some processes in your head are conscious ones and others are unconscious, that you need consciousness to do some things and not others, that consciousness has powers and effects, and that it must have evolved for a purpose. There are excellent reasons for rejecting every one of these very natural assumptions. In other words, consciousness, as normally imagined, is an illusion.

What does “illusion” mean? Take a dictionary (as I resorted to when people started telling me that I didn’t believe in consciousness). An illusion is something that is not what it seems to be. And that fits our problem precisely. My claim is that we cannot even begin to build a viable theory of consciousness until we throw out all these false assumptions and start again.

Horgan: I suspect we will never find a single, completely satisfying solution to the mind-body problem. What do you think?

Blackmore: The solution seems to be right there in certain meditative or psychedelic states. Nonduality is obvious, everything is clearly one, experience needs no experiencer—no duality. Yet, for me at least, this clarity of insight disappears on returning to ordinary states and doesn’t leave me saying “Aha—now I have the perfect, completely satisfying solution to dualism.”

Will it ever? I like this question—would an enlightened person who studied neuroscience and philosophy get that complete solution? Would a neuroscientist/philosopher who had such deep insight get it? What do you think?

Horgan: I think the problem is unsolvable, even for a fully enlightened person with multiple Ph.D.s. Next question: The field of memetics, which Richard Dawkins founded and to which you have contributed, has been sharply criticized. Care to defend it? 

Blackmore: No. I’d rather just explain it because so many people misunderstand it, or are afraid of it, or both. When you fully grasp the idea, you can judge for yourself whether it’s worth defending. It’s simple—if a bit scary. A replicator is information that undergoes the evolutionary algorithm. That means it is copied, varied and selected, and this mindless, repetitive process creates novel design. Genes are considered the first replicator on Earth; they are selfish replicators, evolving for their own benefit. Dawkins realized that cultural information—anything we copy around in culture—is like that too. So, he proposed that memes are a second replicator. In The Meme Machine, I explored how memes compete to use us as their copying machinery, and the winning memes are not always the ones that benefit us.

Think of the explosion of internet memes, the flourishing of fake news, the awfulness of religions that trap people in lies, or the contagion of suicide and anorexia. These memes all use us for their propagation while harming us.

As to your question, a recent study (see Further Reading) found that the European witch persecutions benefited no one and nothing but the witch trials themselves. This is the key point—memetics is useful and important if it is true that selfish ideas propagate for their own benefit and not for us, the meme machines.

Horgan: I can’t live without free will, but you’ve said that rejecting it gives you a sense of freedom. What are you seeing that I’m not?

Blackmore: You have not spent most of a lifetime working to give up the sense of having free will, and I have. You could live without it if you really wanted to—it just takes a lot of letting go, and I’m still working on it. I long ago concluded that everything a human being does is caused by underlying processes we cannot see, and that the self that seems to be in charge is not. So, I had to find out how to live with that. The new freedom is freedom from that illusion.

I am in the midst of enjoying a long back and forth argument with Dan Dennett over this issue. I hugely admire his work on consciousness, and the illusions he exposed, but on this we differ fundamentally. To be consistent, I say he should declare free will to be part of the illusions of self and consciousness, but he disagrees.

Horgan: Our existence often seems so improbable to me, so weird, that I have a hard time believing it is the result of chance. Do you ever feel this way? 

Blackmore: No, I don’t. Not at all. Why would I try? And why would you even ask such question unless it’s just to provoke me? Of course, our amazing existence is not the result of chance—at least not just chance. That would make you like one of those Christians who argue that because a wind blowing through a scrapyard could not construct a Boeing 747, there must be a God who created us.

No. Like every other living thing, we evolved. Evolution by natural selection requires three processes to create design without a designer: information must be copied, the copies must vary, and then only some of them survive to be copied again. Chance is just one source of the necessary variation. Chance on its own obviously cannot produce our improbable existence; natural selection can and did. We are not made in God’s image.

Horgan: I have a love-hate relationship with Buddhism. How would you describe your relationship?

Blackmore: Love the training in Zen practice that I’ve worked with since 1981; hate the way Buddhism as a religion is mired in doctrine, theory, rules, vows and ceremony. My special hate (I’m using that word only because you did!) is this: the Buddha taught that the self is illusory (not the continuing entity it seems to be) and yet many branches of Buddhism adopt the ever-popular belief in personal reincarnation. Bonkers!

This is one of many reasons why, despite 40 years of Zen practice, I am not a Buddhist and will not take those vows.

Horgan: What has meditation done for you? Or not done?

Blackmore: Oh, ha ha. How can I know? Maybe I would be just the same as I am now, merely through aging. There’s no control group. But I can say what it seems to have done. I think I am happier, less caught up in stupid thoughts and worries, more flexible about life and (maybe and most importantly) less troublesome to other people.

The only certainty is that I can easily sit completely still for an hour or more, observing what goes on. I know my own messy mind better, and I can enter specific states of consciousness such as “silent illumination” or the jhanas, through decades of training attention. That’s all meditation really is—training attention.

Horgan: Have psychedelics given you any enduring insights into the nature of existence?

Blackmore: Yes. The emptiness of self, the underlying nonduality or nonseparation, the wild and endless realms discoverable in a single mind, the ready availability of mystical experience through chemistry, and the vacuity of the “consciousness beyond death” theories when psychedelics can provide all this through effects on a living brain.

Horgan: Do you believe in the state of permanent mystical awareness called enlightenment? Have you ever met someone who seems to be enlightened?

Blackmore: 1. No. As far as I have learnt, enlightenment is not a “state of permanent mystical awareness”; it’s not a state at all. Rather it is a loss of, or seeing through, or letting go of, the delusions of self and agency, and the acceptance of impermanence, suffering and nonself. It sounds like not being human at all, but I don’t think it is.

2. Yes, some Zen teachers. In this tradition the word “enlightenment” means many things; there are enlightenment experiences that happen along the way, and there are degrees of enlightenment as well as being an “enlightened one” or “fully liberated.” Whether these very impressive people were really “fully enlightened,” I have no idea, and they certainly would not say so, nor would others about them. So, I am not going to say any more.

Horgan: For a serious scholar, you seem to have lots of fun. Is my view of you accurate, and if so, how do you pull it off?

Blackmore: Hmmmm. I’ve never been a fun-seeker—though I’m happy if I appear to be having lots of fun. I remember when I was 18 my cousin saying, “Let’s go and have some fun!” and my replying, “I don’t like having fun,” and then feeling really embarrassed at what I’d said. But it’s true. Excitement yes, risk-taking yes, but fun—not sure. As a student I would spend evenings analyzing stats for my psychic experiments rather than go to parties or see friends. I still don’t like going out—if that’s supposed to be fun. It’s certainly fun playing in a samba band, but my main pleasures in life are rather calmer—writing and research, exploring my own mind through drugs, meditation or just thinking, gardening and playing with my grandchildren—now that is fun!

Horgan: What’s your utopia?

Blackmore: No idea. I fear human nature makes us incapable of utopia. We are good at dystopias though. As a woman, living in an Islamic state under sharia law is the very worst I know of. Let us not ever descend to such depths.

Further Reading:

By Blackmore

Consciousness: An Introduction, Third Edition, Routledge, April 2018. Companion website

Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press 2017.

Blackmore, S. 2016, “Delusions of consciousness.” Journal of Consciousness Studies, 23, 52-64

Blackmore, S. (2013), “Living without free will.” In Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility. Ed G. Caruso, Lexington Books, 161-175

Hofhuis, S. T., & Boudry, M. (2019). “‘Viral’ Hunts?: A Cultural Darwinian Analysis of Witch Persecutions.” Cultural Science Journal, 11(1), 13-29.

By Horgan

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