Is it possible to have an experience which is not bifurcated into subject and object? This is the topic of a book I discovered earlier this week, while in a used bookstore in Fort Collins. The book is called Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy* by David Loy. I picked it up for a few bucks, and I was a little annoyed to see I could have acquired it for cheaper on Amazon. C’est la vie.
I’ve yet to really dive into the book, but it looks promising. The main thing that interests me is the question of whether or not nondual thought, and especially perception, is even possible.
The difficulty with nonduality is that it seems all of our thoughts and perceptions are thoroughly enmeshed or maybe constitutively determined by the subject/object relation. I seem to recall that (and its implications) was the big idea behind Schopenhauer’s work. Every thought you have ever had has been a thought about something else. Every perception has been a perception of something else. It’s you thinking about something, or you having a perception of something.
The idea that thoughts and perceptions are about things outside of themselves is at the heart of the idea of intentionality. Intentionality is a feature of the mind to project itself towards other things and so to be about them. Some philosophers hold that all thought, or all conscious thought, involves intentionality. It’s a popular position on the contemporary philosophical scene
Even a thought about a thought can be conceptualized in terms of the subject/object or self/other dichotomy, provided reflexivity is allowed as a logical operation of thought, which spans over its contents. It’s hard to see how it could be otherwise, it seems. What would it mean for thought or perception to be non-dual?
More difficult still is the issue of perception. I can imagine a thought that is without subject, directed only at an object. To be sure, I can only imagine it as a kind of sleeping thought, nothing conscious. Perhaps in the twilight hours of sleep this is what are thoughts really amount to. Maybe thoughts are truly substrate independent, as some researchers on artificial intelligence think, so that a computer could truly be said to have thoughts, in virtue of doing certain computations, provided they were structured in the right way. I am doubtful about this, personally, but let the point stand for now.
Even if that were so — even if there could be non-dual thinking, because the subject is eliminable — this doesn’t go very far when it comes to perceptions. Perceptions seem to be the sorts of things that, if they exist at all, they are conscious episodes. I mean here phenomenal perceptions — those which involve something that it is like to have them. Of course, there is a minimal sense of perception involved in, say, rousing a sleeping body by means of a jostle or a poke. But are such occurrences really phenomenal perceptions, or are they more like raw sensations, data that flip the switch of consciousness, to “turn on the lights” as it were? It is likely the latter, I suspect.
Phenomenal perceptions pose a problem for non-duality. The subject is ineliminable from the phenomenal experience. It may be possible to have an experience of an object without an experience of a subject, if, for example, experience is itself diaphanous (as philosophers say) and inscrutable to the subject, so that the subject is aware only of the object. But this doesn’t remove the subject from experience, it only removes the subject from consciousness. The trouble is that even in experiences wherein the subject is lost to itself, although the subject no longer recognizes the relation of itself to its object, the relation still obtains. Could there be a truly non-dual experience, where the experience is not only of object only but truly only consists of object? Or if not that, then could there be an experience of the subject as its own object, in such a way as not to involve a reflexive relation to itself?
Certain traditions claim non-duality in perception. I’m thinking of some of the contemplative traditions that involve meditation. Taoism, certain Buddhist schools, the Upanishads, and even Neoplatonism spring to mind. Even contemporary practitioners and proponents of meditation, such as Sam Harris occasionally bring up non-dual thought and perception. In How to Change Your Mind Michael Pollen recounts that experiences of nonduality are frequently reported by those who partake (whether medically or recreationally) of certain psychoactive substances, such as psilocybin, lysergic acid, or dimethyltryptamine.
But are these experiences veridical? Which is to say, are people really having experiences of nonduality? Or are people falsely representing nondual experiences to themselves, in a kind of cognitive illusion? If phenomenal consciousness requires the subject/object distinction, then surely there are no nondual experiences to be experienced, and so perceptions as of nonduality can only be as veridical as other illusions, which is to say not at all.
This poses a problem. In order to be an illusion, arguably, a misrepresentation has to be possible. The notion of misrepresentation, however, is derivative on that of representation. There have to be possible veridical cases, in order for a misrepresentation to be a misrepresentation of anything at all. But on the assumption that nondual experiences are impossible (on the grounds that phenomenal consciousness requires duality), there cannot be illusions, strictly speaking, of nonduality, anymore than there can be genuinely veridical cases of nondual representations.
On one way of thinking about the issue — taking a representationalist line of thought regarding the nature of perception — nondual experiences can’t even be illusions.
For those who want to rescue the legitimacy of nondual experiences, there are alternative ways to approach the issue. One might reject representationalism, for one thing. There are other models of perception, such as direct realism, panpsychism, adverbial theories, and so on. This might help to account for nonduality as a kind of illusion, but it’s not clear it will help legitimize the nondual experience as authentic.
Rejecting the Distinction
What is really needed is a wholesale rejection of the subject/object distinction as a necessary requirement for phenomenal consciousness. This is easier to do if one takes a certain line about phenomenal consciousness, which is popular among philosophers such as Daniel Dennett and his acolytes. The solution is to eliminate the subject from the equation in the first place, opting to view phenomenal consciousness itself as a kind of illusion. Nonduality is the default option of all consciousness, if it turns out that there is no subject in the first place and only object.
There are two major problems with the eliminativist strategy, however. First, it’s not immediately plausible that the subjectivity of consciousness can be eliminated, even conceptually, without question begging against the view that it is real. To contest the existence of qualia and subjectivity on the grounds that they are illusions raises the question for whom are they illusions? and suggests bad faith on the part of eliminativists, who often look as if their deliberately ignoring the issue. This has led some philosophers to remark that Dennett’s well received book, Consciousness Explained, should really be titled “Consciousness Explained Away”.
The second problem is that the experiences as of nonduality that are described by practitioners of mystical and contemplative traditions in which they are found, as well as by those who have partaken of various drugs or been to outer space, are always described as being radically different in kind from what ordinary consciousness consists in. But if the eliminative materialist is correct, then the absolution of the subject, on their view, should result in every experience being a nondual one. That’s certainly not the case. At the very least, the eliminativist would have to provide an explanation as to how apparently nondual experiences are possible on her theory.
Here’s a suggestion, though it’s only a suggestion. If we allow that phenomenal perception involves a logical operation of reflexivity, then it may be possible either on a representationalist theory or on a direct realist theory of perception for the object of conscious awareness to be itself. That sounds confusing, I know. The notion of reflexivity is a weird one. It’s as if the process of thought or perception has looped back on itself. But maybe this is how it always works anyway.
Here’s a plausible (or at least not totally implausible) thought. When I see a red apple, I perceive that there is an apple before me. But it also seems that I perceive that I perceive that there is an apple before me. Arguably, this is always the case, for any sort of perception that is conscious. Usually, I don’t attend to the fact that I perceive that I perceive something, but this doesn’t show that I don’t, in fact, always have a little bit of reflexivity involved in my perception.
It might even be the same for thought.
Now, to imagine how it could be possible to have an experience as of nonduality, it might be enough that the mind could have the perception of having perceptions, but the content of the perception is impoverished to the point of only extending to itself. It’s a simple loop. I perceive that I perceive.
Is this really a nondual experience? I don’t know. There seems to be a sense in which it still involves a duality, because the subject is its own object only inasmuch as it undergoes a process of looping back on itself. If it really is a process, if it is temporal, it seems there is first the subject without object and then the subject as object. There seems to be a little bit of duality there. At the same time, the duality involved is of a pretty derivative and degenerate kind. That the process is self reflexive may not be indicative of the distinctness of subject and object at a time but rather of the identity of one and the same subject at multiple times.
I’ll read the book on nonduality and see what the more traditional responses to this problem have been. With any luck, I’ll report back here.
*Disclosure: links to Amazon are affiliate