Tuesday, July 3, 2007
Consciousness, Emergence and Ethics
Once in a while, we take a more technical excursion in this blog.
This morning a friend and I were discussing Gurdjieff's teaching as it is viewed by the academic world. She pointed out to me that Gurdjieff has not yet been taken seriously by the world of religious scholars. They generally tend to view his teaching as a cult. Kathy is in a graduate religious studies program, so I can reasonably presume she knows what she's talking about.
Our conversation this morning covered some interesting territory. Gurdjieff was the first religious teacher, perhaps the only religious teacher, to provide a legitimate bridge between the religions of the old world -- all the classical religions, Hinduism, Judaisim, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam -- and the new world of reductionist, high-technology science which was beginning to emerge as an extraordinarily powerful force at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.
Why do I say that?
Gurdjieff was the first, and to this day perhaps only, teacher of religious subjects who offered the uncomfortable proposition that man is a machine. I say uncomfortable because, although this is a position any biologist would find it nearly impossible to argue with, you won't find too many religious people agreeing with it. The concept is essentially abhorrent to them.
Gurdjieff furthermore maintained that man's psyche is divided into many parts (centers) which run at notably different tempos. In his system each one of them contributes to the whole in a significantly different manner, with the subject suffering from identifiable deficiencies when cognitive function in any one of them is hindered or impaired.
These ideas presaged many modern understandings of human psychology, and are on the whole supported by contemporary research. The "doctrine of "I"s," which presumes a man has many different "persons" acting within the field of his psychological manifestations, was another major contribution to the understanding of human psychology.
All of this being said, perhaps the most extraordinary (and advanced) insight Gurdjieff offered to us was the following:
Consciousness has levels, and is an emergent property of the parts.
The principle of emergence dictates that organized agents which follow simple rules display increasingly sophisticated behavior as the number of agents in action increases. A classic example of this is the ant colony, where individual ant behaviors are-- to put it bluntly-- idiot simple, yet collectively the ants behave in a remarkably intelligent manner, as though they are a single organism with much greater abilities than any one of the constituent organisms has on its own.
Consciousness as an emergent property of matter is another indisputable characteristic of the physical and biological world. Hardly a scientist alive could argue that it doesn't work this way. What was remarkable about Gurdjieff is that he explained to us that the human psyche works in exactly the same manner. Today's psychology is still playing catch up, as it gradually recognizes the fact that the human psyche displays healthy properties only in direct proportion to the vigor and connectedness of its individual constituent parts.
Gurdjieff's contention was that man's greatest potential lay in the unification of his increasingly dismembered inner state. By "self-remembering" -- reassembling the parts that do not speak to each other -- emergent properties with extraordinary qualities appear in a man's Being. Of course religions have maintained this in one way or another for thousands of years, but Gurdjieff offered us a legitimate scientific explanation for the phenomenon-- one that has certainly not been fully appreciated as of yet.
And of course, Gurdjieff's understanding brings us to a much vaster premise: that the universe itself displays emergent properties of consciousness on scales much larger than our own.
Gurdjieff himself pointed out that science and religion have the same aim- to understand the nature of life and the universe. In the flowering of Islamic civilization during the middle ages, this was well understood, but it may be the last time in man's recent history that these two disciplines found a comfortable consonance.
Nowadays they often seem to be locked in mortal combat.
This morning's exchange included a brief discussion of the nature of ethics as viewed from the Gurdjieff system's point of view. A few of my thoughts on the subject follow.
All religious systems tend to provide a code of ethics; the question is, what does Gurdjieff's code of ethics--if any--have to do with other religious practices?
Gurdjieff proposes an ethics of consciousness: ethics derived directly from the state of perception, according to how unified it is.
We were in general agreement that the Buddhist code of right thought, right action is more or less in line with this understanding, and that the closest thing the Christians have nowadays is WWJD ("What would Jesus do?") I don't offer this to be facetious; I think that WWJD is also in the direction of an ethics of consciousness-- an ethic born of an awareness of where you are, what is happening, and what is needed.
When we examine contemporary Islam and Judaism, it is more difficult to find an active and dynamic ethic of this kind. In addition, despite the WWJD "movement," fundamentalist Christians tend to reject a dynamic ethic. In all three cases, we find that a text-based, and thus rigidly fixed, ethic has been substituted for the dynamic ethic required by an effort of consciousness in relationship to God.
Text-based ethics outsource the responsibility for ethical behavior to the code itself, rather than individual practicing it. This makes it much easier to make ethical decisions, but also makes it much easier to make bad ones. In particular, text-based ethics are entities fixed in time which find it all but impossible to respond to entirely new situations which could not possibly have been anticipated when they were originally established.
We find parallels to this in a struggle of the American government to reconcile today's technologies with a constitutional document written over 200 years ago, but it is not my intention to explore politics here. The point is that ethical decisions fixed in time and fixed on paper will inevitably come up short at some point in the future.
Religious systems that preserve a flexibility of ethical behavior, born of conscious effort within the moment, are a different story. They preserve a respect for human intelligence that dogma inevitably extinguishes.
Fixed point ethical systems carry another major liability in that they require constant defense, because of their innate inability to adapt to new situations. This defensiveness often turns in to an evangelistic paranoia which justifies any action in order to defend the ethical code-- even actions that directly contradict the code itself. Hence we end up with religious people who are willing to kill other religious people simply because they don't agree with each other on what "religion" consists of. In other words, fixed point ethical codes tend to end in violence.
I think we can reasonably conclude that fixed-point ethical systems which originated in distant times ultimately fail everyone. The Gurdjieffian/Buddhist idea of "ethics in action" offers an opportunity to act ethically within context, which is the feature most prominently lacking in the fixed point systems.
May your trees bear fruit, and your wells yield water.