May 15 2012

A Muslim take on “Noetic Sciences”

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Dr. Robert D. Crane at The American Muslim has an interesting response to the concept of “Noetic Sciences,” namely “Is Noetic Evolution a Secular Substitute for God?”

Crane draws on the works of Jonas Salk, and Edgar Mitchell, criticizing them (and the work at IONS) for both reducing consciousness to the role of “information processor,” and for elevating the ego to Ultimate Prime Mover:

The most serious fallacy of the so-called noetics revolution, in my opinion as a nearly life-long student of artificial intelligence (AI), is the reduction of the human being to an information processor, albeit with access to the connective link between mind and matter, evidenced in intuition, psychokinesis, and healing, all of which were normal for humans millennia ago. While Edgar Mitchell’s noetic movement, headquartered in Sausalito, exposes the reductionist mainstream science of physical cause and effect as incomplete, it makes the error of reducing the human being to an information processor that functions as an ultimate cause or ecologically as part of an ultimate cause of both immanent and transcendent evolution.

Astronaut Mitchell writes, “What is the most elemental thing about our nonphysical essence?” His answer is simply “information,” the ability and intent to distinguish between two simultansous states. Like a north pole and a south pole, energy becomes the basis of physical reality and information the basis of consciousness.

The noetic sciences claim to have the most comprehensive solution, “a unified field theory,” for understanding reality by opposing the answers both of physics, which posits matter/energy as the creator of all, and of religion, which says that the creator is the mind of God. Noetics rejects both such “micro-determinism” and “macro-determinism” by regarding the human mind as the source of knowledge and as the ultimate source of cause and effect. The corollary is that human self-consciousness will determine the future by determining its own evolution and through this power the evolution of the entire universe.

This reduction of the theomorphic person by a new anthropomorphic determinism may be regarded as perhaps the most sophisticated polytheism yet invented to restore meaning to what increasingly is being regarded as a meaningless accident, especially the existence of oneself and of humankind. In response to the “death of God” in modern Western civilization and increasingly in global culture, the polytheistic response of the New Agers has always been to create a new god in the form of one’s own ego sublimated to a transcendent level through the delusion that it holds the key to all power.

Whether there is a God or not, is not something I’m really inclined to debate. What I find more interesting is Crane’s description of what he perceives to be happening to the ego.

Often in the circles I travel in, I hear the common phrase “you create your reality,” which of course has a number of problems when viewed from a strictly egoic standpoint (“if something happens, am I to blame?” and “that suffering person over there must have brought it upon themselves” are two easy traps to fall into – see also, any number of critiques of The Secret).

Also, too, it should be pointed out that the “you create your reality” motif isn’t always one of loving, healing wonder, as Ron Susskind found out in 2002.

The Bush aide said this “reality-based community” consists of people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” Suskind nodded in agreement and muttered something favorable about the principles of the Enlightenment, only to be cut off by the aide.

“That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” the Bush aide told the journalist. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to study what we do.”

Of related interest, is Larry Dossey‘s article Healing and the Mind: Is There a Dark Side? in the Journal of Scientific Exploration.

What Crane doesn’t directly mention in his article is the Sufi concept of barakat, or “gifts.” These tend to manifest in ways that one might term “powers” or “abilities” such as telepathy, clairvoyance, or the ability to stop bleeding or not experience pain. These sorts of things develop as one progresses along the path (and I have witnessed some pretty impressive displays of these things, which you might want to take my word for, if you’re on the squeamish side).

The thing is, these abilities are not the end goal. At best, they are side-effects. At worst, they are distractions.

There is a story of a Zen monk, who after several hours of meditation runs to his master. “Master! I’ve had a vision! I saw pure light, and at the center of it was the Buddha, smiling at me!”

“Great!” replied the master. “Keep meditating! It will go away!”

When you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.

In any event…as a student in the field of Consciousness Studies, I am very fascinated with the interactions of consciousness and matter/the brain/the body/the universe/whatever. I support the research and inquiry being performed by IONS, and assorted other research centers and independent researchers in the field. What I think Cramer brings to the discussion is a reminder of not getting overly full of ourselves over it all. Beware of the barakat. While I have seen and experienced a few things to indicate to me that there is at least an interplay between consciousness and its surroundings (not to mention over a century of research that also seems to indicate the probability), it would be unwise to think that these are the end goal.

Furthermore, I’m not entirely convinced that IONS or the like is actively promoting the “you are Gods” narrative. I do, however, know that it is an easy (and unfortunately common) way to interpret the research being done. It is normal, and perfectly understandable to become excited by the research being done in this field. I do believe, however, we need to keep an eye on the ego, as well.

Finally, I will take brief issue with the “Noetic Evolution” narrative, as well. Cramer outlines it thusly:

Noetics as developed today is not a new idea. Teilhard de Chardin, who emerged from the collectivist movement of the mid-20th century, wrote many books as a philosophical paleontologist proposing that the universe is evolving and that human evolution is a collectivist process of ascent culminating in Oneness with God.

What is often cited as “evidence” for these sorts of narratives is the development (in an almost X-Menlike fashion) of various abilities (or barakat), or the appearance of “Indigo Children” (which is a whole other discussion), or the fact that the Mayan calendar runs out in 2012 (a narrative also fraught with difficulties, including heavy reliance on Rousseau’s/Dryden’s idea of the “Noble Savage” narrative). The thing is, these barakat, as Cramer points out, are nothing new. These abilities of consciousness have been reported across cultures for thousands of years.

We now have the ability to study these things. They should be studied. What they should not be, is thought of as some sort of “new” development, nor a birthright to power.

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