Dual-Aspect Monism, Neuroscience, and Mysticism

The mind-body problem has vexed philosophers and scientists for ages. How do these two relate? Mysticism may hold a key to penetrating the problem to its source.

The dual-aspect (or double-aspect) theory of the mind-body relation is a philosophical view which says that both mind and matter (body) arise from something deeper than either. Mind and matter are the dualistic expressions of a single underlying fundamental reality which is neither mental nor material. This theory has seen support from Spinoza, Kant, Schopenhauer, Bohm, Jung, Pauli, Nagel, Chalmers, and others. This seems to be related to dialectical monism, where a single unified reality expresses itself in dualistic terms, and its most well-known expression is perhaps the yin/yang symbol.

This differs from the similar “identity theory” in that that theory the fundamental reality is material or physical; the mind is considered an identical aspect of the particular arrangement and activity of the material brain. I think identity theory fails in asserting the physical side of the equation to be fundamental because that does not seem to account for non-material mind experience, such as qualia. If mind and matter are identical, neither one can be said to be the fundamental reality. I think that is taking sides unjustifiably. Neither do I think mind is fundamental. There is something deeper than both, in my view.

Is there a “Cause” of Dual Aspects?

If dual-aspect monism theory is an accurate approach, and I think it is, then the firing of neurons in one network of the brain as opposed to another does not tell us anything about why particular neurons fired, but is simply showing us that this network is a particular experience and that network is another experience. There is no reason that a particular network of neurons fires other than it pertains to a particular experience of that particular body and its senses. When a particular soul interacts in a particular activity in the world, then a particular network of neurons is firing, and a particular experience is known in the mind.

Donald Hoffman

The cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman recently questioned these kinds of theories because they seem to fail to answer the questions of cause:

Surely these things are correlated [neural correlates of conscious experience], that’s fine. [But] where is the theory that says, what is causing what? Or if it is an identity theory… [and you’re saying that] the activity in the brain is the conscious experience… give me precisely the class of neuronal activity that is the taste of chocolate, and tell me why it could not be identical to the taste of vanilla. Until we’re doing that, we… are not doing science, and there’s nothing on the table there.

-Donald Hoffman, interview

When a particular network of neurons fires, we experience the taste of chocolate. When another network of neurons fires, we experience the taste of vanilla. We could perhaps turn this around, and also say that when we experience the taste of chocolate, particular network of neurons fires, and when we experience the taste of vanilla, another network of neurons is firing.

In both dual-aspect theory and identity theory it seems the firing neurons are not causing the experience, they are the experience, perhaps the inner experiential “side” of the activity. The first network is not identical to the experience of vanilla, because it is not the network which correlates with the experience of the taste of vanilla.

Is there a “Why” of Particular Neurons Firing?

Neuron firing

Why is it not that network? What distinguishes the two networks, making one chocolate and the other vanilla? This seems to be what Hoffman is asking. I suggest that it is the sheer fact that they are two different networks of neurons, and two different experiences. Through experience and interaction with the world we’ve associated the first network activity to be the experience of chocolate, and the second network to be the experience of vanilla. Period. I suggest there is no deeper reason for the difference of neural networks, and science will never discover one. One simply is the taste of chocolate, and the other simply is the taste of vanilla.

There are clearly specific broad areas of the brain that we know correlate with particular experiences and functions, such as the occipital lobe located in the back of the brain with vision, and we might be able to narrow this down to even particular areas within that lobe that correspond with particular aspects of the vision system, such as color, shape, edge, contrast, etc. This clustering is perhaps the case because it is more biologically and energetically efficient to group neurons together in particular areas that correlate with a similar experience.

But a more fine-grained reductionist understanding of what particular neurons “do” and “why” seems like it will fail. They don’t “do” anything except send action-potentials down their dendrites and across the synaptic clefts to other neurons. They are not creating consciousness, they are consciousness. Consciousness is happening. Or perhaps more specifically, they are the outer or external side of what is happening experientially on the inner or internal side of consciousness, forming the mind. We cannot know what those neurons are conscious of on the internal side unless we ask the person, and construct correlations. The activity in a certain neural network is an experience arising in the mind, and we cannot know what that experience is unless we ask the person with that mind to tell us what it is that they are experiencing. Looking at the particular neurons alone will tell us little to nothing about the experiential side, and never will it seems to me.

The Unconscious/Subconscious and Free Will

Many neuronal networks are completely “unconscious,” “subconscious,” or outside of the conscious awareness of mind. They are activity going on “under the surface,” so to speak. Why are some neuronal activities part of our conscious mind, and other activities not? Perhaps because if all activity was experienced as part of our conscious mind, we would be paralyzed by a deluge of information and tasks. Imagine calculating the tension needed in each of the hundreds of muscles of your fingers in order to angle the bones and joints in the required ways to type each letter of a word or sentence or paragraph on your phone or keyboard. We couldn’t do it. It would be far too much for the conscious mind to handle, and so after extensive bodily training and experience when we are young, these tasks fall beneath the surface of conscious awareness and handled unconsciously and seemingly “automatically.” It becomes “natural” to do them, easy, simple. Our conscious mind is laser-focused on only one particular thing at a time, and it is usually a much higher-level hundred thousand foot task. Rarely does the adult conscious mind get involved in the nitty-gritty of moving individual muscles or similar activities.

There is also the question of if the conscious mind is actually consciously doing anything, or if it is simply being informed of what the body is doing and taking credit for the task. This is a question of free will that we’ll have to address more thoroughly another time, but I’ll suggest briefly that the conscious mind may only be informed of what is happening, and doesn’t actually do anything. The body and soul are doing it, not a conscious “self.” All activities and choices might be unconscious or subconscious, arising from unfathomable depths of consciousness, the world, and being. It is not coming from what we typically think of as our conscious “self.” Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said, “I am able to do nothing of myself… I do not seek my will, but the will of the One that sent me” (John 5:30). Our actions may be coming through us, but not from us. We are not their “source.”

The Unique Nature of Neural Networks

Each brain is unique at the lowest levels

Each person’s brain and mind correlations will be unique at some level, and if we want to have a brain-computer interface in the future, it seems it will always have to be custom-trained for every individual at that level and below. Our neuronal scanners or detectors will sense which neurons are firing, perhaps down to individual neurons, but we will need to tell the computer what we are experiencing, thus establishing a relationship or correlation between particular neuronal activity and our qualitative experience. I don’t think there is any way around this. This kind of correlating seems to be the main activity of many neuroscientists today.

We seem to learn over time and association that when our brain has certain cascades of neuronal activity that we are experiencing pain in our knee, and that when we experience other cascades of electrochemical activity that we are seeing the color red 🔴. One is the other. But which neurons cascade in my brain when I see red are likely not at all the same ones that cascade in your brain when you see red. They are almost certainly both going to be generally located in the occipital lobe of both our brains, but which particular neurons in those lobes are firing will be entirely unique at some level, it seems to me. How would we even map such neurons as being the “same” from person to person? Every brain’s particular arrangement of neurons is going to be unique and different, and there is nothing unique about the neurons themselves that tell us what kind of experience they are associated with.

New Experiences = New Networks

When we experience something new it is perhaps because a completely new network of neurons is firing. Said another way, when we experience something new, a new network of neurons is firing. We construct over time these relationships between the physical activity in our brains and their correlated experiences in our mind, in consciousness, and these constructions and their relationships to each other begin to guide our behavior in the world.

Why does a new network of neurons fire when we experience something new? We could flip the question around and say that when we experience something new, why is a new network of neurons firing? Why does that happen? If the experience is new, then a new network of neurons must be firing for us to recognize it as something new, different, unexpected, novel, unique, unencountered before. It may be similar to a prior experience, and so a neuronal network may be firing that is very close physically to another one in the brain, but there are still some differences, because our experience is different. If the very same neuronal network was firing, we’d be experiencing the very same experience as we have had in the past. But this is a new experience, and so new neurons must be firing.

But why do those particular neurons fire? What chose them, specifically? How did they get picked when the electrochemical cascade of firing started from the bodily senses? It’s possible that the particular neurons that fire are quite randomly selected, in the general area of the brain associated with that experience. The body senses new phenomena, and so a new set of neurons fires to account for the difference in sensory phenomena. The mind learns that this is something new and different. This is something that the soul hasn’t experienced before.

We associate those neurons with that experience, in relationship to all our other experiences. The two are one, the neurons and their experience, in relationship to all other experience. When that particular network of neurons fires again, either through memory recall or through the bodily senses, we will be experiencing the same thing once again. The mental experience, and the network of neurons that fires in the brain, are one. All of these associations build up over our lifetime, and establish our sense of self, identity, concepts, knowledge, understanding, worldview, preferences, etc.

Duality and Oneness in Mysticism

How is this related to mysticism? I think it is the modern way of saying what mystics have been saying in a multitude of different ways for millennia, in all different parts of the world, which is this:

Spirit and body are One.

Mind and matter are One.

Subject and object are One.

Knower and known are One.

The material world is not some separate independent thing from our mental life. The Cartesian dualism is false. The material body and our mental experiences are one and the same. Our experiences are the world experiencing itself, it is the soul having experience.

If they are really one, then why do we refer to them as two separate things, body and spirit, or matter and mind? This is perhaps because at our level of everyday perception and being, they appear as two separate things, and they must appear as two separate things in order for their to be experience, life, and being. The spirit incarnates itself into the material world, the Word itself becomes flesh. There are seemingly two things, a duality, in our perceptual reality, even though they arise from a single Ultimate Reality.

The unified One Reality must reduce itself to a finite dualistic perceiver in the world if it is to perceive anything in a subject-object relationship. The One appears to become two, so that subject can know an object. The error we make is in thinking that the subject and object are two separate things, instead of one nondual fundamental Reality expressing itself as two. We come to identify only with the subject side of the equation, and the subject in this particular finite body-mind, and that all other things “out there” in the world are objects or “other” subjects, and thus “not me.” We become trapped in our “small self,” imprisoned in this particular body-mind, this sense of “self” identity that is constructed over a lifetime in the mind.

Another way of saying this is that when a perception arises in the mind, it is both the subject and its object. The appearance of something in consciousness is both the seer and the seen, at once, in the very same appearance. The knowing of something in consciousness is both the knower and the known. It is both. At once. But we identify only with the subjective knower, or the particular thoughts that are known, and not with the underlying consciousness from which they both arise.

Reality has evolved to know its Self

Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

The human body and its brain have evolved within Reality in order so Reality itself can know itself, so it can get a perspective on itself, so the cosmos can know itself (as the astrophysicist Carl Sagan once said), so that God can know God, and experience life and love and being. God has incarnated its Self into human bodies, and all bodies, and their brains or nervous systems. When an activity arises in the brain, in the electrochemical firing of neurons, we simultaneously perceive something in the mind. Another way we could say this is that when we perceive something in the mind, electrochemical firing of neurons is happening in the material brain. That is the appearance in consciousness of a subject and object, this duality of Reality, even if the object is merely a thought. Even a thought must have a separate subject to know it, to see it, to gain an “external” perspective on it.

It is the inner and outer “sides” of Reality, like the two sides of a coin. Reality is knowing itself. Inner is knowing outer, and the outer is reflecting itself to the inner. God is knowing its Self in the form of this experience. Reality is manifesting its Self in the world to its Self, and knowing that manifestation through another part of its manifestation, living beings, mirrors reflecting mirrors.

The cosmos has evolved eyes, in you and me and all creatures, to see and know itself

We are the sense organs of God. The Father is giving birth to itself in the Son, so that the Son may know the Father. If you’ve seen the Son, then you’ve seen the Father (John 14:9). It is the only way to see the Father. The Father doesn’t “see” anything except through the Son, and the Father isn’t seen except by the Son, through its own incarnation in duality (John 1:18, 6:46; cf. Matt. 11:27). The Dharmakaya is becoming incarnate in the Nirmanakaya so that the Nirmanakaya can experience being, even samsara, and this is paradoxically knowing the Dharmakaya itself, or nirvana. The two are one. We are the activity of God, making it on Earth as it is in heaven. As above, so below. The Divine is here, because the Divine is you.

What seems to be happening in a human being (and all other forms of life), in the bodily senses that detect different forms of energy in the world and translate them into electrochemical signals that then flow through a storm of neuronal activity in the brain, in which we simultaneously experience perceptions in a mind, is that Reality is gaining a finite perspective on itself, it is seeing itself through a limited subjective relative frame of reference. It is gathering a host of information about itself through multiple channels, different lenses, different means of touching itself, articulating itself, translating itself, interpreting itself, considering itself, and the more ways it can develop for seeing itself, the better, the more beautiful, the more true is its perception. But since all of that seeing is necessarily limited, finite, dualistic, referential, symbolic, none of it is Reality as it really is. Reality is not seeing itself in its true essence. It is only seeing itself through a limited lens, a dark glass, a dim mirror, shadows on the cave wall, phenomena not noumena, the relative not the Absolute. They are the only way Reality can see itself as “other” than itself.

Reality knowing its True Nature

If Reality wants to see itself as it really is, if it wants to know itself in its essence, in purity, absolutely instead of relatively, it cannot be through the limited finite subjective relative means of a human body and its senses. All of that must be transcended. The subjective mind of the human must, in a sense, die, be extinguished from consciousness, including all of its perceptions and conceptions. None of those will be Reality as it is in itself, since they are still in a subject-object duality arrangement and relationship, and is all symbolic, the image never being the thing. Reality must drop all its lenses, all its channels, all its ways it has developed for seeing and knowing itself in relativity. It will never know itself absolutely outside of itself, as a dualistic “other.” It can only know itself within itself. There is no neuronal activity of the brain or experience in a mind that will be Reality as it is in itself, in its essence, in its nondual oneness, in pure consciousness.

Rather, it is the absence of all such activity in the brain, and all such correlated experience in a mind, that is Reality as it is in itself. All duality stops, ends, and is seen through as one single Reality. Only when consciousness becomes completely empty (kenosis/sunyata) of all such subject-object perceptions, a pure void of nothingness, a perfect dark night, can Reality know itself as it really is, as the One itself, the source of All, the foundation of All things in the cosmos, the Absolute, the Real, pure Consciousness, the Singularity, the Light-energy of the whole universe, the Ground of Being, pure infinite and eternal Love beyond all spacetime, God, the Divine, the First Cause, the Prime Mover, the Transcendent, the Sacred, the Holy (Whole), the Ultimate Reality. God knows itself by direct intuitive being or isness, and only when the veil of the relative subjective mind is completely empty and thus falls away does this awakening to Being occur. God realizes that God is and has always been the pure and unified consciousness underlying all experience, all living, all being, all reality. God is no longer hidden from its Self (Isa. 45:15).

Then we come to recognize that everything that is, including all human bodies, including all forms of life, including all the beauty and tragedy of the whole incarnate Earth and natural cosmos, is nothing other than the expression of what we really are, of that Reality, emanated in the manifold dualities of creation, because that is the only way Reality is able to express itself, manifest itself, incarnate itself, form itself, know itself as any “thing,” Love itself, Live itself, experience itself, do anything other than be the nothingness that is itself in its Self. All such formations in the world are Reality being and becoming itself, unfolding itself, explicating itself, beautifying itself, describing itself, glorifying itself in one eternal round, growing to greater and greater consciousness of itself through its creations.

Conclusion

The One Divine Reality manifests itself in and through all dualities, polarities, opposites, a spectrum of possibilities, a contrast, because it is its only option if it is to manifest, if the One is to incarnate, if it is to give birth to its Self. There is no reality or manifestation or living or perceptual reality if there are no such dualities or opposites. They are indispensably necessary for God to be in the world (2 Nephi 2:11). This is also known as the coincidendia oppositorum.

There is no day without night, no hot without cold, no left without right, no male without female, no happiness without sorrow, no good without bad, no health without sickness, no subject without object, no knower without known, no physical without spiritual, no mind without matter, no matter without mind, no spirit without body, no body without spirit. Awakening to the oneness of Reality undergirding all these dualities, and expressing itself through them, is known as “resurrection” in Christianity (D&C 88:15-16; 93:33-35). We are that Reality that is being resurrected in every moment of experience.

It is coming to know one’s deepest Self, which is God its Self. It is theosis, divinization, deification, liberation, salvation, enlightenment. It is the ultimate realization that everything that is going on from the most distant galaxy to the smallest amoeba and grain of sand on Earth, is the Divine, the One, the Singularity, the Spirit, the Absolute Truth, the Eternal Law, the Light-Energy of All, Love expressing itself, incarnating itself in the world. It is the dance of God, the suffering of God, the life of God, the joy of God, the tears of God, the activity of God, the energies of God, the Son of God.

Know your Self, and you will know the universe and the Gods.

My end is communion with Being, through the whole of Being. Then, in the light of the absolute, every idea becomes worth studying; in that of the infinite, every existence worth respecting; in that of the divine, every creature worth loving.

—Henri Amiel (1821-1881), moral philosopher, poet

Please share what your thoughts are about dualities, opposites, neurons and their relationship to experience, what your thoughts are about the connection between dual-aspect monism, neuroscience, and mysticism. Where am I wrong? Because I’m surely wrong somewhere, and most likely in many places and ways. How does this theory fall apart? I look forward to hearing your comments and ideas, discussing them, and learning from our interaction, either in the comments below or on Facebook.


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2 thoughts on “Dual-Aspect Monism, Neuroscience, and Mysticism

  1. A very interesting article! I have always found dual-aspect monism to be the most plausible explanation for reality, but because of its complex nature, people seem to reject it (if indeed they’ve ever heard of it). It’s excellent to see more people writing about this theory, and I look forward to reading your future posts!

    1. Thanks Dimitri. I’m glad you enjoyed it. And beyond the philosophy of mind, dialectical monism seems to be a similar approach to reality as a whole.

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