Is Consciousness a Mental Illness?

Perhaps my most annoying exploration of radical non-duality yet. Thanks to Richard for the lovely graphic.

As I think more about the message of radical non-duality, I’ve started musing about the nature of consciousness.

We humans of course think of consciousness as a good thing, as an evolutionary advantage, and possibly something that separates our species, in degree if not in absolute terms, from all other species.

But radical non-duality would posit, I think, that it isn’t any of these things, and that consciousness might instead be a tragic form of mental illness that became possible when

(1) our brains got large and complex enough to be able to contemplate the idea of us being self-controlled individuals separate from everything else, and then

(2) that illusory sense of humans being ‘separate’ was reinforced, traumatically, through interactions with other afflicted humans (well-intentioned of course), until, over a lifetime, we came to see this disease as normal and necessary to our capacity to function.

Many religious and spiritual teachings suggest that we should actually aspire to a higher “level of consciousness”, as if more of this disease were a cure for its symptoms.

One of the hardest things for most people to accept is that we would be (and are) completely functional creatures without the need for consciousness. We are inclined to ascribe a rudimentary level of consciousness to all living creatures, even aphids and silverfish, because we cannot fathom that any creature would be able to survive without it.

But the laws of evolution do not require consciousness at all. Aphids and silverfish have survived because they were conditioned (genetically and experientially) to fight or flee or freeze in the presence of predators; insects that were poorly conditioned, over the hundreds of millions of years they have been evolving, dropped out of the gene pool, and those with successful conditioning survived. They do not need the capacity to conceive of themselves as separate and of having ‘selves’ to do so. They probably don’t have the brain capacity in any case, and if they did it would arguably slow down rather than improve their survival reflexes.

Why should our species be any different? We’re genetically indistinguishable from our closest animal relatives, and all species of life have been evolutionarily equipped with the tools needed to survive in their particular ecological niches as long as they fit in with and contribute to the ecological health of all life in those niches. We are as utterly conditioned by our genes and cultural experiences as aphids and silverfish. Any creature that doesn’t fit, in the evolutionary sense of fitting in with the rest of the ecosystem, goes extinct.

Except, that is, in the case of rogue species, like humans and cancers, that somehow lose their connectedness to all the rest of life in their ecosystems and pursue their ‘own’ survival at the cost of all others’, and wreak ecological havoc as a result. They of course die along with the hosts that enabled them to live — the body or planet which they have so unbalanced as to cause its life’s extinction.

Our study of cancers suggests they are ‘coding’ errors — random variations that evolution is continually experimenting with in search of even greater fitness and complexity of life. These variations usually amount to nothing and are evolutionary dead ends, but they occasionally lead to great improvements in adaptability, and they occasionally produce rogue species grotesquely unfit for their environments. That very unfitness ensures that their reckless tenure in their particular ecosystems is short-lived. Our species has been around an astonishingly short time in evolutionary terms, and our extinction or near-extinction within this century is already, according to a growing number of scientists, a virtual certainty. Our sense of consciousness hasn’t helped at all.

Or consider viruses: These days we’re understandably curious about what possible roles viruses might play in our planet’s evolution. Viruses are of course messengers, transmitting information between species. But significantly, they are also population regulators, especially of bacterial and insect populations. Without the critical role of viruses (of which an infinitesimally small number are human pathogens BTW), imbalances in bacterial and insect populations would disastrously alter our biosphere and atmosphere in a matter of days, dramatically changing (and radically simplifying) life on the planet.

Even if we were to argue that aphids and silverfish are slightly “conscious”, we could not make the same argument of viruses, which are arguably not even ‘alive’. The incredible evolutionary role of viruses, and their importance to the web of life, should suffice to convince us that “consciousness” is completely inessential to evolutionary success.

I’ve explained elsewhere how and why the sense of consciousness may have evolved, at least in our species, even though (perhaps like our appendix and our separate toes) it wasn’t and isn’t necessary to our ability to function and thrive perfectly well. Nature evolves things because it can, and because random evolutionary variations sometimes prove advantageous. But they don’t necessarily disappear even when they aren’t advantageous, unless some other need for the space or capacity crowds it out.

If consciousness is indeed a mental illness, a mistaking a mental model for reality, it could probably only have been sustained in the human species through the invention and use of abstract language. The concepts of a separate self, and of commensurate free will, responsibility, and ‘personal’ danger, would be unlikely, I’d guess, to take hold in a non-literate society. I would argue that our survival almost certainly does not require such a sense.

Abstract language might have emerged initially as a coping mechanism — as a means of sharing our grief over, and commiserating about, the terrible anxiety (and sense of something important missing) that arose when we became afflicted with this delusion of separateness. And abstract language has reinforced that delusion ever since.

So if consciousness, and all the guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, anger, grief and suffering that comes along with it, is a mental illness, might there be a way to ‘cure’ it? Or are our big, under-utilized brains just inevitably going to contract this illness because of their enormous capacity to imagine?

Michael Pollan and others have suggested that psilocybin and some other hallucinogenic substances might at least temporarily alleviate, and might permanently ‘cure’, the symptoms of this mental illness, by disrupting the neural pathways that correspond to ideas about the self, separation and (self-)consciousness. Successes are, however, anecdotal, and the cultural taboos against these substances are likely to impair any definitive answer as to their efficacy.

Those disseminating the radical non-duality message are a bit non-plussed when I suggest this theory to them. When there is no self, no sense of separation, and no sense that anything is or ever was ‘conscious’, the idea of being able to ‘cure’ something non-existent just doesn’t make sense.

After all, if there is no ‘you’, how can ‘you’ be afflicted by, or cured of, anything? If there is no life or death, no time or space, nothing ‘known’, nothing separate, how can there be any disease, any misunderstanding, or anything ‘conscious’ of anything ‘else’? The idea that the brain invented the idea of the separate self, and hence everything else apart from it, can only be a fiction, since there is no (real, separate) brain or body and no time or space in which anything can be invented.

What is left is a massive cognitive dissonance: On the one hand it is somehow reassuring, even exciting, that this staggeringly radical idea not only makes intuitive sense, it makes scientific sense, makes evolutionary sense. It is comforting, somehow, that there is a possible reason for all this senseless and completely invented suffering — that we can create a model that seems to explain the ghastly, frustrating loneliness, helplessness and unhappiness of being conscious.

But on the other hand, the lesson of radical non-duality is that there is no reason or purpose for anything, no evolution or time over which anything evolves, and no one and no thing to evolve. The science is just pattern-making, just a part of the fiction, just more make-believe. It’s a nice story, until we realize it’s just a story.

So the answer to the question: Is consciousness a mental illness that might be cured or at least treated, is, sadly, moot. There is no consciousness, no one conscious. One might be able to make a quite compelling scientific case for why that is so, and for why humans seem afflicted by a complete illusion that arose in our too-smart-for-our-own-good brains. But ultimately it will be an unsatisfactory one. It’s built on the same false premises that all of science is built on, and hence it’s just a tale “signifying nothing”, no more or less credible or relevant to anything than the QAnon stories of alien lizard people ruling the world.

There is, sadly, no cure for this unreal disease.

But my conditioning won’t allow me to cease making up stories, each hopefully slightly more credible than the last, that explain what cannot be explained or known, that make at least a bit of sense in a world that makes no sense, and has no need to. This is already everything, and its denial is already over. The news just hasn’t sunk in, and, since it’s veiled and unimaginable to us absurdly conscious humans, it never will sink in.

Outside of our seemingly dis-eased human minds and bodies, it’s always been obvious.

This entry was posted in Radical Non-Duality. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Is Consciousness a Mental Illness?

  1. Michael Dowd says:

    Dave, my sense is that there are as many forms of “consciousness” as there are species who have ever lived. An ecocentric rather than anthropocentric discussion of the subject changes everything, in my world. Moreover, as Thomas Berry was fond of pointing out, the differences in plant, animal, fungi, and microbial consciousness is a qualitative issue, not merely a quantitive one. Wouldn’t you agree?

  2. Michael Dowd says:

    Dave, I suggest you read Walter Ong – starting with “Orality and Literacy”: https://monoskop.org/images/d/db/Ong_Walter_J_Orality_and_Literacy_2nd_ed.pdf

    ***I know of NO oral societies evidencing a separate sense of “self” (isolated from Nature) and I know of no literate cultures that maintain (for any length of time) an ecological sense of self.***

    David Abram and Paul Kingsnorth also hold Walter Ong in highest esteem. https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/emergence-magazine/e/62089543

  3. Peter says:

    Dave, for a fresh look at (from) Consciousness, I recommend Peter Dziuban’s marvelous book: “Consciousness is All”. You can sample a few free chapters at http://www.peterdziuban.com

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Michael:

    Thanks; I have bookmarked Ong, and read some précis of his work. Probably not important, but I sense that the important distinction is less between cultures with oral and written language and more between cultures with direct experiential language and those which evolved abstract language. Oral cultures seem very skilled in memorizing far more sophisticated communications than those of us who can lazily rely on a written record (though that may change as we shift back to an oral culture, this time with recording technologies). I’d guess it’s conceivable for strictly oral languages to include abstract concepts, though abstraction is clearly easier in written language. If so, there’s no reason why such cultures couldn’t be reflexive — couldn’t have a sense of self and separation, and couldn’t imbue and reinforce that sense of self and separation in others, including very young children.

    As for differences in consciousness, qualitative or quantitative, between species, the question seems moot to me if there simply is no consciousness. That is, what we call consciousness in humans is illusion, misunderstanding, and what we ascribe as consciousness to other species is just anthropomorphizing. That’s not to say other creatures don’t feel pain, joy etc (perhaps more intensely than humans). But that that pain/joy is not taken personally by non-humans. It is intense pain/joy, and felt as such, but is not “their” pain/joy. It’s not that we humans uniquely feel these things, it’s that we mistakenly believe these feelings “belong” to and are happening to “us”.

    So my sense is we, and the rest of the planet, would be better off without the arrogant and useless illusion of consciousness.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Peter:

    Thank you; I read the free stuff, and can appreciate much of what he is saying. He still seems to assert the reality of the self and the free will and capacity to do something about one’s consciousness. But a lot comes done to the words and how we define them. So he may well be pointing to the same thing.

  6. James says:

    A well-developed analog mind, including a model of self, is essential for making metabolic connections in time and space. Molecules in cells do it by electromagnetism and brownian motion. Humans must rehearse their activity within the analog mind before activating the motor cortex to go do something like make a tool or meet someone at some location at a specific time to make an exchange. Humans are large scale RNA equivalents and we became so because we had preexisting adaptations like free hands (bonding organs) that compelled evolution to move us in that direction – towards new energy resource gradients. We are life “take two”, but it’s not likely to turn out so well since we’re destroying life “take one” which we are still fully dependent upon.

    We no longer even want to be considered a part of the ecosystem. We would rather identify with our jobs (RNA specialization) and our technological surroundings (sitting inside a tech cell home and playing with various tech tools.) Consciousness has been very effective and successful in a gradient busting way but instead of deliverance from extinction and the travails of being an organism it has only assured our destruction. It also allows us to model our own deaths which worries the hell out of us and then we search for technical means or religious beliefs to avoid it.

  7. David Beckemeier says:

    I have heard it said that some native americans believe that words are magic. I would agree, “I am” seems like a very powerful spell.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    James: You said: “We no longer want to be part of the ecosystem”. I wonder why that is. My sense is that it’s a combination of (a) our large brains are capable of imagining untold terrors about things we don’t know and understand, and (b) our civilized (ie urbanized) life has disconnected us from knowing nature. Urban culture is now “the devil we know”.

    David: Yes, and it’s an essentially abstract spell. From my understanding of language, most animal languages do have a way of saying “I am here”, but have no need to, and no way to, say “I am”. And if your language has no need for “I am” it wouldn’t arise in the language — my sense is that any construction that doesn’t immediately “make sense” is just seen as a joke (eg “Ceci n’est pas un pipe”, or perhaps “There is no you”). It takes a lot of cultural conditioning from those already spellbound to make a joke into a spell.

  9. Brutus says:

    Oh, my. You beg so many questions and rely on multiple paradoxes and confusions in this post. I can’t untangle them all. Let’s take an easy one first. Evolution processes explore many avenues that turn out to be dead ends. How long does it take such trial-and-error blind alleys to fully manifest? Varies, no doubt. But if evolutionary time is needed to run some of those experiments completely, then surely one or more rogue species (such as humans) are likely to appear that exhibit short-term competitive advantage but long-term failure (eventual victims of their own success). That’s exactly the boundary we’re bumping up against now as our obvious runaway success at overpopulating the planet with humans at the expense of all else is quickly rendering the planet inhabitable for humans and all else.

    Also, pointing out that a given trait is not strictly necessary for survival is a canard. Humans are a social species, and what did evolve with us includes language and consciousness. They are already proving maladaptive (over, say, the state of nature from our ancestral past) as we essentially consume the plant. Feral children who miss out on socialization often do survive (deprived of language and normative consciousness), but that’s not an exception capable of proving a rule. Rather, it shows that the culture part of gene-culture coevolution has an exceedingly strong shaping effect over mere biology.

    One last thing. Religions and spiritual teachings that adopt a vertical hierarchical structure as a metaphor are part of an ancient ascent tradition that owes its cosmology quite literally to staring up at the sky (sun, moon, stars). Accordingly, the mixture of ideas some still subscribe to but others have left behind include terms such as higher power, god/father (or significantly, gods), transcendence, communion, etc. This tradition requires some sophistication and arguably supplanted an older animist orientation more rooted in nature. We are busily working at new teachings to replace the ascent traditions, which includes the scientific/materialist worldview that deadens and deconstructs everything. I’d say that nondualism falls into this newer post-Enlightenment worldview and requires even greater sophistication, meaning that to adopt it, one must learn how to squint at reality through a mild-altering and -obliterating lens. I find such squinting a unqualified distortion when carried too far; you find it true.

  10. Michael Dowd says:

    You are just too damn cute, Dave.
    You say, “So my sense is we, and the rest of the planet, would be better off without the arrogant and useless illusion of consciousness.”
    (Whew, I’m sure glad that’s all we need to do! Piece of cake!! :-)
    Love you, bro, even if IMHO you’re sometimes a goofball.
    (Oh well, I guess we all are. :-)

  11. Michael Dowd says:

    Once again I invite you to actually read (not skim; not read numerous précis) Ong’s “Orality and Literacy.”
    I *promise* you’ll be glad you did! (Indeed, I’d be happy to make a bet with you, if you’re game.)

  12. Patrice Berube says:

    Hello,

    First time commenting, I think you have a very nice body of work, congratulations.
    I’m originally French and don’t have your technical jargon but have a lot of practical experience in spirituality, Buddhism and non duality, so please bear with me.

    I wanted to say that I thought the focus of the article and debate could be clearer and more useful if the subject would be “Is SELF-Consciousness a Mental Illness”

    I think that consciousness of objects, including the external objects but also the body we see and the thoughts and feelings that arises in the experience, is not the same thing as consciousness itself, and this distinction is everything.

    Consciousness of objects is consciousness + identification of the perceived object based on collected memories.

    Self-consciousness is consciousness + indentification of the perceived object based on collected memories + an arising of a sense/physical sensation of ownership/identity based on collected memories.

    Without breaking this down to its core elements, I think it’s impossible to truly grasp what is happening on a moment to moment basis, and to have any kind of meaningful discussion about the implications.

    For instance, without the specifications, one could be tempted to believe that consciousness itself is a source of problem, or that identification of objects is a source of problem, potentially leading to misleading conclusions and practices.

    But when we get down to it, I think that we quickly realize that it’s the arising of a sense/physical sensation of ownership which has a vested interest in a specific relative outcome that is causing the problems and nothing else.

    All the best

    -p

Comments are closed.