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William James and the Sea of Consciousness

It was the centenary of William James' death last year. Famed as the father of American psychology, as a proponent of pragmatism (a philosophical theory of the criteria for what is true), and as the author of 'Varieties of Religious Experience', James was also the leading light in the American Society for Psychical Research, and a President of the British Society of the same name.

His great interest was in trance mediums; rare individuals who fell into a state close to sleep in which a disassociated personality emerged to convey knowledge of events and apparent communications from persons that they could not, by the widest stretch of imagination, have acquired naturally.

No-one could have been better fitted to construe this: James was the great proponent of 'experimental psychology' -- what we would now call the investigation of abnormal psychology and states of mind; above all, he rated fact above theory. He firmly assented to the bedrock of conventional psychology: "Thought is a function of the brain", and gave no credence to the 'twaddle' aspects of Spiritualism. But he was forced, with typical hesitancy, to conclude that the very best mediums did have access to 'supernormal' -- what we now would call paranormal -- knowledge. (Examples will be given). The brains of mediums must be drawing down, or letting through, consciousness itself -- not brain waves -- originating outside of themselves. He formulated a novel theory to fit the facts.

The normal 'productive function' assumption, according to James, is that "the brain brings into being the very stuff of consciousness of which our mind consists". But what if the brain has a 'transmissive' function: that "consciousness pre-exists as an entity, and the various brains give to it its various special forms"?

The production theory of consciousness as an epi-phenomenon (characterised by his Harvard colleague, Percival Lowell, as "Consciousness, in short, is probably nerve-glow") is "not a jot more simple or credible": the analogy with steam, as some sort of phase-change of nerve state given off by our brain vessel, he says, falls down because water and steam are homogenous -- the one is the other at a temperature. Consciousness and neural activity, however, are heterogeneous -- different in kind.

Consciousness becomes a bank on which to draw, somehow temporally configured, but in terms of access, timeless, or at least temporally suspended. Somewhat like internet banking, the normal constraints of access through our brain give us just our account of the Universe. But what if, through the construction (or even invasion) of other personalities, other streams are made available to us? This leads to what has been termed a "panpsychic" view of the universe: not to be confused with idealism, that would hold that only consciousness is real and existent.

"What are the conditions of individuation or insulation in this mother sea? ... How permanent, how transient ?", James wondered. He characterised this as "Myer's problem" -- Myers, his fellow British paranormal researcher and mind theorist, who posited the 'subliminal self'. This is the philosophical problem of personal identity, writ on the largest possible canvass. Are we, as physical beings, just points of reception for stuff that is not personally configured, except by our reception?

For source material from James:

William James on Psychical Research, ed. Gardner Murphy: Chatto & Windus 1961

For a contemporary overview of alternatives to materialism, and "panpsychism"

Irreducible Mind -- towards a psychology for the 21st century, ed. Kelly: Rowman & Littlefield 2007

Two quotes to mull over:

Wolfgang Pauli:

In my own view it is only a narrow passage of truth (no matter whether scientific or other truth) that passes between the Scylla of a blue fog of mysticism and the Charybdis of a sterile rationalism. This will always be full of pitfalls and one can fall down on both sides.

Robert Graves in The White Goddess:

In the poetic act, time is suspended and details of future experience often become incorporated into the poem, as they do in dreams. This explains why the first Muse of the Greek Triad was named Mnemosyne, "Memory": one can have a memory of the future as well as the past.

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