• Awakening Soul

Metamorphoses of the Spirit: Breaking Bad Habits (First Installment)

"My soul is wrought to sing of forms transformed to bodies new and strange! Immortal Gods inspire my heart, for ye have changed yourselves and all things you have changed! Oh lead my song in smooth and measured strains, from olden days when earth began to this completed time!"

- Ovid, Metamorphoses

Upon hearing the word "evolution", we think of Darwin and picture a process of monkey turning into man. We envision the DNA double-helix, entities called "genes", and fossils which show a morphological progression from simple to more complex organisms. What we always leave out, though, is the progression of interior forms which must have also occurred. That is, the morphology of our conscious experiences including feelings, perceptions and thoughts. We generally assume these interior forms have only changed quantitatively rather than qualitatively. Our concern in this essay is to challenge such an assumption by exploring the evolution of psyche (Spirit), which we will now refer to as the Spirit's metamorphosis.

After Descartes' divided mind from matter (inner from outer), and Kant divided noumenal Reality from phenomenal appearances, our interiority has rapidly morphed into a black hole of experience; our interior forms are seemingly trapped beneath an event horizon beyond which no empirical tools can explore. It is thought that such forms remain purely "subjective" as opposed to "objective", and the former has become nearly synonymous with "unreliable" and "unpredictable". We assume the subjective cannot be measured and studied in any rigorous manner, because our conscious experiences occur within our personal bubbles which are, in turn, isolated from everyone else's personal bubbles.

It is my aim in this essay to outline an argument calling into question this "common sense" of the modern era. Other more intelligent and qualified thinkers have written entire books about such arguments, so what I do here can only be considered a pointer to those more comprehensive works. It is merely an attempt to restart a conversation. We will begin with consideration of some 20th century psychology, because, as Nietzsche keenly observed, "psychology [should] once more be recognized as the queen of the sciences... for psychology is once more the path to the fundamental problems." There was one psychologist in particular who was intimately familiar with the metamorphoses of Spirit - Jean Piaget.

What we see changes what we know. What we know changes what we see. ― Jean Piaget, The Language and Thought of the Child (1923)

Piaget identified that infants below a certain age (about 4-7 months) do not recognize the existence of objects once they disappear from the infant's view, i.e. there is no "object permanence". Put another way, those infants do not distinguish themselves as subjects from objects and therefore do not have any clear sense of an "ego" or "self" who is experiencing the objects. Without such a distinction, there is no accessible memory created of prior experiences. The infant's own psychic processes are thoroughly enmeshed within the surrounding world. When perception of an object ceases to exist, so does the object itself. Piaget labeled this stage the "sensorimotor" stage.

An entrenched materialist will no doubt object to the above summary and claim the transition to "object permanence" does not indicate a qualitatively different mode of experience, but rather the infant's limited cognitive development. What is key to remember is that the materialist must make such an attribution to the phenomenon. That is dictated a priori by their assumption that the world is made of mindless "matter". Yet, if we are simply taking the phenomenal process as we find it, without any metaphysical assumptions, then it becomes obvious we are dealing with a qualitative transformation. The infant's conscious experience become qualitatively different when the subject-object distinction arises and sharpens for them. We should keep that in mind as we journey further.

Let us now relate this empirical fact of "object permanence" with our discussion of the metamorphic process. None of us have experienced the progression of one organism's outer form into that of another organism, unless we happen to work in research labs with very simple organisms. In stark contrast, we have all experienced the metamorphoses of Spirit from infant to young child with subject-object distinction, young child to adolescent, and, if we were fortunate and ambitious enough to move out of our parents' basement, from adolescent to adult. We have a hard time remembering such changes, but we also cannot reasonably doubt they occurred.

Piaget had critical insights on the metamorphosis of conscious experience from adolescence onwards as well. Around the age of 12 or 13, the adolescent enters the "formal operational stage" in which logical thinking and abstract reasoning begin to assert their psychic dominance of the individual. Metacognitive capacity develops to allow for ability to start thinking about thinking (although this ability is not used nearly as much as it needs to be). Another name for this stage is the "messianic stage", because those within it are more prone to adopting utopian social and political beliefs which they advocate for and pursue with passion. Jordan Peterson captures it well in a personality lecture he gave on Piaget and "constructivism".

The messianic zeal to save humanity, to reform the world, and to change the establishment all stem from... [this] cognitive mode of thought which transcends reality to the endless realm of possibilities.
Jordan Peterson, Personality Lecture 04: Piaget Constructivism (2016)

The transformation from an individual's simple infant consciousness to meta-cognitive consciousness, with subject-object distinctions and abstract reasoning, is hardly considered apart from fields of psychology and cognitive science. We certainly do not consider it much within our daily lives as individuals. We may occasionally ponder memories from our youth, but we rarely reflect on the metamorphic progression of our qualitative modes of experiencing the world. We wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and see our reflections, yet we are not looking to see what truly lies behind our hair, eyes, teeth, and skin. We do not wake up very interested in our own interiority and the ancient Delphic maxim, "Know Thyself".

As the day wears on, we become more immersed in our feelings and thoughts. We think more about how our experiences of the day are affecting us. Each day then becomes a microcosmic iteration of our entire lives. We begin with very little reflection on what we are experiencing and then progress into more purposeful self-reflection with every passing hour. When we go back to sleep at night, we are back to a state of no self-reflection as such. Even in our dreaming state, although we may know that we are in such a state, we do not question why or how our experiences are manifested by the dream in the way that they are. In contrast to waking life, every experience in the dream arrives to us imbued with unquestionable meaning.

Before extending this analogy even further, I want to state clearly that what I am doing here is, in fact, constructing an analogy. The metamorphosis of qualitative experience is a real process, but the comparisons between metamorphoses at the daily, lifetime and cultural scales can only serve as an abstract conceptual scheme which orients us properly and gets us asking the questions which sorely need to be asked. It should not be taken as a means to identify exactly when or how such transformations are taking place. That is a topic which should be investigated, and there are many brilliant minds who have already investigated the topic, but it does not concern us here.

That being said, if we do extend the analogy, then we see how the metamorphosis of individual consciousness during our lifetime is another microcosmic iteration of humanity's development as a whole. Infancy corresponds roughly to archaic humans who felt completely unified with Nature; childhood corresponds to the Axial Age developments in the philosophy and culture of the Far East, ancient Persia, and ancient Greece, where polarities of experience became most important. They are "polarities" because one pole cannot exist without the other (as in poles of a magnet); a fact which people implicitly understood at those times. These polarities include Spirit-Matter, Absolute-Contingent, Universal- Particular, Eternal-Temporal, and all similar ones.

For those living in the West, or any places influenced by the West, it is not difficult to imagine what the "messianic" stage of adolescence may correspond to. We will definitely be returning to that topic in the next installment, as it deserves a much deeper treatment. Let us first explore the broad patterns of these metamorphoses further. We are now venturing out beyond our own experience and the "objective" empirical territory, or so it would seem. What can we truly know about the conscious experiences of our ancient ancestors? We can begin answering that question by contemplating of what our experiences actually consist. There are four basic 'forces' involved in our experiences - perceiving and thinking, willing, and feeling. They exist in relationship to each other as crudely shown below:

Willing means the following types of consciousness, the following experiences: action of all kinds; decisions; doing; determining; controlling; yes-no; on-off; accomplishing; effectuating; carrying out; implementing; working; ordering; intuiting; forebrain; deep sleep and attention.

Feeling means the following: love; emotions; affects; drives; fun; intensity; enthusiasm; exhilaration; moods; passion; sentiment; intuition; strength; joy; humor; playfulness; impulses; and dreams.

Perceiving means sensation; observation; unprocessed information; immediate consciousness;

Thinking means: reason; relate; rational; logical; analytical; discursive; ratiocination; order; consider; reflect; ponder; cogitate; dialectic; symbolize; conceive; connect; deliberate; enumerate; language; imagination and reflection.

We are only concerned with perceiving and thinking right now. These two forces of mind cannot be divided from each other. Although visual perception is the strongest sense for humans, we are referring to all five senses. There is never perception by itself or thought by itself. If all of our senses were disabled and we remained only with our feelings and thoughts, we would still have perceptions because both our feelings and thoughts would become objects of our reflection. People certainly tend to avoid serious reflection on what they feel or how they think, but almost every adult can start doing so at any given moment on any given day.

Currently, we feel that our perceiving activity flows from outside the boundaries of our body 'inwards' while our thinking activity flows from within those boundaries 'outwards'. Perceiving is felt to be a passive activity while thinking is felt to be an active one. Both are experienced as processes in continuous motion - we never arrive at a single sensation or thought which remains 'frozen' in time. All of our experiences are at least the sum total of all our previous feelings, perceptions and thoughts at any given moment. And it is worth repeating - perceiving and thinking can be distinguished but not divided from each other. They always exist together.

Here we come upon a necessary question - if our perceiving-thinking activity is inseparable and continuously in motion, then to what extent can we say that this activity has always functioned in the same way it functions today? It is important to remember that we are not asking about the degree of perceiving-thinking activity humanity has employed, but the qualitative nature of that activity. Owen Barfield, a distinguished member of the Inklings with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, has explored this question in great detail throughout his writings. He never achieved anywhere close to the same public recognition as the company he kept, but as Nietzsche astutely remarked, "some men are born posthumously". Let us see what Barfield had to say:

Interesting attempts have been made to arrive at the relation between thinking and perceiving by imagining them actually divided from each other. You may remember Williams James's supposition of a confrontation between, on the one hand, the environment... and, on the other, a man who possessed all the organs of perception, but who had never done any thinking. He demonstrated that such a man would perceive nothing, or nothing but what James called "a blooming buzzing confusion". Well, he was only expressing in his own blunt way the conclusion which always is arrived at by all who make the same attempt, whether philosophers, psychologists, neurologists, or physicists. Unfortunately it is also a conclusion which is commonly forgotten by those same [people] almost as soon it has been arrived at; or certainly as soon as they turn their minds to other matters - such as history or evolution - but which I personally decline to forget. I mean the conclusion, the irrefragable consensus, that what we perceive is structurally inseparable from what we think. ... The distinction between [perceiving and thinking] is... rather easy to lose sight of, once we begin to reflect or philosophize, for this reason: that the single experience we call "consciousness" - our inwardness at any given moment - is not composed either of perceiving alone or of thinking alone, but of an immemorial and inextricable combination of the two. Indeed it is better to call it an interpenetration rather than a combination. We soon learn, once we begin to reflect, that what we have been accustomed to refer to in everyday speech as "perceiving" - as for instance when we speak of perceiving a chair... or for that matter a neuron or chromosome - is in fact perception heavily laced with thinking, with habitual thought, with mental habit. If we go ahead and study the relation between the two - thinking and perceiving - in terms of real interpenetration, what sort of results do we get? We shall find in the first place, I think, that it is not a fixed relation but a variable one; variable in terms of the predominance of the one ingredient over the other. The example of this that comes most readily to hand is the difference poetry and prose... we can hardly fail to observe that in general in the language of poetry the perceptual element is proportionally higher than in prose; while in prose the intellectual element predominates over the perceptual... If we continue the survey, we shall find... the like variable predominance, when we compare language as a whole in its earlier stages with language in its later stages; or the earlier state of any one language with its later stages. In the earlier stage the perceptual element is relatively greater; in the later stages the intellectual element. That is not so much in the use that is made of the words as it is in the meanings of the words themselves. Thus, in our historical survey of consciousness, we find ourselves looking backward down a perspective which reveals more and more of perception and less and less of thought. And if, along this path, we allow our fancy to approach the kind of consciousness that would be all perception and no thought, what do we come to?
Owen Barfield, History, Guilt and Habit (1979)

Here we will anticipate an objection - the above does not explain why perceiving and thinking are inseparable. True, but that is not the question. Rather, the question is whether they are, in our experience, inseparable. Those who question the inseparability have the burden of explaining how the activities can be isolated from each other and continue functioning in our experience. The givens of our experience show clearly that perceiving-thinking activity is always interpenetrating, so any counter-argument should also be derived from the givens of our experience. Refuge cannot be taken in abstract speculations about a simple organism which senses yet does not think, or some other such purely intellectual fantasy that bypasses all human experience.

Let us now reflect a bit more on where Barfield has taken us so far. Everyone will admit that there was a time when human beings did not think by way of abstract reasoning, i.e. Piaget's "formal operation stage". If we also remember that beings cannot perceive without thinking, then we are forced to conclude there was a time when beings did not perceive either. We must further conclude that the ability to perceive arose at the same time as the ability to think. Let that sink in for a few moments, remembering that perceiving includes all modes of sensing unprocessed information. How do we speak of a "world" or a "time" when perceiving-thinking arose? The only way to do so is by recognizing that there was a time when thoughts were perceived as we now perceive 'objects' in the world.

I know many people will remain skeptical of such a 'bold' assertion. After all, it goes directly against our experience of having thoughts form from 'within' us. We must keep in mind, however, that we have arrived at that assertion by way of our current experience and by way of cognitive science. We have seen how there is an undeniable, inseverable connection between perception and thought. After that, it can only be willful blindness and/or modern arrogance which convinces us our ancient ancestors must have experienced the world in the same manner as we do. The phenomenology of thinking and the best science of the 20th century line firmly against that modern conviction. Barfield calls that ancient experience, "original participation".

At the same time, [the phenomena] is felt to be linked with, or related to, that self otherwise than through the senses. The self, so far as there yet is one, is still aware that it and the phenomena derive from the same supersensible source... Objectively, we could only describe the earlier stages of this process as a time when man - not only as a body, but also as a soul - was a part of nature in a way which we today, of course, find it difficult to conceive. Subjectively, he could not yet 'call his soul his own'. The farther back we penetrate, the more indistinguishable would his acts and utterances become from processes taking place in what has since become 'outer' nature.
Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (1965)

Perceiving and thinking were unified in this stage to the extent that they could not even be regarded as distinct from one another. That was humanity's archaic "sensorimotor" stage. Such a mode of consciousness can hardly be imagined by modern humans, in the same way that we can hardly imagine our infant consciousness. That difficulty to imagine is precisely what we would expect if the metamorphic progression of Spirit has actually occurred. We can still get a more firm intellectual grasp of what we are describing here by comparison with another phenomenon. Synesthesia "is a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway". A synesthete may experience tastes as textured shapes or musical notes as vivid colors.

So now we have a concrete example of 'exterior' perceptions which are experienced in radically different ways than most people are accustomed to experiencing them. Is it really that much of a stretch to imagine one's 'interior' psychic processes being sensed as 'exterior' phenomenon? It should not be and, in fact, that is what clinical psychologists call "projection"; a word used often but seldom taken seriously. Projection is a principle of psychic activity which manifests internal psychic content as aspects of the external world. A person who is feeling resentful towards someone may actually perceive that person as harboring resentment towards them. Carl Jung showed, however, that this principle is better thought of as a law of psychic nature, because it is actually occurring in our experience all of the time (we will look at this more in the next installment).

What makes all of the above difficult to accept for modern man is precisely the customary way of thinking - what Barfield called "habits of mind". As mentioned before, we can trace those bad mental habits back to the philosophies of Descartes and Kant, among many others influenced by them. We should recognize that anyone claiming the above is impossible, as opposed to merely inaccurate, is adding an assumption to the givens of our experience; an assumption that mindless 'things' can exist in a world 'out there' in the absence of any sensations or thoughts. It is an assumption which, unlike the metamorphic conclusion we have discussed, cannot be traced to anything in our experience.

It is reasonable to critique the metamorphic view on the grounds that a simple thought experiment, some loose analogies, and a few assertions about language meanings cannot be a solid foundation for a seemingly extraordinary claim. If such a metamorphic process actually occurred, then we should also expect to find indirect evidence of it through historical, literary, mythological, anthropological, and archaeological studies. I agree with that assertion and, fortunately, we have plenty of evidence of the Spirit's metamorphoses from all of those fields, some of which will be covered in the next installment. We also have more evidence from philology - the study of evolving language, literature, and word meanings over time - which was Owen Barfield's specialty.

Words are the "fossils of consciousness", according to Barfield. They provide the average layperson the most direct access to the inner life of others and, with some imagination, the inner life of the entire world. That is especially true today when technology allows for easy access to a wide array of writings and their translations. We will proceed to explore some of that patterned evidence in the next part of the essay. Many rigorous thinkers will be referenced along with Barfield, such as David Bohm, Levy-Bruhl, Goethe, Coleridge, Jean Gebser, Carl Jung, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Rudolf Steiner and perhaps one or two others. Make no mistake, the metamorphoses of Spirit were recognized by many thinkers, some of whom are very much 'household' names in philosophical or scientific circles.

I will conclude this part with a few thoughts about why the metamorphoses of the Spirit are so important. For one, it forces us to reconsider the history of ideas. When we read Socrates, Plato or Aristotle, Saint Paul, or even Saint Thomas Aquinas, we will remember that the way in which they experienced the world, and therefore the meanings of the words and imagery they employed, is much different than how we experience those same words and images today. Secondly, this view reveals that hard limits to experience or knowledge of the human soul, and the corresponding isolation and alienation of the post-modern era, is only the result of a mental habit which can be broken like any other mental habit - with good will, effort, patience, and persistence. Finally, as we broader our horizons to consider the holistic metamorphic progression of Spirit, we may discover a telos in the Cosmos which has been ever-present, residing right within our immediate vicinity, but which we have simply failed to perceive before because we have refused to look in a different direction.

You will sometimes hear people say they have no metaphysics. Well, they are lying. Their metaphysics are implicit in what they take for granted about the world. Only they prefer to call it "common sense". What do we really mean when we use the expression "what we perceive?"... the answer is that we can only mean the very world itself. Or at all events the macroscopic world itself. ... All quality is subjective as well as objective, and the macroscopic world is compounded of qualities, as well as quantities. It is therefore what we perceive and, accordingly, is inseparable from what we think. It doesn't matter what you call it... as long as you remember that what we perceive is the actual world, and not a kind of shadow-show pretending to be the actual world... if anyone feels that I have merely been laboring the obvious at inordinate length, I can only refer him to George Orwell's observation that "we have now sunk to a depth at which the re-statement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men". ... We are not studying some so-called "inner" world, divided off, by a skin or a skull, from a so-called "outer" world; we are trying to study the world itself from its inner aspect. Consciousness is not a tiny bit of the world stuck on to the rest of it. It is the inside of the whole world.
Owen Barfield, History, Guilt and Habit (1979)