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Evolving inquiry: the unconscious as bridging the intellectual/spiritual and the academic/personal

Paul Grobstein's picture

Interesting conversation with Bharath last week, one based on a shared interest in the "unconscious view of thinking" and exploring some of its implications with regard to the relation between the professional and the personal, the "intellectual" and the "spiritual."

I've always thought that my interests/motivations were "intellectual" rather than "spiritual," but I may need now to rethink that, or at least rethink the notion of a sharp distinction between the two.  What I've been interested in, always been interested in, is finding new ways to make sense of things, ways that don't have any of the problems of known ways of making sense of things.  I've called this "getting it less wrong," and presumed, without thinking too much about it, that one could assess "less wrong" with some objectivity: there is a problem thinking about X as simply Y since there is an observation inconsistent with Y, therefore conceive a Z which makes sense of the inconsistent observation as well as the ones X successfully accounts for.  Bingo, "less wrong." 

I still like that idea, and still think it has lots of attractive features (among them that it allows inquiry to proceed and make progress without the necessity to presume there is a fixed or unique answer to be reached).  But in practice inquiry is rarely sufficiently focused enough to make the assessment fully adequate.  Z may be demonstrably less wrong with regard to a particular well delineated array of observations but create additional new problems in a whole host of other realms.  How do I deal with that? 

I think I have to admit I don't even attempt to consciously assess whether something is actually "less wrong" across the sum of all possible relevant contexts (in fact, I don't think that is, even in principle, doable).  Instead, I let my gut make the assessment or, more accurately, I leave it to my cognitive unconscious to do it: something is less wrong in wider contexts if it feels less wrong, if I experience the world as larger, more open, richer in opportunity, and myself as in better touch with it.  It turns out there are some pretty good reasons to do that, given contemporary observations on the brain.  The cognitive unconscious consists of a large number of different processors, each evaluating things in a different way, so when they're all more or less in agreement on something its a pretty good bet its broadly "less wrong," and at least a better bet than when I rely on my conscious processes (which work best with smaller numbers of more simply related variables).   

But there is also something oddly "spiritual" about this process, both in its intent and its outcome.  Indeed, I once coined the phrase "touching the navel of Nature" to describe the feeling I got when a set of experimental observations suddenly made sense to me, not only in and of themselves but in broader terms.  That experience is perhaps not too different from what Freud called the "oceanic feeling" and others might call "seeing the face of God".  It is a sense of a new, broader, and more satisfying connectedness to things larger than oneself. 

The notion of the "oceanic feeling" as a "state of the nervous system in the absence of any experience of conflict" has come up before in the context of a discussion of the relationship between neurobiology and psychoanalysis.   And it continues to intrigue me a lot as a way to bridge between what might otherwise seem conflicting "intellectual" and "spiritual" perspectives. 

People with intellectual aspirations and those with spiritual ones clearly share a common interest in finding "new, broader, and more satisfying" ways to make sense of things "larger than oneself."  What is often seen as differentiating the two is how they describe what they are looking for - "Reality" in the one case and "God" or "Spirit" in the other - and the methods they emphasize as central (material observations on the one hand, and transcendent experiences on the other).  Perhaps though, as suggested in my own case, people with intellectual aspirations and those with spiritual ones actually both use a mix of material observations and transcendent experiences, with the latter corresponding not to a closer contact with some external "reality" or "spirit" but rather to the internal state of having a new, broader, and more satisfying sense of agreement among the disparate parts of oneself?

Does that actually constitute connection to something "larger than oneself?"  I think it does, if by "oneself" one means what one is consciously aware of, since one's unconscious (largely unknown to one) is continually collecting observations about a much larger array of things around one.  But it doesn't mean one is getting any closer to either "Reality" or "Spirit."  Indeed, it leaves entirely open the question of whether there is any such thing "out there" and so obviates any need to argue about whether what is out there is "matter" or "spirit" or both.  Both, this perspective suggests, are nothing more (and nothing less) than terms we use as guides to what we think are effective ways to achieve an improved integration of our brains.

My guess is that not everyone will be happy doing away with a distinction between intellectual and spiritual quests, to say nothing of suggesting that one is searching for something that has no name nor any criteria for success other than how one feels.  Still more discomforting, perhaps, is that that transcendent feeling is probably transient at best, a way station and not a completion.  Given the ongoing fluctuations in the nervous system and the world it is unlikely that "an absence of any experience of conflict" can persist for any extended period of time. 

On the other hand, there is something very appealing (to me at least) about a genuinely open-ended intellectual/spiritual quest, one that is driven by what is reliably inside oneself, that offers periods of achievement and contentment, and that will continue whatever is found, by oneself or others.   It is a picture of an infinitely extended journey with rest stops in appealing locations, of inquiry (and perhaps life itself) as ongoing evolution. 

The picture of inquiry as evolution is additionally appealing (again, to me at least) in that it provides not only a bridge between the intellectual and the spiritual but also one between the academic and the personal.  If indeed "transcendent experiences" are the best measure of successful inquiry, and those in turn reflect "having a new, broader, and more satisfying sense of agreement among the disparate parts of oneself," then the distinction between "academic" and "personal" ceases to make operational sense, and we all need a better understanding of inquiry that explicitly encourages rather than discourages consideration of the personal.  What's important is not the "personal" qua "personal" (nor the "academic" qua "academic") but rather the interplay between exploring how one makes sense of the world oneself and the sense made of it, both individually and collectively, by others. 

A life of inquiry that bridges the academic and the personal, the intellectual and the spiritual, that locates the "larger than oneself" within oneself and one's interactions with one's surroundings (human and otherwise), that replaces well-defined objectives with a process that both makes use of objectives and redefines them as it proceeds .... that appeals to me.  To others?  Is it "less wrong," ie operationally different from what we are used to?  Achievable?  On both individual and institutional scales?  Looking forward to seeing what others think.


Anne Dalke's picture

on being completely genial

I've read this conversation w/ some interest.

Several years ago, a colleague in chemistry, Sharon Burgmayer, and I (both of whom see  our religious lives as entirely congruent with our intellectual work as college professors and researchers), created a web site called Science & Spirit. We used it to invite others into the exploratory seeking that Quakers call "continuing revelation": a process of constantly "testing" in a social context, against what others know, what one knows oneself, against new experience and new information--activities that, ideally, can be practiced in both the religious and the intellectual realms.

This past month I've been reading the writings of William James, who actually anticipated your idea of unconscious thinking as a place that joins these different realms.
In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) he looks @ individual religious experience; he has no interest whatsoever in institutional forms of practice. He says,

The subconscious self is nowadays a well-accredited psychological entity....there is actually and literally more life in our total soul than we are at any time aware of….’Each of us is in reality an abiding psychical entity far more extensive than he knows—an individuality which can never express itself completely through any corporeal manifestation…there is always some party of the Self unmanifested; and always…some power of organic expression in abeyance or reserve’…we have seen how striking a part invasions from this region play in the religious life.

Let me propose, as an hypothesis, that whatever it may be on its farther side, the ‘more’ with which in religious experience we feel ourselves connected is on its hither side the subconscious continuation of our conscious life

In his 1907 lectures on Pragmatism, James adds,

pragmatism…’unstiffens’ our theories…She is completely genial. She will entertain any hypothesis, she will consider any evidence…In short, she widens the field of search for God. Rationalism sticks to logic and the empyrean. Empiricism sticks to the external senses. Pragmatism is willing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses and to count the humblest and most personal experiences…Her only test of probable truth is what works best in the way of leading us….” (39-40).

I've suggested elsewhere that we should add these writings by James on Pragmatism to our readings for the Evolving systems group; I find his repeated use of "usefulness" as a definition of "reality" really visionary...and useful.

Bharath Vallabha's picture

Embracing the Spiritual and the Intellectual

Paul’s post made me think about my own past, and what I now think about the relation between the intellectual and the spiritual.

My family is Hindu and I grew up reading the Bhagavad Gita and talking about it with my parents. From high school to college, the structure and meaning of my life (as I then thought of it) was given by the aims of seeking realization, and the people I most looked up to were Hindu philosophers, monks and mystics who devoted their life to peace, human flourishing and ultimate knowledge.

As I now look back on it, I realize that college was a bit of a shock. The Hindu categories in which I had conceived of my life were nowhere to be found. My professors didn’t disagree with those categories; rather, they just didn’t engage with them, didn’t know about them and felt that they were not appropriate for the intellectual conversations taking place in the philosophy department. I remember thinking, “Not appropriate? What could be more appropriate!” But I didn’t know how to make that point.

I don’t think the professors were personally at fault. Their lack of interest in my background assumptions was actually fueled by a broader cultural misunderstanding shared by both my teachers and my family. Different as they were, my family and my teachers seemed to agree on one thing: spirituality and intellectual inquiry were separate domains, which mainly just got in each other’s way. My family initially resisted my being a philosophy major, partly due to concerns regarding jobs, but mainly due to the thought that academic philosophy would be an obstacle to personal, spiritual growth. My teachers likewise resisted my bringing spiritual concerns into the classroom, thinking that mind, language, ethics and so on were best understood freed of the dogma of spiritual and religious traditions.

My educational experience thus has been to some extent schizophrenic; I belonged to two worlds which insisted on defining themselves in opposition to each other. I experienced this rift not as calling for my just choosing one side, but as a rift within myself. I felt that to let go of either the spiritual or the intellectual life was to lose myself, but I could not make sense of how this could be given that it seemed as if both could not co-exist.

Now the unconscious view of thinking seems to me to help make sense of how both can co-exist. When a family member thinks “western philosophy is meaningless playing with words which gets in the way of spirituality”, they have a conscious belief which they feel certain is not in need of further reflection. It is a belief which has become petrified; a belief which they treat as bedrock and on which they aim to build their spiritual life. Similarly, when an academic philosopher thinks, “spirituality is a lower form of inquiry which is to be supplanted by reason”, they too have a petrified, conscious belief upon which they aim to build their rational edifice.

But neither kind of conscious belief is actually essential to spirituality or rationality. In fact, both kinds of beliefs are inimical to spirituality and rationality. For spirituality, if it is defined by anything, is defined not by particular beliefs which are to be held fast to, but by an openness to the divine spirit in the world which is beyond even our most passionate beliefs. Similarly, reason and scientific inquiry, as exemplified even by the pagan Greeks or the atheist Enlightenment thinkers, is not defined by particular beliefs but by the activity of self-critical reflection and so being forever open to growth.

It now seems to me that spirituality and the intellectual life—as with all wonderful features of human life including art, family, relationships, and so on—are defined by the space they create for each individual for greater and greater growth. This is the space that makes possible being open to God, Reason, Truth, the Tao, the unconscious, or whatever it is one wants to calls it. What matters most is not what one calls it, or how one makes it into that space, but that one is in that space of openness, which makes us be kind and open to every aspect of ourselves, other people and the world.

Could it be that truly pursuing the spiritual or the intellectual path means getting beyond dichotomies such as the spiritual and the intellectual? Could it be that to the extent that we think of a view or a person that they are deeply confused, then to that extent we are caught within a web of impulses and beliefs from which we do not have spiritual or intellectual distance? Could it be that “the spiritual” and “the intellectual” are just the names of very sophisticated tribes fighting with each other, and that the only way to stop fighting is to not identify exclusively with either?

I am thankful that in the course of my education I did not side exclusively with either my family or my teachers (and I am thankful that neither my family nor my teachers forced me to make such a decision). I felt that if I made a choice between spirituality and the intellectual life, then I would lose myself. And now I can see why. For to make a choice like that would have been to take one of my conscious beliefs (either about spirituality or about academia) and make it the petrified, bedrock of my life; and though I would have done it in order to be more free to pursue my true path, I would have defined my path in opposition to that of others, I would have chosen my path by implicitly judging others on a different path, and with that I would have thwarted my own growth into peace and openness.

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