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The purpose of this website is to define the structures and functions of subjective reality, which is categorically distinct from objective reality. The two are interconnected, and all life requires both. There have been many efforts to find the source of subjective reality within objective reality, but they have failed, and always will fail, because the two are fundamentally distinct.

Subjective reality is created by the mind, whereas objective reality exists independent of any perception or interpretation by the mind. There are two types of subjective reality: shared and individual. The shared subjective reality contains all language, laws, politics, and relationships. The individual subjective reality is all thoughts, feelings, sensation, and emotions.

Objective reality can be established and proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Shared subjective reality can be agreed upon, validated and enforced. Individual subjective reality can be described but not established or proven.

Even though all subjective reality is created by the mind, there are knowable rules and structures that explain how it functions. The key elements are identity (agency) and will (volition), which are driven by hope and desires, and made real by belief and attachment.

It may seem odd to address concepts like hope, desire, belief and attachment as scientific principles, but they are. Volition is the force of will that all living organisms express in one form or another. This force is desire, driven by the expectation (hope) of achievement or pleasure. The types of desires and hopes that any given individual expresses are tied directly to their identity, which is the complex and layered sense of self.

While these structures and processes are the same for everyone, the specific characteristics and manifestations of them are extremely variable. An analogy is painting. All paintings have some kind of paint put onto some kind of canvas using some method. And all the visual content is some combination of realistic, abstract or expressionist imagery. These are the structures of painting, which result in the extreme variety of artistic paintings.

Subjective reality is created by the mind. The mind is the vehicle for experience, which requires awareness and volition. Awareness and volition cannot arise out of objective reality alone. Instead, they result from an inextricable blending of pure consciousness and objective nature. 

Pure consciousness is a fundamental principle, which means it is not caused by anything else and it does not arise out of anything else. This is extremely difficult to understand because pure consciousness doesn’t have any material or energetic manifestation. The human mind literally cannot conceive of it. To understand what consciousness is and how the mind operates, we have to combine observable phenomena with the logical application of cause and effect.

The formal definition of consciousness is:

Pure consciousness is the undifferentiated potential for knowledge (to know and be known). Consciousness imbues nature such that living organisms have the powers of agency (awareness) and will (volition), both of which are aspects of knowledge and requisites for life. These powers reside neither in consciousness nor in nature alone; it is only in their union that life is possible.

This definition is explained thoroughly in the Definition of Consciousness article. There is an explanation of how the mind operates and what drives its activity in the Philosophy of Mind article. An explanation of the logic and methodology for this model is contained in the On Methodology article. 

There is also a Simplified Explanation for those who don’t have a background in philosophy. Finally, an approach to understanding the meaning of life is addressed in A Scientific Approach to Meaning in Life.

Key Points

The key elements of this definition and how the mind operates are:

  1. Pure consciousness is a fundamental principle, which means it is uncaused and cannot be explained by any other phenomena.
  2. Pure consciousness alone is just potential, and as such has no manifestation of its own without merging with elements of nature.
  3. In living organisms, consciousness is required for agency and will. These are the primary drivers of life and all activity of the mind (not the effects of other activities as commonly assumed).
  4. There are three layers of reality: objective reality, the shared subjective reality, and an individual subjective reality.
  5. The mind creates all experiences in the two subjective realities. These experiences may or may not align with the objective reality.

All these points are explained thoroughly in the articles.

The definitions and concepts on this website are my own amalgamation of theory and practice. Most of the core concepts and structures originated in the ancient Samkhya philosophy along with other elements of traditional yoga philosophy (mainly articulated in the Samkhya Karika and in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali).

There are many places where this model deviates from Samkhya and yoga philosophy. For this and other reasons, I have chosen not to use Sanskrit terminology. There is, and always has been, disagreement within the yoga and Eastern philosophical communities about how to understand and translate the core elements of these ancient philosophies. So even if I were to cite a specific Sanskrit phrase, the meaning of that phrase isn’t agreed upon even in Sanskrit. Therefore, I have avoided the use of Sanskrit and stuck to constructing what I hope is a complete and thorough explanation.

Also, we have such a better understanding today about how objective reality and the mind and brain operate compared to when the ancient philosophies were written. Furthermore, these Eastern philosophies were written in a self-referential and tautological manner, making them even less useful for today’s study. Therefore, I have taken my own understanding of the ancient philosophies (developed over a decade of substantial study, training and practice), combined it with centuries of scientific and technical developments, and filtered it through rigorous logical reasoning.

The goal of the definition and corresponding explanations is to provide a consistent terminology and framework for the discussion and study of consciousness and the mind across all fields. I’m very interested in making this content as useful as possible, so please send gaps, issues, questions, and/or corrections to OpDefCon at gmail dot com.

The Definition of Consciousness

One of the greatest impediments in the study of consciousness today across all fields is the lack of an operational definition. Eskimos have 50 words for snow, yet the one term “consciousness” is used for a wide variety of phenomena.

A partial list of what the term “consciousness” is currently used to describe:

  1. The capacity for metacognition
  2. The capacity for language
  3. Sentience
  4. Perception
  5. Awareness
  6. Knowledge
  7. Mature self-awareness (as in a more conscious being)
  8. Deliberate thought
  9. Intention
  10. Wakefulness (literally being awake, not asleep)
  11. Self-conscious (in the sense of unease or embarrassment)
  12. Pure sense of self or “I”
  13. Spirit
  14. God
  15. The field of awareness in which all experience happens
  16. The “only reality.”

Furthermore, there is a need to distinguish between the human experience of consciousness and the objective realities of consciousness, including other living organisms.

What follows is an operational definition of consciousness that I hope provides a common terminology and framework for furthering the full scope of scientific studies of mind and consciousness.

The Definition

Pure consciousness is the undifferentiated potential for knowledge (to know and be known). Consciousness imbues nature such that living organisms have the powers of agency (awareness) and will (volition), both of which are aspects of knowledge and requisites for life. These powers reside neither in consciousness nor in nature alone; it is only in their union that life is possible.

Explanation

Pure consciousness is a fundamental principle, which means it cannot be explained by any other phenomenon or combination of phenomena. It is uncaused.

The word undifferentiated means that consciousness has no specific form or energy of its own, nor does it have any presence inside time and space. Instead, it imbues nature with the powers of awareness (agency) and volition (will) that manifest in each living organism according to the biochemical makeup of that living organism. A limited analogy is electricity, which activates heat in a stove, light in a bulb, and rotation in a blender. The electricity is the same in each, but the activity is dependent on the design of the appliance. The analogy is limited because electricity is an independent energy, whereas consciousness is not energy.

The word potential means that consciousness can do nothing by itself. It requires union with the building blocks of nature for anything to know or be known.

The word knowledge is meant in the purest sense, and can be any kind of living knowledge. Knowledge requires agency (awareness) and will (volition). There can be no knowledge without a knower (one who is aware of the knowledge), and there can be no knowledge without the will to know (knowledge is an action for which volition is required).

Consciousness empowers the human brain to be capable of more sophisticated knowledge than any other organism we know about. But consciousness also empowers the simplest organisms to sense and adapt. For example, consciousness imbues plants with the ability to sense light and move toward it. A plant cannot think because it doesn’t have a brain, but it does have an awareness of the light and can grow toward it.  

The concept of quantity is irrelevant to consciousness. It is undifferentiated potential that activates according to the capacities of the organism. Therefore, the common phrases of one organism being “more conscious” or “less conscious” than another are technically incorrect. A dog is not more conscious than a fish. Instead, the dog’s brain is larger and more sophisticated than the fish’s brain.

In all living organisms, there is the will to live. Efforts are made, no matter how simplistic, to sustain life and avoid death. This requires two things: a sense or awareness of the boundary between self and other (agency) and the ability to convert stimuli into adaptive action (will). Agency is the containment of life within a single organism. For example, if a dozen plants of the same species are growing in a tight space, and one plant dies, the others keep on living. Each of these plants has a sense of the boundaries that keep its life distinct from the others. This sense is agency.

As organisms become more complex, pure agency develops a richer identity, and the will is used for gratification and play in addition to survival. In the human mind, the complexity of identity and will is vast and subtle.

The human mind is literally incapable of conceiving of pure consciousness. Just as our eyes are only capable of perceiving wavelengths from 400 to 700 nanometers in the electromagnetic spectrum, our minds are only capable of thoughts structured by subject – object – action within time and space. Pure consciousness has none of the qualities of subject, object or action, and is without time and space. Instead, pure consciousness is what gives the mind the capacity for agency, awareness, sentience, cognition and will.

Understanding how agency and will arise from the union of consciousness and nature is extremely difficult for the human brain since pure consciousness does not have any manifestation of its own within time and space. There are three analogies that help explain it.

The first analogy is the difference between oxygen alone and oxygen within water. Water is H20, which means hydrogen and oxygen chemically combined. Water is a liquid but oxygen is a gas. You can learn a lot about the world by seeing all the different ways that water supports life. But oxygen also exists separate from water, so if you only study water, you miss some of what oxygen really is. The metaphor is limited because oxygen and water both exist in measurable forms within time and space, whereas consciousness does not.

The second analogy is a traditional movie projected on a screen. In the projector, colored film passes in front of a white (full spectrum) light source. The film has form and color but no illumination, while the light has illumination but no form or differentiated colors. They never mix with each other in the projector, meaning the light is always white and the film is the same no matter how many times you play it.

The images on the screen, however, are illuminated, colored forms. The light and form are not only mixed on the screen, they are inseparable. No matter what you do with the images on the screen, you cannot separate the light from the form. Yet back in the projector, they are still entirely separate.

A living organism is like the image on the screen. Consciousness and nature are mixed in a way that they are inseparable in that life. No matter what, you can’t find consciousness, or even a conscious mind, as a unique reality separate from the brain.

The third analogy is the concept of driving. Driving is the term we give to the active functioning of a car with a person controlling it. The driving is not a unique reality that can be separated from the car, the person, and their activity. In the same way, mind is the term we give to the active functioning of the brain inherently fused with consciousness for the purposes of creating experience. There is no mind existing as a unique, separate reality.

All knowledge and awareness starts with a sense of existence, which is also the sense of self or agency. Descartes’s cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) is a good proof because the sense of self or agency is a prerequisite for thought. Thought requires agency, therefore, if there’s thought there’s existence. Agency itself is a form of knowledge (the knowledge of individualized existence), which is why the definition of pure consciousness is the undifferentiated potential for knowledge, not agency.

Pure consciousness is a fundamental principle, and cannot just be a function of other natural processes. Awareness, agency and will do not arise out of physical, chemical or biological processes alone. Some have argued agency is a clever trick (“strange loop”) of brain activity. If this were true, the drastic reduction of brain activity through deep meditation would arrest the agency loop, causing the sense of individuality to disappear. But the opposite happens. The sense of individuality is what remains when all other thoughts are stopped. For more on this, see the Philosophy of Mind article.

Furthermore, the difference between living and inanimate objects is the presence and absence of life force. All animate organisms exhibit the will to live, which always manifests as some kind of response or adaptation to stimuli. This is obvious in animals, but even plants move toward light, and amoebas differentiate and move toward prey. Adaptation cannot occur without some type of primitive knowledge or awareness. The potential for knowledge and awareness comes from pure consciousness, not the inert materials that constitute the physical body.

Agency and will are key differentiating factors between living intelligence and artificial intelligence. With living organisms, their problem-solving intelligence always has a purpose, which is survival of, and/or some other expected benefit for, the organism. With artificial intelligence, there is no self-directed purpose. Instead, some other agency (person) determines the purpose of the problem solving.

Inorganic matter and dead organisms lack agency and the ability to respond to stimuli (will). Machines lack agency, and thus they lack the ability to adapt to stimuli for their own sake. Machines’ responses to stimuli are programmed by others. Any artificial intelligence programmed into a machine for future adaptation is for the benefit of those doing the programming, not for the machine’s sense of self, which doesn’t exist. No matter how capable and sophisticated a computer may get, it is not conscious without a core sense of self (agency) and will.

Because pure consciousness does not have any spatial-temporal existence, we have no way to understand it directly. This is not that surprising. Human vision is limited to a narrow bandwidth of light wavelengths, hearing to a narrow bandwidth of hertz, and our sense of smell is one of the most limited of all living organisms. We have developed knowledge of the phenomena outside our perceptual abilities through logic, inference, and the development of tools.

Today, we have no mechanism or tool to measure pure consciousness. Pure consciousness, unlike ultraviolet light, ultrasonic bat pulses, or ant pheromones, has no manifestation of its own within time and space. This may mean that it can never be measured by any tool, present or future. Humans, though, are exceptional in their ability to solve problems, so I wouldn’t bet against it.

For now, we can apply rigorous logic and reasoning to observable phenomena to validate the theory. We all experience agency and will daily, yet they have no measurable existence within time and space. This is because they are based on pure consciousness, which has no spatial-temporal manifestation. While this seems to violate the scientific principles of measurable, observable and repeatable data, we are dealing with unique phenomena (pure consciousness, agency and will) that defy traditional approaches. We have to expand our approaches without lowering our standards.

All thought and all language are structured around subjects, objects and actions. There is a reason for this. A life is nothing other than the uninterrupted stream of actions performed by that living organism within time and space. All organisms have a sense of self (agency), which is the subject of their actions. All organisms exist within a physical body and interact with other bodies and objects.

Consider the negative of any of these three aspects of experience. An agent with no body and no object with which to interact has nothing to do and no reason to exist. A body or object with no possibility of an agent for whom an interaction would be meaningful cannot produce an experience. And, an agent in a body that cannot move or be modified in any way is also incapable of experience.

The mind is the vehicle for experiencing the world. The objective world is inherently bland and without meaning. The mind is incredibly creative. It filters, organizes and augments the raw data of the world so that a meaningful life can be experienced. This requires layers of perception, interpretation, grouping, imagination, reasoning, explanation, organization, and ascribing meaning to be working full time. The mind is part decoder ring, part interpreter, part bouncer, part streaming media player, and part producer/director. The mind, ironically, is also the viewer/experiencer. And, it’s part critic and part General.

All living organisms have their own particular and limited bioelectrochemical tools for interpreting and interacting with the world. These tools vary by species and even individually within species. The fusion of pure consciousness with nature allows agency and will to operate within these tools. This operation is mind.

For a detailed explanation of how mind works, see the Philosophy of Mind article.

Further Considerations

Science is the study of cause and effect, with the implicit assumption that greater understanding is beneficial on many levels. The term beneficial requires an agent who benefits. Therefore, all the sciences should include these three aspects in their rules and laws: objective reality, subjective reality, and action or change. Consciousness and subjective realities are difficult to measure and validate, but difficulty has never stopped science before. Hopefully, the operational definition of consciousness provides a unified structure for including it in the hard sciences.

This model is neither dualism nor materialism. There is no separate consciousness as a material or energetic force on its own. Yet neither does consciousness arise from the material universe alone. Instead, pure consciousness imbues nature such that living organisms have the powers of agency (awareness) and will (volition), both of which are requisites for knowledge and life.  

In terms of science, there should be a clear distinction made among three levels of reality:

  1. Objective reality, which exists independent of any interpretation by the mind.
  2. Shared subjective reality, which has tolerances of interpretation (like language, laws, traffic)
  3. Individual subjective reality, which is real to the person no matter how closely aligned with others’ realities it may or may not be.

We also have a formal tool for working with many of the dilemmas of quantum physics. Pure consciousness is the fundamental principle that empowers agency and will in living organisms. These powers can’t be explained by any other phenomena. Therefore, we can formalize the role of the observer (agent), and study it without bias.

In Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, for example, there are three elements in the dilemma: position (particle or matter), momentum (wave or energy), and knowledge (technically, the precision of knowledge). Yet, only two are formally included in the equation. The relationship between wave and particle or matter and energy have been intensely studied for at least a century, in no small part due to Einstein’s E=mc2. Perhaps now, the third element, knowledge, can be approached scientifically. Maybe the next wave of world-evolving formulae will have three variables instead of two, even if we have no means for measuring it today:

  1. The study of matter, form, substance, particle
  2. The study of energy, change, momentum, wave
  3. The study of knowledge, awareness, observer, agent.

There has been a statistical dilemma when looking at the evolution of the universe, particularly in the rise of human intelligence. The odds of all this coming about from pure randomness are incredibly tiny. The alternative proposition that it has been guided by an external force or divinity is unscientific because there is no evidence for it. It is also increasingly counterintuitive as science continues to find causal explanations for more and more of what has traditionally been ascribed to divine intervention.

We can now reevaluate the question with the understanding that agency and will are the primary characteristics of life. Agency and will work together to create life force, or the simultaneous effort to maintain/improve life and avoid death. These efforts are not random, but rather self-directed for the sake of that organism’s life. Might not the collected sum of self-directed, willful and life-enhancing actions of all individual life forms throughout the history of the universe be enough to bias evolution away from randomness toward the path we’ve observed?

The metaphor of human travel can help explain this idea:

  1. Humans have the will to travel.
  2. Over the past few centuries, we have greatly evolved the means of travel.
  3. Throughout history, individuals, groups, businesses and governments have worked alone and in concert to improve the ability to travel, making travel safer, faster, more reliable and more comfortable overall.
  4. Actual travel volume varies by individual and collective habits and choices, causing temporary congestion and capacity issues, and thus the desire for further evolution.
  5. Today, there is a sophisticated and interconnected web of paths, tracks, roads, waterways and airways navigated by increasingly efficient, safe and comfortable vehicles, trains, boats and planes. The entire system is managed by humans through a variety of rules, agencies and businesses.
  6. All this development has been achieved by humans acting alone and in concert, all with a combination of self-interested and common-interested motivations.
  7. There is no separate, non-human agency directing the evolution of travel.

In the same way, the individual and collective wills inherent in all life forms, acting alone and in concert, seem to have influenced the process of evolution to a degree that pure randomness doesn’t explain well.

Individual Verification of This Model

There is a way that a person can directly understand this definition of pure consciousness. As explained above, it cannot be through normal thought processes. The human mind, though, is also capable of special knowledge. Through extreme training and practice, the will can be used to reduce, slow, and eventually stop the normal activity in the mind. As this happens, the mind enters and passes through stages of concentration, meditation, and then trance-like states (called samadhi in Sanskrit). When the subtlest forms of mental activity are stopped even in the deepest state of trance, then the inert qualities of nature are distinguishable from pure consciousness.

This has to be an individual verification because there is no way to prove this knowledge. You can only achieve it for yourself. No one else can know if you truly achieved it or just falsely claim to have achieved it. This, of course, is unacceptable for scientific purposes. It does not, though, make the possibility untrue.

The only way to truly know that agency is at the core of identity is to break the attachments causing identity and remove the activity of the mind reinforcing it. This happens through very focused meditation in which the activities of the mind are abandoned layer after layer. The core of the identity is then revealed as the nonverbal association of the sense of self with the living body (“I am this person”). This linking of the “I” with the body with no further qualifications is pure agency.

As the meditation continues to deepen (technically, we’re in the realm of samadhi or trance), the pure individualized sense of existence (agency) is separated from its long held association with the mind. It is now simply the universal sense of existence that is the subtlest expression of pure consciousness with the mind/brain. When this universal sense of existence is stabilized, it’s possible to differentiate the source of consciousness from the awareness that is the cause of agency and will. When this differentiation is stabilized, the created nature of all the layers of identity and even of agency is realized as an act of will. This differentiation is not a thought, so it can’t be described in normal terms.

An analogy for this is taking the earlier movie projector analogy one step further. Life is like watching the movie on the screen where light and form (consciousness and nature) are one and the same, and thus inseparable. The process of meditation and trance is like turning away from the screen and looking at what’s happening inside the projector. The level of pure agency is seeing the lens through which the lighted forms are projected. The level of universal existence is seeing the white light hitting the film. And the final differentiation of pure consciousness from manifest awareness is like realizing that what you thought was the light source is actually a mirror. The true light source had been hidden. All the light you had seen before was just a reflection and not the source.

This description and the analogy, of course, do not constitute a proof. As a scientist, this bothers me. I have tried to conceive of a way to prove or at least establish the truth outside of this individual process. Personally, I spent over a decade in the above practices and have no doubts about it. But this and $3 will get you a cup of coffee. That said, this is an internal process available to anyone for their own verification. You don’t have to take my word for it.

Originally published: 9/9/15
Last copy edit: 9/10/15
List of content edits:
None

 

Philosophy of Mind

This article assumes that you have already read the Definition of Consciousness article and have a working understanding of it.

Executive Summary

Scientific understandings of the mind have been hampered by the lack of an operational definition of consciousness that can be used effectively across all fields of study. To this point, there have been several opposing schools in the philosophy of mind. Proposed here is a model based on a new operational definition of consciousness that explains the mind scientifically based on observable phenomena and rigorous logical reasoning. The principles of cause and effect are used to explain the activity of the mind along with the mechanisms for changing the qualities of experience and even reducing and stopping the activity.

The mind is the experiential mechanism for life that arises from the union of organic material with pure consciousness. The mind is not separate from the brain, the mind cannot arise on its own from organic material, and the body and brain are not imaginary creations of the mind. All these traditional views of dualism and monism have been inadequate because they either fail to explain how the non-physical affects the physical or deny the reality of either the mind or the body.

Instead, the mind is the term we use for the experiential aspect of life. It is an uninterrupted stream of activity, with agency and will as its primary characteristics. Agency is awareness or the essential sense of existence required for life. Will is discernment and volition. In humans, agency is enveloped in identity, which is the layered, complex sense of personhood. The identity feels real due to attachment. The will acts for the sake of the identity, driven by layers of desires all centered around reinforcing the identity.

As such, the mind does not have its own independent existence. An analogy for this is the concept of driving. Driving is the term we use for the active functioning of a car with a person controlling it for the purpose of travel. The driving is not a unique reality that can be separated from the car, the person, and their activity. In the same way, mind is the term we give to the active functioning of the brain inherently fused with consciousness for the purpose of experiencing life. There is no mind existing as a unique, separate reality. Mind is the activity of experiencing.

There is an objective reality, but all experiences of life occur in the mind. Actually, the mind creates the experience. How it does this, particularly in humans, is enormously complicated, and the purpose of this article is to explain it. To oversimplify, there are four main layers that operate together both in series and in parallel:

    1. Objective Reality – This is an inherently bland collection of atoms, molecules and energies interacting according to the rules of nature.
    2. Functional Perception – This is the core level of grouping collections of data into known phenomena that can be worked with by other processes. One example of this is what you are doing right now as you read this article. You’re grouping black lines and shapes into letters and words that represent objects and ideas in your world.
    3. Critical Assessments – These are the next stages of evaluation and interpretation that are vital to maintaining your life. Originally, these are the fight or flight assessments necessary for survival. Today, our lives are rarely in immediate risk, so these critical assessments are focused on key roles in life. In the reading example, you are putting these words into context in the effort to determine meaning and intent.
    4. Human Layering – This is everything else that we stack on to create the complex meanings of our lives. All discretionary layers of identity, personality, and meaning are included here. In the reading example, you are evaluating the content against currently held views, and potentially feeling the stirring of emotion at the incongruity.

In order to create all the experiences of life, the mind uses a theater-like function in which objects, sensations and feelings are presented to the identity and will. This presentation is the stream of experiences we identify as our “life” in the colloquial sense. It is our attention, or what we are aware of.

In fact, creativity is the primary purpose of the mind. It combines various sources of information from the senses, memory, imagination and reasoning to present objects, sensations, feelings and other events to the identity in this theater. The identity owns the experience (“that just happened to me”). Even when the content in the theater is highly aligned with objective reality, it is not the objective reality. As such, there can never be a purely objective experience as there is always at least some subjective or interpretive aspect. This means that we have to treat objective reality and experience as two separate fields of study.

Objective reality is those facts that are independent of interpretation, while experiences are always relative, meaning they are known by their opposite. A 70°F room has an objective temperature, but it is experienced as warm in winter and cool in summer. Each individual may experience the temperature of the room differently based on their own circumstances. There is also a shared subjective reality that would include the concept of the “appropriateness” of keeping the room at that temperature given the tradeoffs among cost, resource use and comfort.

Another key difference is that with individual subjective reality, the belief in the veracity of an object or incident matters more than the objective reality or even the shared subjective reality. In other words, the content of the theater creates a real impact whether it corresponds to objective reality or not. For example, the sexual experience in a dream may be entirely imagined, but it can still produce the same emission as a real encounter.

Will or volition is necessary for all experiences. Without will, no experiences are possible. At its core, this takes the form of the will to live as “you,” which is your identity. Creating experiences that validate this identity is the motivation for all acts of will.

There is a cause and effect relationship between the qualities of the identity and will and the qualities of the experiences in the mind. These qualities can be roughly divided into three broad categories. The first category is self-oriented, which corresponds generally with Freud’s “will to pleasure.” The second is passionate, which corresponds generally with Nietzsche’s “will to power.” And the third is principled, which corresponds generally with Kierkegaard’s “will to meaning.” In normal life, the mind operates within a complex mix of all three.

The objects and conditions of self-oriented attachments and desires are the least stable. This requires more effort to manage them, consuming more mental “bandwidth” and causing more anxiety. Passionate attachments have excitement and inherent value in the activity itself that is absent in the purely self-oriented attachment, but there is still a strong focus on “your” role in the activity. These consume moderate mental “bandwidth” and produce moderate general anxiety. Principled attachments are values-based, and thus the most stable. They require the least focus on the identity, which frees mental “bandwidth” for discretionary and directed efforts. They are most conducive to achievement and result in reduced anxiety. It should be noted that the term anxiety here is used to connote the inevitable feelings of angst created by the constant change in the world that always leads to eventual loss and death.

To answer the age-old debate about “free will,” the will is free like the body is free. People can train and fuel their bodies to perform extraordinary physical feats, or they can not train at all and struggle with even basic movements around the house. Similarly, people can train the will to control an extraordinary amount of mental activity, or not train it at all and allow it to function entirely by instinct and momentum. Freedom of will, therefore, is an achievement of effort, not a philosophical stance.

To answer another age-old question about altruism and where it comes from, altruism is simply the inclusion of others in the identity. If you identify yourself as being a good parent, then the wellbeing of your children is required to maintain congruity. Your caring actions can be both genuinely for the sake of your children and also to reinforce your own identity. The same with being a good friend or citizen or employee.

The purpose of the mind is to experience the world. An operational model of the mind should be able to describe the primary drivers of that experiential activity in such a way that they can be influenced. The will is volition, so it must first be developed. The will operates for the benefit of the identity, so the primary focus of change should be in shifting the identity. The characteristics of identity are reinforced by attachment (which is a form of inertia). Attachments are weakened by contrary efforts. Therefore, the will should be deliberately engaged in activities that weaken the undesirable attachments.

Distraction is an obstacle to achievement, whereas one-pointed focus is conducive for achievement. Distraction and one-pointedness are traits of the will, so efforts to refine the will benefit efforts toward achievement. Distraction is fueled by increasing both the complexity of identity and the efforts to fulfill self-oriented desires. One-pointedness is fueled by simplifying the identity and focusing more effort on principled desires. Efforts of the past appear as momentum in the present, while efforts in the present appear as momentum in the future. The strengthened will, the weakened attachments and the shift in identity that all result from present efforts make future efforts more effective in a “snowball effect.” Therefore, efforts to change or control activities in the mind should be sustained over time.

The Problem

The quest to understand the mind and consciousness has many obstacles. One major issue is the limitation in how our thoughts are structured. We think in a subject – object – action format within time and space. Our minds are not capable of thoughts outside this structure, just as our eyes are not capable of seeing wavelengths longer than 700 nanometers. Pure consciousness does not fit into this structure, so we’re literally incapable of understanding it.

Another major obstacle is bias. We do not experience the world objectively. Our senses do not reproduce exactly what they perceive like a machine. Instead, all thoughts, all perceptions and all experiences are acts of will within the mind. No matter how objective we try to be, the will is biased by the identity and thus it has an agenda. Removing these biases and agendas in order to get an objective view on the activity of the mind is extremely challenging, especially when looking at the mind itself.

A third major obstacle is activity. The mind is always busy. Layers upon layers of complex thoughts, sensations, emotions, and actions create a cacophony of movement impossible to differentiate. Trying to understand the busy mind is like trying to study the ecosystem of a pond while it’s all stirred up. You really can’t see anything until everything stops moving and settles to the bottom.

A fourth obstacle is the relative nature of experience. Everything is known by its opposite. Consciousness has no opposite, so it defies normal understanding.

The fifth obstacle is anthropocentrism. From the beginning of time, the human mind has fashioned itself as exceptional. In 1633, Galileo Galilei was imprisoned for promoting Copernicus’s heliocentric astronomy (the theory that the earth revolves around the sun instead of vice versa). Today, it seems ludicrous that the earth was considered the center of the universe, and anthropocentrism has been all but eradicated from astronomy. Unfortunately, anthropocentric views remain nearly as pervasive (and preposterous) in the fields of philosophy of mind and consciousness as they were 400 years ago in astronomy. Anthropocentrism creates biases and agendas strong enough to prevent understanding.

The goal of any model of the mind and consciousness should be to explain its functioning in terms of cause and effect. Changes in causes should predict changes in effects. The mind is the activity of experience, so the model should explain the forces that drive experiences along with the means to change their qualities.

The metaphor of driving can be continued here. Driving is the term we use for the active functioning of a car with a person controlling it for the purpose of travel. A model for understanding driving should include how the driver controls the car, what choices they can make while driving along with the consequences of those choices, how the car functions from the driver’s perspective, and the basics of how a car works from a mechanical standpoint. The full mechanical description would extend beyond a treatise on driving.

In this model, we’ll explain that the purpose of the mind is to create experiences. We’ll describe the primary components of mind along with the key forces that affect their functioning, the decisions and actions that affect these key forces, how experiences relate to and differ from objective reality, the primary functions of the brain and body as they relate to the mind, and how special knowledge of the mind and consciousness can be achieved through the deepest levels of meditation and trance.

The Mind is Creative

The metaphor of the mind operating like a computer is not just wrong, it’s substantially misleading. Instead, the mind is a creative entity that both produces and “enjoys” all the experiences of life. There are four aspects of the mind (identity, will, theater, and the senses) that work together to create all the layers of experience.

The mind is the vehicle for experiencing the world. The objective world is inherently bland and without meaning. The mind is incredibly creative. It filters, organizes and augments the raw data of the world so that a meaningful life can be experienced. This requires layers of perception, interpretation, grouping, imagination, reasoning, explanation, organization, and ascribing meaning to be working together full time. The mind is part decoder ring, part interpreter, part bouncer, part streaming media player, and part producer/director. The mind, ironically, is also the viewer/experiencer.

All this means that the objective realities of the universe are only partially relevant to what we experience in the mind. This is extremely important to understand. First, there is an objective reality (some philosophies incorrectly say that there isn’t). This objective reality always contributes to the totality of experiences, but there are an enormous variety of experiences possible using the same objective reality.

The difference between objective reality and subjective experience is similar to the difference between an art supply store (objective reality) and the art that gets created by their customers (subjective experiences in the mind). You have to start with the limited set of supplies, but the variety of possible art you can create is virtually limitless. There is that much creativity exercised by the mind. The reason I say “similar” is because we humans have been trained, socialized and acculturated since birth to follow patterns of interpretation when it comes to experiencing.This is the shared subjective reality layer of experience. We’re taught how to survive and get along in the world, and for good reason. There are generally accepted tolerances for interpretation and the resulting behaviors within society. The tolerances vary among societies and cultures, but they always exist. Therefore, the high degree of commonality in our experiences is trained more than inherent.  

The key point is that while the objective reality is an important starting point for experience, the mind plays a hugely creative role in all our experiences, even the simplest ones that appear to be objective. This is a big part of what it means to be human. There is simply no possibility for an objective experience, so we can stop looking for it.

Example – Augmentation

In these Example sections, we’ll look at a few examples of how the mind works in daily life. There is no new philosophy in them, so you can skip down if the above all makes sense.

Below left is an image of a statue. I found this picture on the internet, and it appears to be of The Golden Buddha located near the intersection of Thailand, Burma and Laos. We can assume the statue really exists, and this is a fair representation of it. Below right is what it would look like if it were printed in a magazine using standard CMYK printing methods (at a lower resolution for educational purposes). The reason CMYK printing works so well for magazines is precisely because of the creative functioning of the mind.

CMYK PatternOn the left is the image as the mind sees it: a high quality, seamless picture of a golden statue in front of a slightly cloudy sky. On the right is the “reality,” which is just a pattern of dots. These dots vary in size, and are made up of only four colors: cyan, magenta, yellow and black. All the subtleties in hue, saturation, shading and highlights you perceive in your mind are created by the mind. There is no gold ink anywhere on the page. (Digital colors on a monitor also work with three colors, but in an opposite way. See here for an explanation.)

Said differently, in the “objective” world, magazine images have four colors. In the “experienced” world, the mind creates the perception of up to 16.8 million variations in color. For you number geeks, that’s an amplification of 412. This number comes from the eye being able to perceive 256 gradations of each of the three colors and 2563 = 412 (black is not needed in theory, but the limitations in ink and paper require it in application).

Think about that for a second. Your mind magnifies the real experience of four colors to the twelfth power! What an extraordinarily creative organ—from boring dots to breathtaking imagery literally in the blink of an eye.

And this is just the start. The mind also creates the perceptions of light, shadow, depth and dimension by imposing meaning on groups of colors. This ability to construct dimension and meaning from limited patterns is essential for life. It’s the way we function and survive in real time. This includes secondary associations like beauty, ownership, and danger (or more commonly, indifference) that the mind attaches to what it perceives.

Example – Illusions of Color and Depth

Lotto Lab Same Squares simplerIn the image above, you see two “blocks:” a gray block on top and a white one on the bottom. The middle edges of the blocks appear closer than the top and bottom, and the light source is seen to the left and a little back. The reality is that this is just a two dimensional image with no depth, and the faces of the two blocks are identical colors. This is hard to recognize because your mind is so adept at “explaining” what it sees. Even though it perceives the same color in both block faces, the top block is instantly identified as a gray block in the light and the bottom block as a white block in the shade. All the essential, functional, life-saving information you know about light, shade, depth and dimension instantly informs and filters this sense data into a three-dimensional explanation of different colored blocks. But none of that is inherently in the picture.

This image is from Lotto Lab’s amazing site. It’s worth several minutes of your life to explore just how much the mind contributes to our most basic perceptions.

Example – Filtering

Another important way each of our minds modifies our experiences is by filtering. In the above examples, the mind functions in an additive way, taking limited information and enriching it to create more vivid and relevant experiences. The mind also works constantly to filter out excess information. This is necessary so that we don’t get overwhelmed, but the mind’s biases cause the filtering to reinforce what it already thinks.

A vivid example of filtering occurs during conversations at a crowded party or restaurant. There are so many conversations happening within earshot, but you are somehow able to identify your friend’s words out of the chaos. As commonplace as this may be in your world, think about how incredibly complicated a task this really is. It’s called the cocktail party problem, and it shows how much work the mind does in determining our experiences.

Similarly, when you’re engrossed in a book or article, you lose all conscious awareness of the information captured by the senses. The information is still coming in and being filtered by the mind, which we know because an unexpected sound interrupts your reading even if it’s quieter than other expected sounds.

Example – The Sculptor and Reading

As you can now see, all our individual experiences are carved out of a mountain of possibilities. The mind is like a sculptor who filters and selects “real” world elements, combines them with memory and analysis into meaningful constructs. These constructs are what we experience as the “world,” even though it’s several steps removed from any purely objective reality.

Sculptor addingThis process of sculpting an experience out of possibilities can be seen in how we read a sentence. The mind groups lines and shapes into letters and words. It “hears” the words as it reads, going through an enormously complex filtering process to convert the sentence into something meaningful. Let’s use the following sentence as an example:

The cat is large.

When you read this, the image of a cat appears in your mind. Because there is no specific context, the words cat and large could be interpreted any number of ways. You could imagine anything from a house or alley cat to a wild cat, like a leopard or tiger. Large could mean tall, wide, or fat relative to its species, or it could mean one of the larger species of cat.

How does your cat image relate to the objective reality? It doesn’t. It’s entirely a mental creation. Let me explain.

Assuming you’re reading this electronically, the objective reality is pixels on your screen illuminated in contrasting patterns. Your mind converts these light patterns into shapes. It ascribes meaning to those shapes on many levels. First, it sees them as letters, which together form words. The letters and words do not exist objectively. You have to train the mind to convert lines and shapes into concepts of words. If you doubt this, try reading a script you haven’t been trained in.

The words themselves also have no objective reality. There is no such thing as a “cat” in objective reality. There are living organisms in objective reality. The mind groups these living organisms into functional categories in order to facilitate survival and life in general. One of these categories is “cat.” By forming the concept of a “cat,” we can be much more efficient in our communications and decisions in general. By the time we’re adults, we’ve seen enough cats that we have a working understanding of general cat behavior. Unless we have a compelling reason to engage, we recognize the organism as a “cat” and move on.

There is an important distinction here between reality and utility. The objective reality is waves of light emanating from a screen. The utility is recognizing shapes into words, words into language, language into meaning, meaning into communication. We could not live our lives as they are without these incredibly efficient and useful shared interpretations. But we have to understand the shared reality is not the objective reality.

I find all this remarkable and inspiring. The speed and efficiency with which the mind operates on these levels is extraordinary. The “computing” power on each of these levels is boggling.

Final Example – Forehand

One final example of the power and creativity of the mind is athletic ability. The innate knowledge of physics built into the mind, brain and body is incredible. One of my favorite examples of this is the return-of-serve, down-the-line, passing-shot forehand in pro tennis.

Tennis ForehandProfessional tennis players can serve at speeds in excess of 120mph and with enough spin to influence both the trajectory and bounce of the ball. The court is 78’ long, which means the player returning serve has less than half a second to hit the ball back. Let’s look at the physics of this.

The tennis ball is standard issue and has a known mass, size, texture, and design. The serving racket has mass, while the strings flex and have friction. The serving motion, speed, and angle of contact all vary at least a little in every single serve. All of these affect the trajectory of the ball, which hits the surface of the court (which also has friction) and bounces on with a new trajectory. And if they’re playing outdoors, there is the potential for gusts of wind to affect the position of the ball.

The player returning the serve has to calculate not just the precise position of where the ball will be, but has to move their body to be in position, swing the racket with the proper motion, head angle, velocity and timing to hit the ball so that it clears the net and strikes the ground approximately 60’ away within 12” to the left of the singles sideline. The amount of time available for these calculations and the precision with which the ball needs to be hit are so tight you’d think it impossible. Yet pro players achieve this consistently. The mind is a powerful tool indeed.

The Four Aspects of Mind

We will divide the mind into four core functions: sense of self or identity, discernment or will, the theater in which all experiences are held, and perception or sensory information processing. These four functions work together in all normal experiences of life, though there are exceptional circumstances under which they can be isolated to some degree. It should be explicit that these are not four regions of the brain. We’ll leave it to the neuroscientists to explain exactly how the brain creates various aspects of mental phenomena.

It should also be explicit that this is a model for explaining how the mind creates experiences. We’ve already established that all experiences have subjective elements, and that the objective reality is only partially relevant (at most). As such, we will not attempt to validate or verify experiences as they relate to objective reality, as we already know there are differences. Instead, we will look at the driving forces in the mind that create, perpetuate, and change individual experiences. Any public claims of fact or achievement leave the realm of individual experience and would thus be subject to normal validation and verification.

How Does the Mind Function?

The mind is the subjective, experiential aspect of life. It is the subject, object, action by which “I” experience the world. The mind is known by its activity, which in humans is the “stream of consciousness” of thoughts, feelings, desires, emotions and sensations that make up life. The mind is its activity, and the activity is the mind.

This activity has momentum. Past activities created the present momentum, the current activities create future momentum. One aspect of this momentum is what we call habit. Another is personality. The identity has momentum. The momentum is complex and layered, not singular. Later, we’ll explore the key sources of momentum so that they can be altered if desired.

The brain is a bodily organ whose functioning results in the mind (no brain function, no mind). The capacity of brain activity to result in the mind comes only because of the fusion of consciousness and nature in the brain. There is nothing in the material, biological or chemical processes of the brain alone that could give rise to the mind without consciousness. Nor is there the possibility of consciousness experiencing anything without nature.

All activities of the mind are structured with subject – object – action within time and space. This is true even for non-verbal sensations and abstract thoughts, as there has to be a subject for any sensation and a thinker for any abstract thought. Instinctual, “subconscious,” and life-preserving activities of the brain are also performed for the sake of the agent, which is the subject.

The mind is the only way we experience life. All physical, emotional, and intellectual experiences are had in the mind. If you stub your toe, you feel the pain in your toe, but you experience that feeling in your mind. The mind has the amazing ability to present feelings, objects and interactions as if they’re happening all around. There can be no experience outside the mind.

“You” are the subject of all your experiences. One aspect of the mind (agency) is responsible for maintaining your sense of self. In humans, this sense of self can be incredibly complex. We identify with our bodies, our families, friends, possessions, achievements, titles, and career, to name just a few. Where agency (pure sense of individualized existence) is present in all living organisms, identity is the term for the complex sense of self in the human mind.

All of the activities of life are undertaken for the sake of developing and reinforcing the sense of self. In other words, the will is the force of life that operates for the agency and identity. In all living organisms, there is the will to live. Efforts are made, no matter how simplistic, to sustain life and avoid death. This requires two things: a sense of the boundary between self and other (agency) and the ability to convert stimuli into adaptive action (will). As organisms become more complex, pure agency develops a richer identity, and the will is used for gratification and play in addition to pure survival. In the human mind, the complexity of identity and will is vast and subtle.

In humans, the activities of the will can be broadly divided into attraction toward anything hoped to be pleasurable (or that reinforces the sense of self) and aversion for anything expected to be painful (or undermines the sense of self). In daily life, most choices are layered, and the unique particularities of each mind create different scales for weighing the options and making decisions.

All experiences are relative, meaning they are known by their opposite. A 70 degree (fahrenheit) room is considered warm in winter and cool in summer. A bite of an orange tastes sweet unless it follows maple syrup, in which case it tastes sour. Even socially, the joy of welcoming a long absent friend turns to resentment when they haven’t left after a week.

Last but not least, attachment is a characteristic of mind, and the primary driver of momentum. Attachment is the binding force that links identity to agency, and the will to both of them. Attachment is the sense of possession that ties an activity to the sense of self. Without attachment, there would be no motivation for identity, as the activities of life would be happening without ownership of any kind.

Types of Mental Activity

Since the mind is the experiential aspect of life, and since life is so varied, the details of mental activity must be nearly infinitely variable. This is true, but we can categorize them into a few different lists for utilitarian purposes.

Mental activity can be one or more of the following:

  1. Verbal communication using one or more languages or dialects (includes thinking, speaking, writing)
  2. Nonverbal communication using expressions, gestures, music, art
  3. Feeling a wide variety of emotions
  4. Sensations like pleasure, pain, touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound
  5. Logical and illogical reasoning, abstract thought, metacognition
  6. Imagination
  7. Memory
  8. Sleep (both dreaming and non-dreaming)

It is important to note that the immediate experience of mental activity is identical whether the activity is externally valid or not. In other words, the experience of seeing an object is the same in that moment whether the impression of the object is externally correct, incorrect, or imagined altogether. Over time, the reality of the experience manifests differently according to its validity, but in that moment, it’s the belief in the experience that creates the immediate impact on the mind.

The above list differentiates the forms of mental activity, but doesn’t address the motivating causes or drivers for them. We’ll revisit them later in the section on Knowledge.

Agency and Identity

The sense of self is layered. The core is agency, which is the pure sense of individualized existence. It is the nonverbal awareness of the boundary between self and other. All living organisms have agency. In fact, agency is one of the primary distinguishing factors between life and death, and between living organisms and inanimate objects.

In humans, agency takes the form of the pure “I” in the mind around which all experiences are centered. This pure “I” is almost never seen by itself, as one of the defining characteristics of the human mind is development of identity. The human identity is complex and layered. It is the robust sense of personhood formed by the attachment that links agency with the physical body, possessions and achievements, with the past, present, and future experiences of the mind and body, and with a complete set of desires, preferences, passions, ambitions, and fears. Most people are only partially aware of the complexity and layering of their own identity.

In humans, all activity of the mind revolves around the identity, directly and indirectly developing, reinforcing, defending, and justifying its various elements and layers. All experiences are evaluated based on the identity, as are all emotions.

The creation of the identity has instinctual and deliberate elements. People can, through the efforts of will, influence the nature and characteristics of their identify. There are many techniques for this with varying consequences, such as psychotherapy, socialization, training, meditation, and prayer, to name a few.

Will and Discernment

The will is the force of life that acts for the sake of the agent or identity. Will and agency are required and essential aspects of life. Will is the effort of life, everything from survival to achievement. Much of this effort is biological, instinctual, and/or subconscious, though humans (at least) have the ability to consciously direct the will, especially if they actively train for it.

The will functions in many ways, but its primary activity is discernment. There are so many evaluations and decisions made throughout every day, and the will is responsible for all of them. Discernment is the process of distinguishing and categorizing experiential phenomena through the lens of how it affects the identity.

Take the (not so) simple act of walking down a busy sidewalk. First, the decision to walk on this street at this time was made by the will. Second, micro-decisions have to be made about how to navigate every person and object you encounter. Third, the amount of sense data available (sounds, sights, smells, etc.) is overwhelmingly enormous. The will processes it all, filtering only the “key” data into the theater for the deliberate awareness we call attention. Fourth, there are internal, biological processes being maintained and managed, such as digestion, energy systems for walking and other exertions. While most humans don’t have the ability to deliberately affect these biological systems, the collective intelligence in the systems to regulate for the sake of life is an aspect of the will.

In simple organisms, the agency is the motivation for exertion and will. In humans, the complex and layered identity (which has agency at its core) is the filter through which all decisions are evaluated and made. The functioning of the will in humans can be automatic (“subconscious”) or deliberate (“conscious”). The deliberate use of will is like a muscle in that it can be trained to perform extraordinary feats.

This concept is probably the single most important notion when it comes to understanding cause and effect in human life. All that is good and all that is bad about humanity arise from the will working to support the identity.

Differences in Identities

In some ways, people are all the same, and in other ways, we’re all unique. While all identities are formed by attachment to objects and ideas, there are qualitative differences in the types of objects and ideas to which the identity becomes attached. These qualitative differences have a meaningful impact on the characteristics of daily experiences.

Science is primarily the study of cause and effect, and we evaluate hypotheses and theories by their ability to predict the effects of whatever cause is being studied. In this case, the cause is the general nature of the attachments that form the identity and the effects are the types of experiences formed in the mind, which often evolve into decisions to act (thus affecting the objective reality). Changes to the identity result in material changes to the decisions of the will. And, the will can be deliberately exerted to modify the identity, so it’s a two-way endeavor.

The specific attachments that form the identity are nearly infinite in variety. We can, however, categorize them broadly as:

  • Possessions, including money
  • Relationships
  • Job, career, skills and/or organization
  • Personality
  • Style, fashion, physical appearance
  • Music / art / sport
  • Fame, recognition and/or achievement
  • Ideas, including politics and religion
  • Values, including service
  • Life in that particular body.

Several of these categories of identity allow for the inclusion of others. Relationships, ideas, values, and position in life often contain the wellbeing or benefit of others as part of the notion of self (identity). The will working to support the aspect of identity that is “good parent” makes decisions that genuinely benefit the child. The same process works for a band of hunters. They each identify as part of the team, so each of their wills decides on actions that contribute to the success of the hunt. This means that altruism is a characteristic of the will when the relevant aspect of identity includes others.

In all categories, desire and fear always accompany attachment. We long for more of what supports our attachments and fear their loss. For this reason, attachment always brings an element of pain, either from not attaining our object of desire or from losing it after we’ve had it. Even the very feelings of longing and fear are forms of suffering.

There is an important irony here that ends up contributing to much of the complexity of human behavior. Human behavior is motivated by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Seeking pleasure can be anything from mere survival all the way through the myriad forms of fun we engage in, but the unifying theme is always support for our identity. Pain runs the gamut from death to all forms of physical and emotional discomfort, but is anything that threatens or undermines our identity. The irony is that while we seek to remedy the pain, longing, and fear through the achievement of our next goals, these actions and motivations result in more attachment and desire, which cause more pain, longing and/or fear. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

This cycle has been observed by different philosophers all over the world and throughout time. Many solutions have been proposed, but we can categorize them in three ways:

  1. Changing the details of our pursuits
  2. Changing the qualities of our pursuits
  3. Abandoning the pursuit.

In the first, the assumption is we’re not in the right situation for ourselves, so we need a different job, a different relationship, a new home, etc. While it may be true that a new situation improves certain aspects, the nature of attachment hasn’t been altered, so the cycle continues with new details.

In the second, we seek qualitative changes to our pursuits, such as focusing on ideals and values more than details. This can be anything from living a healthier lifestyle, choosing work that benefits others, or even living a virtuous life based on moral, spiritual or religious tenets. This does shift the identity from individually focused to more universally focused, which moderates the feelings of attachment, longing and fear.

In the third, we adopt an extreme position of rejecting the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain altogether. This is roughly the view of monks and ascetics, and is the basis for the mystical path generally. Goals and actions are turned inward, with the focus on removing attachment and stilling the mind. Since all suffering is a form of mental activity arising from attachment, this is a permanent solution once achieved perfectly. This is also a bit of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as the identity has to resolve back into agency only, which means the complex sense of personhood goes with it.

Qualities of Identity

I’d like to emphasize again that this discussion is designed to explore the true causes of mental activity. When a cause is changed or removed, the effect should change or disappear. In this light, we can observe and predict how changing the qualities of identity effectively changes the qualities of experiences.

There are three broad categories for the qualities of attachment in the identity. As described in the second option above, changing the qualities of attachment significantly alters the nature of experiences. The qualities are:

  1. Self-oriented – “Me before others”
  2. Passionate – “Excitement for its own sake”
  3. Principled – “Fulfillment of ideals” or arete.

These three are rarely found alone, as most attachments have elements of at least two. Each one affects the momentum of the mind by reinforcing itself and opposing the others (like increases like, and opposites counteract each other).

This model creates a form of reconciliation among Freud’s “will to pleasure,” Nietzsche’s “will to power” and Kierkegaard’s “will to meaning.” The human will is capable of all three in varying degrees, allowing any of the three to be the “driving” force in any given person.

States of mind that result from self-oriented attachments are the most susceptible to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as Hamlet said. Circumstances are evaluated based on how they affect “you.” The result is a tremendous amount of mental activity to assess and evaluate all events as they relate to the identity. And, because there are more criteria through which an event is evaluated, the mental re-creation of the event has more layers distancing it from the “objective” reality. Furthermore, since more of the efforts of will are working on managing the attachments, there is less mental space for reasoning and understanding. Finally, the objects or states these self-oriented attachments seek are the least stable, so all changes in life (actual and potential) cause hopes and fears swinging back and forth in dramatic succession. Anxiety and confusion are prominent.

Passionate attachments are performed for the excitement of it. “You” are still the one seeking enjoyment, but there is inherent value in the activity that is absent in the self-oriented attachment. This can be focused on any type of activity or engagement as long as the motive is passionate. The amount of mental activity focused on the identity is reduced, with remnant capacity focused on the activity itself. There are still many swings of hope and fear, but they are not as acute, abrupt or extreme. Many great inventions, works, and creations are the result of a passionate mind. Excitement and hope are prominent.

Principled attachments are based on living according to ideals or values, particularly ones that aspire to the greater good. These attachments expand the efforts of the mind from being focused on individual gain toward universal benefit. The attachment here is primarily to creating value, and thus very little of the mind’s efforts are focused specifically on the identity. This results in mind states that are much more stable and steady. Short term obstacles or mishaps cause little disturbance to the mind.

The ancient Greek concept of arete (pronounced arr-ah-tee) is relevant here. English doesn’t have an perfect translation, but arete generally means the fulfillment of our highest purpose or true selves. Determining exactly what this is for each person is part of the effort. In this context, it is an ideal to realize the fullest sense of personhood possible. The attachment and effort to realize the ideal is a principled attachment that brings stability and clarity to the mind.

Qualities vs Morality

You probably noticed that the above language has similarities to the language of morality. In our case, we are seeking to explain cause and effect. It can be observed that self-oriented attachments demand more mental activity and result in more dramatic emotional swings, more anxiety and more confusion than principled attachments. To dispute this, you’d use observable evidence to support a contrary hypothesis.

With morality, there is an established standard by which actions and motivations are judged. Often, this standard is imposed by one party over another. The word “should” is frequently employed.

There is no moral code explicit or implicit in this philosophy of mind. Instead, one can use this model to understand cause and effect as it relates to the mind. The human mind’s primary characteristics are identity and will, whose primary driving forces are desires and attachments.

When aspects of the identity include others or ideals that benefit others, the will chooses to act in a way that benefits others. This altruism is simultaneously for the sake of supporting the identity and for benefitting others. Technically, the will only supports the identity, so the altruism must originate in the structure of the identity.

The aspects of identity that lead to altruism are a form of principled attachments, which tend to reduce anxiety and increase stability and focus. This can be tested by changing the qualities of the attachments and observing the changes to the predominant states of mind. It is common in humans to strive to improve their lot, so they can also use this model to evaluate the qualities of their attachments and identity, and choose the states of mind toward which they’d like to aspire and work.

The Layering of Experience

The daily lives of humans are extraordinarily complex. The activity in the mind is ceaselessly navigating and managing layer after layer of activity. From a philosophy of mind perspective, we can group activity into four layers:

    1. Objective Reality – This is an inherently bland collection of atoms, molecules and energies interacting according to the rules of nature.
    2. Functional Perception – This is the core level of grouping collections of data into known phenomena that can be worked with by other processes. One example of this is what you are doing right now as you read this article. You’re grouping black lines and shapes into letters and words that represent objects and ideas in your world.
    3. Critical Assessments – These are the next stages of evaluation and interpretation that are vital to maintaining your life. Originally, these are the fight or flight assessments necessary for survival. Today, our lives are rarely in immediate risk, so these critical assessments are focused on key roles in life. If you have small children, for example, you are constantly monitoring the sounds they make, ready to intervene if anything deviates from your tolerance of normal or acceptable.
    4. Human Layering – This is everything else that we stack on to create the complex meanings of our lives.

All normal experiences have all four layers, usually with multiple subdivisions of each. A metaphor is a symphony where each instrument plays its own performance but the audience hears them all layered together.

Objective Reality

The layer of objective reality is the set of objects and activities that occur independent of any creative or interpretive functioning by the mind. In the written sentence, “The cat is large,” the objective reality is the pixels on the screen emitting contrasting amounts of light. Everything else about the letters, words, sentences, meanings, imagery, thoughts, and any emotions are all mental creations from one or more of the other layers. Most of these layers would be part of the shared subjective reality, although some of the imagery, thoughts and emotions would be only within the individual subjective reality.

If you were to visit a friend who has a Maine Coon cat weighing 25 pounds, you might think to yourself, “The cat is large.” In this case, the objective reality would be the living organism with a mass of 25 pounds on earth. Everything else, including the concept that it’s a cat, is a mental creation from one or more of the other layers.

The objective reality is vital for two aspects of experience: perception and action. In the above example, the physical characteristics of the cat are the basis for the information received through the senses as part of the act of perception. The image of the cat in the theater of your mind is not identical to the actual cat because of the interpretations inherent in perception, but the actual cat does provide the raw data for the senses.

Each of us also has an objective reality, including the ability to interact with other aspects of objective reality. We have physical characteristics that are real, including limbs and digits, hair, organs, and energy systems. There are many ways for our physical bodies to differ naturally, including size, color, metabolism, predominant muscle types, voice. There are physical ailments, diseases, loss of limbs, digits, or other function. There are also known disabilities in the brain that don’t allow for normal processing of information.

Many elements of our physical bodies are established and outside our control, but many are directly affected by how we live and use the body. Some disabilities are fixed and directly limit or affect a significant amount of experience. Others allow for broad spectrum experience with strategic adaptation. With advances in knowledge, medicine and technology, the possibilities of strategic adaptation for more disabilities are increasing at a rapid pace.

Whether full functioning or adaptive, we can group all objective action in life into five categories:

  1. Communication – any form of verbal or nonverbal communication that can be perceived by another
  2. Manipulation – the physical interaction with an object that results in a change to that object
  3. Movement – moving yourself or another object to another location
  4. Digestion – anything consumed and absorbed and/or excreted
  5. Reproduction – the passing on of life force into an offspring

Most daily activities are combinations of two or more of these actions.

It should be explicit that the overwhelming majority of interactions within objective reality are extremely bland and meaningless. The excitement and meaning of the interactions result from the creative interpretations of the mind.

Functional Perception

The second layer is the set of activities to turn sensations of light, sound, flavor into identifiable experiences. In this, the mind is part decoder ring, part interpreter, part bouncer, part streaming media player, and part producer/director. Sense perception may seem like a straight-forward phenomenon, but it’s not.

For example, many people have a basic idea of how a camera works to capture images with light and assume we see objects in the same way. We don’t.

By the time we’re a functioning adult, we have formed a complex, multidimensional model of the world in our mind. This includes the physical world, social worlds, and a wide variety of operational structures and principles. Instead of starting with a blank slate like unexposed film or a ready sensor, we add all additional sense information and experience to our existing mental model. Our process is much more effective and efficient.

It’s even more complicated than that. The process by which we adjust or add to our model is biased. One of the functions of the will is to filter sense information. At any given moment, there are way too many details across each sense realm (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste) to incorporate. In fact, the overwhelming majority of them are skipped or rejected by the will.

The sense information that does come through to our awareness is processed according to how it fits into the current model. This means that most of what we are seeing at any given moment is the model and not the live scene.

The model lives in the theater of the mind. The identity only accesses the theater and never the outside world. Everything “you” have ever seen and experienced is this theater. The will plays several roles in and around the theater. First, it filters all the possible information based on the characteristics of the identity and the nature of its desires and attachments (like a bouncer with a decoder ring).

Second, the will works with the theater to process the information that gets through and augment and/or adjust the model. The model is like the movie set in which all the action happens. These aspects of mind then render the streaming raw data into the model to form the continuous “movie” of our lives. This rendering process is produced and directed by the will.

Third, the will works with the identity to interpret and evaluate the experiences inside the theater as they’re happening. The will is now on the other side, viewing the production it just created. It incorporates this viewing into its filtering and producing of future events. An analogy is a famous director (the will) producing a show for the President (the identity). The producer sits with the President watching all the reactions and adjusting the future scenes trying to keep the President happy.

All this is an extremely creative process. Let’s go back to the earlier example of reading the sentence “The cat is large.” The raw data is contrasting light. The will works with the theater to interpret the light into lines and shapes, into letters and words, into contextualized meanings, and then into the theater for “viewing” by the identity.

There are thus three distinct aspects of “reality” in this Functional Perception layer of experience. There’s the objective reality that exists independent of any creative functioning of the mind. Then there’s the shared subjective reality of acceptable tolerances within life as we know it. In this example, the shared subjective reality is that it’s a simple sentence written in English about a particular animal’s size. Depending on the context of where it was written and why, additional details about the animal and the size could be part of the shared subjective reality.

The third aspect of “reality” is the individual subjective reality. Because all sense perceptions are incorporated into an existing mental model, each person’s experience of the same raw data is unique. The will and identity work together to create a wide variety of intended and unintended experiences. This is how the mind works, and there’s no alternative. What can be influenced, though, are the characteristics of the identity and the decision making skills of the will.

Critical Assessments

In the previous layer, Functional Perceptions, the role of the will is primarily on the production end of the experience. In this layer, Critical Assessment, and the next, Human Layering, the will is part critic and part General.

As we’ve seen above, the identity is rich, complex and layered. We naturally identify ourselves with many different aspects of our bodies, skills, relationships, possessions, achievements, and roles in life. In the Critical Assessments layer of experience, interpretations and decisions are made continuously to sustain the vital layers of our existence. Critical Assessments are mostly on the levels of shared and subjective realities, with decisions to act influencing the objective reality.

The term “vital” is somewhat arbitrary, and it is the primary difference between Critical Assessments and Human Layering. Much of what makes life worth living is in the Human Layering, but they are not necessarily vital to sustaining life as we know it. Changes to Critical Assessments cause fundamental changes to daily life, whereas changes in Human Layering result more in changes of flavor than substance. Human Layering is almost entirely in the subjective reality, with some involvement in the shared reality. The objective reality is almost completely irrelevant.

In all Critical Assessments, the will works with the identity to evaluate all the experiences and decide what to do. Most of these decisions are extremely mundane, such as a slight shift in your step to avoid a piece of garbage on the ground or which piece of food on your plate to pick up next. Tens of thousands of micro-decisions are made every day.

Larger decisions are also vital. Problem solving in daily life and long term decisions about school, work, relationships are part of Critical Assessments. In all of them, the will serves the identity by employing a variety of tools including perception, memory, imagination and reasoning on both deliberate and unaware (“subconscious”) levels. Daniel Kahneman and others have done a great job explaining the complexity of decision-making.

The goal in all Critical Assessments is to sustain and improve core aspects of life based on the characteristics of the identity. Differences in identity fundamentally change both the ways experiences are evaluated (the role of critic) and the ways decisions get made (the role of General).

The unifying element is that the effort is critical to a primary activity of life. Most often, competency arises from training and practice. Once established, the focus of the will tends to be on problem solving around the edges, with the majority activities being semi-automatic. Professional athletes, for example, talk about being “in the zone” where there is a kind of “effortless effort” (to quote the Buddhists).

These critical assessments have objective criteria and are results focused: survive, win, navigate, calculate, appease, organize. There are skills involved that transcend individuality. Hunters move quietly. Football running backs see openings unfold. Money managers anticipate market trends. Outcomes can observed, measured, repeated.

Human Layering

The final layer of experience includes all the discretionary aspects of human life. There is so much variety possible here, and I suspect we’re just scratching the surface as a species. The processes at play here function the same as in Critical Assessments. The key differentiating factor is discretionary vs vital. Changes to the Human Layering can have an enormous impact on quality of life, but they don’t necessarily cause obvious changes to the core aspects of daily life.

As an example, consider the psychological dysfunction of paranoia, which is defined as delusions of persecution. In our model, paranoid experiences occur in Human Layering. They result from the will and identity working together to create and interpret events in the theater as persecutory. These experiences are full of anxiety and misery. From their subjective perspective, these interpretations are justified, but from the shared reality view, they are excessive and unwarranted.

Paranoia is reduced by shifting the characteristics of identity and will, which results in less anxiety and misery in the nature of their experiences. This statement, by the way, is a truism, not a method of healing. This is not a prescription on how to heal the identity and will, but rather a statement that healing results from a shift in them.

In general, the significance of Human Layering is that it’s non-vital or discretionary and almost entirely subjective. A substantial amount of mental effort goes into sustaining our experiences on this level. The more complex and layered the identity is, the more effort is required to support it. This is not a problem until a desire for change arises.

Because Human Layering is discretionary, it is usually the best place to effect change. This is where the three approaches described above come in. We can change the details of one or more of our pursuits, change their qualities, or abandon them altogether.

Distraction is an obstacle to achievement, whereas one-pointed focus is conducive for achievement. Distraction and one-pointedness are traits of the will, so efforts to refine the will benefit efforts toward achievement. Distraction is fueled by increasing both the complexity of identity and the efforts to fulfill self-oriented desires. One-pointedness is fueled by simplifying the identity and focusing more effort on principled desires. Efforts of the past appear as momentum in the present, while efforts in the present appear as momentum in the future. The strengthened will, the weakened attachments and the shift in identity that all result from present efforts make future efforts more effective in a “snowball effect.” Therefore, efforts to change or control activities in the mind should be sustained over time.

Human Improvement

Perhaps one of the biggest differentiators between humans and the rest of the species on earth is our commitment to improvement. We are extremely focused on trying to create the best possible lives for ourselves and others. This is an observable characteristic of human activity and behavior, so any model of the mind should include it.

This model of the mind suggests three main ways to improve the process and capacity for improvement:

  1. Practice deliberate efforts of will
  2. Reduce discretionary assessments
  3. Simplify the identity by shifting attachments from self-oriented to passionate and principled.

The first method exercises the capacity of the mind to direct itself, gradually increasing the focus and efficacy of will. It is analogous to training a wild horse to be ridden. The second and third methods reduce unnecessary mental activity, freeing up “bandwidth” for directed efforts toward improvement. In the second, the effort is externally directed, shifting focus from discretionary to critical assessments. In the third, the effort is internally directed, removing unnecessary layers of identity and shifting the quality of the attachments (which go hand in hand).

The Basics of Knowledge

The operational definition of pure consciousness is the undifferentiated potential for knowledge. This potential has no manifestation of its own. Instead, consciousness manifests as the powers of agency and will that arise within all living organisms, which can only come from the union of consciousness and nature. For living organisms with brains, knowledge becomes increasingly sophisticated as the brain becomes more sophisticated. This section will deal primarily with the characteristics of human knowledge.

There are several concepts that are key issues in the study of human knowledge. They are:

  1. Validity
  2. Verification
  3. Intentionality
  4. General vs specific
  5. Perception
  6. Inference or reasoning
  7. Testimony or teaching
  8. Imagination
  9. Memory
  10. Sleep

The term “thought” is absent because it has so many imprecise connotations. Instead, the term will be used generally for any kind of mental activity, including cognitions, sensations, and emotions.

When it comes to the validity of knowledge, the human mind is equally capable of incorrect thoughts as it is correct thoughts. And, to make matters more complicated, the experience of a thought is identical in the moment whether it’s correct or incorrect. This means that verification of knowledge must be separated from the knowledge itself.

The verification of knowledge is an aspect of public life. The scientific method is designed for verifying observable phenomena. There are entire fields dedicated to rules of inference and logical reasoning for strengthening and validating conclusions. The internal, subjective nature of experience, however, is unaffected by verification except to the degree that verification itself is valued by the will and identity. In other words, it is the belief in the veracity of a thought that creates the experience, not the actual veracity and certainly not any external verification. For example, an entire school of psychology (Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy) is based on the power of unverified belief.

The term intentionality is a philosophical concept referring to the mind’s ability to (re)create and hold objects in the mind. Intentionality is a key feature in the mind’s theater in which all perceptions, memories, and imaginations are presented to the identity and will. All experiences occur in this theater. In fact, what we call the experience of life is the entirety of the content played in this theater for the identity and will.

Knowledge can be general or specific, depending on whether the details are about one particular object, or that object’s common characteristics. For example, watching a campfire and the smoke rising is specific knowledge of that one campfire. Seeing a similar plume of smoke in the distance and inferring the presence of another campfire is general knowledge of campfires.

Direct perception is one of the key means of obtaining knowledge. Seeing a friend at the store is knowledge that they were there. Tasting the salt in a small bowl establishes it’s not sugar. As discussed above, perceptions can be flawed so they alone can’t be formal proofs. Most direct perceptions, however, are within a range of tolerances considered “true.” Perceptions of internal sensations and emotions are included here, such as feelings of pain, hunger, sadness and love.

The mind has the ability to infer and reason. If you look outside and the ground everywhere is wet, you can infer that it has recently rained, especially if people are walking with open umbrellas. There is an entire science of inference and logical reasoning that evaluates the strength and validity of methods and conclusions. Two points here are key: the mind can infer and reason, and all knowledge derived from inference and reasoning is general not specific.

Another way of acquiring knowledge is from testimony or teaching. For example, if your friend tells you about talking to your mother at the store, you know your mother was at the store (if he’s telling the truth). Also, you can look up the date and time of the next full moon. If this was from a valid source, your knowledge of the next full moon will be correct, and if it was not a valid source, then your knowledge will be incorrect. The key points are that the mind can learn from written or oral teaching, and the veracity of the knowledge is dependent on the veracity of the testimony or teaching. As with perception, there is the possibility that errors are introduced in the process, in which case the teaching could be correct and the learned knowledge incorrect. This does not contradict the mind’s ability to acquire knowledge through teaching.

The mind has the ability to imagine objects it doesn’t perceive. There are three types of imaginations: real objects out of place, non-existent objects and enhancements to perception. For example, if you see a shirt in a store window, you can imagine what it would look like on, even though the shirt was never on your body. Another form of this is imagining an actual event that you didn’t perceive (or that hasn’t happened). Imagination doesn’t necessarily mean incorrect. You can also imagine a city of the future with a traffic jam in the air with flying cars, even though that doesn’t exist.

The third type of imagination is enhancing perception. As described above, the mind is very efficient during sense perceptions, filling in missing details from memory. For those situations where the sense data is incomplete and there is inadequate information in memory, the mind may imagine the missing data. Imagined objects and data play in the theater of intentionality the same way perceived and inferred objects do. This means that imaginations are experienced as real unless there was deliberate awareness of it being imagined.

The mind also can recall previously knowledge from memory. The recall can be of a complete notion or of particular aspects of an object that are used to complete an experience. As with imagination, unless recall was deliberately used, the memory is experienced as real.

In this list, sleep refers to a type of knowledge unique to NREM sleep. It is the absence of all the other types of knowledge including dreams (which are mostly combinations of memory and imagination, though some elements of direct perception can be incorporated at times). Sleep is the absence of awareness. It should be noted that several restorative processes occur during sleep. These involve “subconscious” activities of the mind, but do not fall into the category of knowledge. Once reawakened, though, there is awareness of the restorative processes and knowledge of having been asleep. As such, the term sleep can also be used for periods of unconsciousness including comas.

This is designed to be a complete list. This means that any intuitive or paranormal means of acquiring knowledge would have to fit into some combination of direct perception, inference and imagination. There is no evidence at this point that extrasensory perception is possible beyond these three. That said, the capabilities of the mind to observe, reason and imagine are extraordinary, so what we call ESP today could become common feats of observation and inference in the future.

Experience, Knowledge, Imagination and Meaning

There is a theme running through this discussion of the mind and knowledge that is both extremely important and extremely challenging. This theme is that truth is only partially relevant to the experience of life.

What we call the experience of life is the stream of events playing in the theater of the mind for the identity and will. This is commonly known as conscious awareness, but it also involves elements of subconscious events. This stream of events plays the same no matter how closely they align with “objective reality” and no matter the source of the information (directly perceived, inferred, or imagined), unless the sourcing is included in the experience (such as the knowledge you’re sitting on your couch watching a Hollywood movie).

This poses a unique set of challenges for the scientific process when it comes to consciousness and the mind. First, every single human experience has at least a little subjective creativity that differentiates from “objective reality.” Second, the belief in the veracity of an event determines the experience in the moment more than the actual truth. Third, verification needn’t play any part in the experience.

A graphic but otherwise perfect example of this is a nocturnal emission. The young man is alone in bed, dreaming. An erotic scene plays out in the theater of his mind, created entirely from imagination and memory. There is no “objective reality” to the scene, yet it produces a real result.

The goals of science are to discover and verify the truths about how nature operates, produce theories to predict effects from different causes, and create tools to solve problems. There is an underlying assumption that achieving these goals leads to the improvement of life.

It’s this last term, “life,” that is problematic. When we say “improvement of life” we mean improving the experience of life. If you doubt this, think of the opposite. Would want better technology with more physical comfort during a longer active life if it was accompanied only by increasing feelings of loneliness, despair, and anxiety? Of course not. Instead, we assume that these advances bring increased feelings of happiness, satisfaction, and quality of life as defined by the person experiencing them.

What we’ve established in this model of the mind is that the experience of life depends at least as much on how the mind functions as it does the external reality. The mind is its activity, and the activity is driven by the will working for the identity to pursue pleasurable events that reinforce the identity and to avoid painful events that undermine the identity.

Humans have a unique capacity for metacognition. Technically, this means we can think about thinking, but it really means we have the capacity for layering thoughts, theories, methodologies, possibilities, and consequences. We can consider our own mortality. Associated with all this is a longing for meaning and purpose.

Throughout history, there has never been a society without a worldview that gives some kind of meaning and purpose to their existence. In fact, if we reexamine this model of the mind through the lens of meaning and purpose, we see that all the acts of the will are designed to justify the existence of the identity within some context of meaning and purpose to life.

The extreme negation of this is the suicidal tendency arising from extreme hopelessness and meaninglessness. Suicide does not happen when the mind retains a sense of hope and meaning.

One of the great challenges for life sciences has been that this sense of hope and meaning need not have any basis in objective reality. We chuckle today at some of our ancestors “scientific” explanations for how the world works (earth is flat, trepanation as a medical cure), yet there’s no indication that we find more meaning and purpose in our lives than they did. Furthermore, even today, most people on earth claim at least some meaning and purpose from a god they can’t verify or even clearly define.

This is a scientific conundrum. The experiences of life are only partially related to objective reality, and the sense of meaning and purpose comes at least as much from imagined notions (i.e. not directly perceived or inferred logically) as from verified realities. Bringing more understanding of objective reality doesn’t necessarily bring more meaning and purpose or directly improve the experiences of life.

Uniting Science with the Humanities

This model offers a scientific explanation of cause and effect within the subjective reality of the mind. The term subjective does not mean random or insignificant. And as we’ve seen, there are many layers of known causative factors in the creation of subjective experiences. The model is based on an operational definition of consciousness that explains the realities of agency (awareness) and will (force of life), without which no understanding of experience is possible.

In the human mind, agency is enveloped by a complex, layered identity through which all experiences are filtered and for which all decisions are made. The identity is maintained by attachment and desires, the qualities of which determine the qualities of the experiences.

Science seeks to forecast changes in effects via changes in causes. The qualities of identity and will can be changed with a predictable change in mental activities and the qualities of the experiences.

This model also provides an opportunity to unite the sciences and humanities. The human mind is a creative force that ascribes layers of meaning to bland interactions based on the characteristics and qualities of the identity and will. This is storytelling. Even the basic use of language is a form of storytelling.

Most of human experience is in the overlap between the individual and shared realities of created stories. In this way, the boundary between the creations of the humanities and the creations of the scientists is much blurrier than previously assumed.

It is my hope and expectation that this model of the mind and consciousness can be used to further improve our quality of life. The precision and accuracy of its predictions, along with the efficacy of the methods, will be improved as more scientists study, test and refine the model. Furthermore, the model provides a set of working definitions that can be used across disciplines, further facilitating cross-field benefits. For example, advances in the understanding of how the brain blends memory and imagination with sensory data could allow psychologists to develop coping mechanisms for sensory processing disorders. Or, neuroscientists may discover how qualitative shifts in identity materially change the brain’s processing of sense data.

I also expect that the ability to derive and refine this essential sense of meaning and purpose is strengthened by the scientific process. Even if “blind faith” can be effective, I believe “evidentiary faith” should be that much more effective. Virtue and morality needn’t be judgement based, but can be incorporated into practices that enhance the benefits of principle-based attachments. We can also tweak elements of shared stories to make them more effective.

Finally, this model is empowering and optimistic. It identifies specific tools for us to improve the qualities of our experiences in life. The question of free will vs instinct and patterning is answered through practice and training. Humans are as free to develop their will as they are to develop their bodies. The more you train and practice, the more you can do. And, with a better understanding of the obstacles to achievement, the efforts to succeed can be that much more efficacious.

Epilogue: Samkhya and Mysticism

Samkhya is the name of an ancient Indian metaphysical philosophy. It’s goal is the complete and permanent removal of suffering through the attainment of the highest level of enlightenment known as liberation. It is a brilliant approach to spiritual practice, and its core concepts are the basis for this model.

Among all the mystical traditions, Samkhya is the most logically and scientifically rigorous. I spent the better part of a decade way down the rabbit hole of mystical traditions. I explored every tradition I could find for a more rigorous approach, but found they either relied on faith or became internally inconsistent.

The reason why I am not simply offering a modern explanation of traditional Samkhya is because it’s focused entirely on subjective experience with little effort to tie in objective reality. Furthermore, Samkhya is self-referential in its explanations, which conflicts with the Scientific Method.

There is, however, a key component of Samkhya (and other mystical traditions) that’s worthy of explanation here. The formal process of Inquiry is the method by which a practitioner of Samkhya untangles the layers of identity, resolves it back into pure agency, and then distinguishes the pure consciousness from its activity in the mind. This is known as the ultimate discriminative wisdom, which, once stabilized, is the mystical experience of union that has been described by many different traditions throughout history.

This mystical experience is beyond the realm of words and verbal understanding. I suspect (but cannot prove) that it is the same experience for all mystics, but those few throughout history have all described it differently. An analogous explanation is the six blind men who encounter an elephant. They each describe a different aspect of the elephant in a way that is true yet inconsistent with the others.

The method of Inquiry that leads to the achievement of this discriminative wisdom is the ultimate verification of the model. The only way to truly know that agency is at the core of identity is to break the attachments causing identity and remove the activity of the mind reinforcing it. This happens through very focused meditation in which the activities of the mind are abandoned layer after layer. The core of the identity is then revealed as the nonverbal association of the sense of self with the living body (“I am this person”). The linking of the “I” with the body with no further qualifications is pure agency.

As the meditation continues to deepen (technically, we’re in the realm of samadhi or trance), the sense of existence is separated from any association with the body. This is a universal sense of existence that is the subtlest association of pure consciousness with the mind/brain. When this universal sense of existence is stabilized, it’s possible to differentiate the source of consciousness from the awareness that is the cause of agency and will. When this differentiation is stabilized, the created nature of all the layers of identity and even of agency is realized as an act of will. This differentiation is not a thought, so it can’t be described in normal terms. This mystics say this removes all suffering associated with life (but so is the identification with life, so there is no agent left to “enjoy” liberation).

An analogy for this is like living underground in a chaotic city. Every once in a while, light comes down through a hole, and you realize the source of the light is “up there.” Through great effort, you can climb out to the surface. Here you realize there is a whole world of activity above ground and in the air. You can see that the light is still coming from above. Through continued great effort, you navigate all the activity on the ground and in the air and can see that you are inside an enormous enclosed area. The light source is in the center of the ceiling. It is so bright that it illuminates everything. Through continued effort, you move closer and closer to the light source. You now realize there’s a hole in the ceiling and the light source is from just outside the ceiling. When you ascend to the hole itself, and can finally look through, you see that the light source you saw before was actually a mirror reflecting the light of some other source altogether. Now, no matter where you go back to inside the enclosure, you never forget that the light is the reflection of something entirely different.

The knowledge of the difference between the source and the reflection changes your relationship to the reflection, but it doesn’t change anything else about how life works. This model provides a map of the key drivers of the mind, which also means they can be controlled, redirected and/or stopped if desired. While doing so requires skill, and there are certainly tricky areas to navigate, this is an internal process available to anyone. You don’t have to take my word for it. All you need to do is turn your focus inward to your own processes. Have a scientist’s eye for cause and effect and discipline for removing all biases as they become evident.

Or not. Just as only those who love music should become musicians, only those who have a burning desire to understand consciousness and how the mind works should engage in inquiry. Life is for living, so use it as it suits you to the best of your ability.

Originally published: 9/9/15
Last copy edit: 9/14/15
List of content edits:
9/11/15 – Added explanation of altruism.
8/25/17 – Changed “Blind men” link to Wikipedia

A Scientific Approach to Meaning in Life

What is the meaning of life?

This question may have caused more debate than any other in the history of the planet. Instead of answering it directly, we’re going to look at the question itself in the context of how the human mind works. By exploring the structure of the mind, we’ll be able to qualify approaches to meaning and see their impact on the nature of experience.

The title of the article is A Scientific Approach to Meaning in Life because we’re going to focus on cause and effect. What causes this question to matter, and how do different types of answers affect the mind?

The question of meaning is of unique importance to humans because of metacognition, which is our ability to think about thinking. We have the ability to consider different choices, weigh our options, and make decisions. We even have the ability to assess the process by which we consider options and make decisions. And, we can think about our own mortality.

Being cognizant that our life will end creates a remarkable perspective for us. All living organisms instinctively fight for life to avoid death. We go one step further and wonder what it’s all for (hence the question). Traditionally, all societies have collective explanations for the meaning of life, typically in the form of religion, myth and/or cultural ethos. People simply need something to believe in.

This is as true today as it always has been. Some of the forms have changed, but the need for belief is as profound as always. Religions are still a common source of meaning and belief. Many believe in the promise of science and technology, or in the power of the human spirit, or in the maturation of the human species through knowledge and communication. But we all have hope of one kind or another.

Hope plays a primary role in the mind. Hope is desire, and desire is the impetus for volition. Volition is the action of life. All life forms express some form of volition, at the very least in adapting to stimuli in order to sustain life and avoid death. All volition requires some awareness (sense) of life (self) that differentiates it from others. This is called agency, and life is not possible without it.

All life is the expression of volition (will) for the sake of the sense of self (agency). In humans, this agency is enveloped in a complex and layered construct of self known as identity. This identity contains all our definitions of who we are, from the physical to the psychological, social, and aspirational. Where the simplest organisms are capable only of action that sustains life, we humans are capable of incredibly sophisticated action to reinforce any aspect of our identity.

The mechanism for how this works is fundamentally the same in all living organisms, with the details varying significantly according to the biological makeup of the organism. The will always acts for the sake of the agency or identity, either exclusively by instinct or also by intention. Hope is a term for the primal urge (desire) for survival (and improvement) that drives all our experiences.

Without hope (desire), there is no action. This is peaceful since there are no forces in tension (nothing desired, nothing to do). There is a common use of the term, though, that is very different. When someone feels hopeless, they mean a frustrating tension between having desires and not believing they can be fulfilled. In their extreme, these painful feelings of hopelessness can even lead to acts of suicide. This is not the absence of hope at all. In contrast, the absence of hope is supremely peaceful with feelings of contentment.

Before we explain the impact of metacognition on hope, volition and identity, we need to understand how creative the mind truly is in generating order and meaning in everyday life.

Creativity, Sense and Order

The mind does many things at once, but its main purpose is to make sense of things. The purely objective reality of the world is plain, boring, and inherently meaningless. This is the interaction of atoms, molecules and energy without any interpretation by the mind. Most of what we experience in life is a set of shared and individual subjective interpretations of this reality. These interpretations supply order and meaning where there would otherwise be none. In other words, the mind creates all meaning in the world on every level.

To give an example of what I mean, look at this simple sentence:

The cat is large.

When you read this, the image of a cat appears in your mind. Because there is no specific context, the words cat and large could be interpreted any number of ways. You could imagine anything from a house or alley cat to a wild cat, like a leopard or tiger. Large could mean tall, wide, or fat relative to its species, or it could mean one of the larger species of cat.

How does your cat image relate to the objective reality of that “sentence?” It doesn’t. It’s entirely a mental creation. This can be hard to believe but it’s true.

Assuming you’re reading this electronically, the objective reality is simply pixels on your screen illuminated in contrasting patterns. Your mind converts these light patterns into shapes. It ascribes meaning to those shapes on many levels. First, it sees them as letters, which together form words. The letters and words do not exist objectively. You have to train the mind to convert lines and shapes into concepts of words. If you doubt this, try reading a script you haven’t been trained in or change the context of the word. For example, the word gift means “poison” in German.

The words themselves have no objective reality. There is no such thing as a “cat” in objective reality. There are living organisms in objective reality. The mind groups these living organisms into functional categories in order to facilitate survival and efficiency in general. One of these categories is “cat.” By forming the concept of a “cat,” we can be much more efficient communicating, understanding and deciding.

There is an important distinction here between reality and utility. The objective reality of the above sentence is waves of light emanating from a screen. The utility is recognizing shapes into words, words into language, language into meaning, meaning into communication. We could not live our lives as they are without these incredibly efficient and useful shared interpretations. But we have to understand the shared subjective reality is not the objective reality.

A similar process goes on in most aspects of our lives. There are no personal relationships in the objective reality. Nor are there laws, politics, traffic, fun, fame, happiness or love. These all exist (and play important roles) only in our shared subjective realities.

I would like to emphasize this again because it’s so important. The overwhelming majority of our lives are focused on subjective realities. The things that make life worth living are subjective, which means created by the mind. The fact that they’re subjective does not mean they are wrong, unreal, inferior or random. It just means their reality has been created by the mind. The mind operates by known rules, so we can develop a deep understanding of how subjective reality works.  

Belief

With subjective reality, it is the belief in the authenticity of a notion that creates its reality, not the actual reality. For example, the false reporting of the death of a popular person can create widespread mourning and crying even though that person is completely healthy.

Belief may be what gives subjective experiences their reality, but facts affect belief. Once everyone sees the person alive, the belief that they died evaporates and the mourning stops.

This role of belief has caused many people to reject subjective reality as unreal. Instead, the subjective reality has a bigger impact on our lives than objective reality, so to reject it as unreal is to miss the essence of human life. Instead of rejecting it, we should seek to understand how beliefs are created, strengthened, weakened and/or destroyed. And to do so, we have to differentiate between the shared and individual subjective realities.

There are three categories of reality: objective reality, shared subjective reality, and individual subjective reality. The objective reality is the world of facts that can observed and measured independent of interpretation, such as the size and location of a building. The shared subjective reality contains all the agreed-upon interpretations, such as language, laws, politics and relationships. The individual subjective reality is each person’s thoughts, feelings, emotions and experiences, whether they align to any shared reality or not.

For example, it is an objective fact that the earth revolves around the sun in approximately the amount of time it takes the earth to rotate on its axis 365 times. There are shared subjective terms called a “year” and a “day” that we use to describe the amount of time one revolution and one rotation take. Individuals can have a variety of individual beliefs that may or may not align with any shared or objective realities.

There are probably people alive who believe that the sun revolves around the earth. We know that millions of people lived their entire lives believing this prior to Copernicus. This belief is not, and never has been, correct in the objective reality. In 1633, though, Galileo was imprisoned for promoting the correct notion that the earth revolves around the sun. This violated the shared subjective belief that the earth was the center of the universe.

The objective reality is unaffected by belief, but it is inherently devoid of meaning. The mind creates meaning by interpreting what it perceives and thinks into a cohesive model. This cohesive model may be highly aligned with objective reality or it might be completely at odds with it. How does this happen? What are the mechanisms by which two people can observe the same objective reality and come away with entirely different interpretations?

The answer has to do with how the mind operates. The two primary driving forces in the mind are identity and will. The will first uses the identity as its filter for interpretation of all phenomena. Then, it forms ideas and actions to defend and reinforce the identity. We know this because changes to the identity create immediate and profound effects on the interpretations and actions.

The will has many tools at its disposal. It can use perception, memory, imagination and reasoning alone and together in a variety of ways to fulfil its intent. This means an enormous variety of interpretations of any given reality are possible. This can be problematic for people trying to live together and get along in society. One of the main reasons humans have such a long childhood is the need for extensive training in how to interpret and navigate the objective and shared subjective realities. Each society, clan, group or family has their own tolerances for how varied these can be while still being included.

There is always going to be some tension among these three layers. In fact, how each of us manages this tension is a primary determinant for the quality of our life. Understanding which aspects of experience are objective, shared and individual (both for you and for others) is extremely beneficial for successfully navigating life.

The Tools of Meaning

In the above section, it was shown that the mind works constantly to create order and meaning. The will or volition drives this activity for the sake of the identity or sense of self on three levels of reality: objective, shared subjective, and individual subjective. The order and meaning created by the mind are how we function in the world.

We humans, though, are not motivated primarily by concepts of order and meaning. We are driven by emotions, which are tightly associated with desires (see Daniel Khaneman’s and Martin Seligman’s work for more on this). When something happens that we interpret as reinforcing our identity, we feel comfort, satisfaction and pleasure. When something happens that we interpret as threatening our identity, we feel discomfort, angst and pain. All of our actions in life are toward reinforcement, satisfaction and pleasure, and away from threat, angst and pain. As such, any changes to our identity and/or our interpretations result in different emotions and different courses of action.

All emotions are part of our individual subjective reality. They are our own, and nobody else feels them. Even when groups of people feel similar emotions at the same time based on shared events, each person’s experience of those emotions is unique. This is because identities and processes of interpretation are always individualized.

Let’s tie all this back to the original question, what is the meaning of life? As we said before, on a purely objective level, there is no meaning of life, just as there is no objective meaning to the light emanating from your screen. Therefore, the meaning of life is a creation of the mind, or whatever we believe it to be. So what’s the big deal?

There are two big deals, actually. The first is that “whatever we believe” about life affects our emotional experiences, which drive our decision-making. Therefore, we will look at different types of belief systems and how they affect emotions. The second is that facts affect beliefs. When “whatever we believe” becomes incongruent with observed facts, we can have a crisis of meaning. Therefore, we will look at the different ways systems of meaning relate to daily life and the growing body of scientific knowledge.

While there are nearly infinite varieties of beliefs, they can be categorized broadly in three ways: self-oriented (“me before others”), passionate (“excitement for its own sake”), and principled (“fulfillment of ideals” or arete). These three correspond roughly to Freud’s “will to pleasure,” Nietzsche’s “will to power” and Kierkegaard’s “will to meaning.” The characteristics of each cause predictable trends of emotions.

The objects of desire associated with self-oriented systems of belief are pursuits of pleasure for their own sake. These focus on getting what you want for yourself in the moment, and are the most ephemeral. As such, they tend to cause more tension, anxiety and instability of mind than the other two.

The objects of desire associated with passionate systems of belief focus on activities performed by each person and aligned groups. These feelings of pleasure derive from achievement and belonging. This orientation is a mix of external and internal elements, and there is some value connected to the activities themselves. As such, they are more stable, spreading out the highs and lows, and resulting in moderate levels of tension, and anxiety.

The goals associated with principled systems of belief focus on ideals and values that transcend both the individual and the natural fluctuations of daily life. They are extremely stable, and as such create a solid foundation that reduces tension and anxiety. The feelings of pleasure result from the satisfaction of living with a commitment to ideals. A principled life also tends to be less exciting than the other two types, which can reduce its appeal.

Any system of belief should align with, and ideally explain, observable reality. There are three types of reactions when they don’t align: the system of belief is adjusted to fit with observed reality, the observed reality is denied or ignored, or there is a crisis of meaning. Therefore, systems of belief that more closely align with (and explain) observable reality are better than those that don’t.

As an example, let’s look at the concept of justice. There are two extreme positions: the world is just, and there is no justice in the world. While both of these positions have lots of supporting examples, they also have lots of contrary examples. Some people get away with cruel and illegal acts, and some innocent people are punished for crimes they didn’t commit. Therefore, a superior belief system allows for discrepancies in observable justice. Some systems include retribution in the afterlife, and some describe internal sufferings as a form of justice.

While it is outside the scope of this article to propose a full system of belief, it is important to recognize that the efficacy of any belief or approach to meaning is affected by how closely aligned it is with observable reality. Fundamentalism is the term for clinging to a system of belief in spite of contrary observable evidence. Moral ambiguity is the term for denying the importance and/or relevance of a belief system. Both are flawed in obvious ways.

Conclusion

The purpose of the mind is to create order and meaningful experiences out of the activities of life, which occur on three levels of reality: objective, shared subjective and individual subjective. Objective reality exists independent of any interpretation by the mind, whereas both subjective realities are created entirely by the mind through an understandable set of processes.

The mind functions through the will acting for the identity within a model for interpretation known as a worldview. Belief is the force that makes each worldview real, contextualizing the experiences of life with meaning and hope.

The general characteristics of each worldview affect the emotional and volitional state of the believer in predictable ways. They can be categorized by their orientation and impact on our emotional and mental states, and thus our decision making. The more closely aligned they are with observable realities, the more useful they are. Therefore, the characteristics of our belief system are a vital part of every aspect of our daily lives.

The scientific aspect of this discussion has been to establish why the structure of our belief systems matter, and to identify which elements cause what effects. As different as people are, the functions of the mind are structurally the same. These understandings can also be used to assess a worldview, and adjust it to become more effective in the quest to create a quality life.

On Methodology

Introduction

This purpose of this website is to describe the rules of subjective reality. Subjective reality is the continuous stream of experiences that occur in the mind. While there is nearly infinite variety in specific experiences, the stream itself has momentum and characteristics that are generally knowable.

I claim that these rules are based on science, yet science is typically associated with objective facts. How can there be science on a subjective field, since there can be no objective observation or measurement? This is indeed a formidable challenge. Experiences are fundamentally non-verbal (words are a secondary abstraction). But even to the degree that they can be described, they can never be truly known by another. Furthermore, the recall of a past experience is itself a type of experience in the present. These facts have caused many to conclude that there can be no real science about the subjective nature of experience.

Science is also about determining cause and effect. The better your understanding of causes, the more you can predict the effects. If it’s raining, you know the ground will be wet. When it comes to any particular subjective experience, there are so many specific causes interacting with each other that it seems unknowable.

There is, however, a unique phenomenon that offers a special window into how the mind functions and creates subjective reality. This phenomenon is focusing the mind on a single object. Normally, the mind is busily engaged in many activities simultaneously, including thinking, talking, eating, digesting, moving, and feeling. Some of this activity is intentionally directed, but most of it is automatic (or at least unintentional).

Humans have the ability to direct their attention. Like running or shooting hoops, this ability gets better with practice. But focusing the mind on a single object without thinking about or noticing anything else is incredibly difficult for lots of good reasons.

Primarily, the mind has way too much momentum to stop on a single object. This is true for everyone. The mind is the activity of experiencing life. And while this activity varies dramatically from person to person in normal life, all momentum must be removed if the mind is to settle on a single object.

This is why one-pointed focus is such a revealing phenomenon. The only way it can be achieved is by arresting any and all movement toward anything other than the single object, at least temporarily. Any type of conceivable experience other than this focus is an obstacle, so every type of thought, feeling, sensation must be removed.

The theories and explanations offered here can be tested against this phenomenon. Meriam-Webster defines science as knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation. For our purposes, we should modify this to read: knowledge about or study of subjective reality based on observations and experiences learned through experiments and reasoning.

Let’s go back to what happens when you try to focus on a single, simple object. Of course, looking at the object at first is easy. But holding off other thoughts is really difficult. The cause of the momentum in the mind is a complex blend of identity and will, awareness and volition. The qualities of identity and will determine the qualities of the experiences. We’re going down the rabbit hole of philosophy to explain them all, but remember, it always comes back to this impossibly simple proposition: Focus.

Science is also about uncovering the principles of cause and effect such that predictions are possible. We know when the next eclipse is going to happen because we understand the causes and can calculate the effects based on observable data.

For us, knowledge of the causes of momentum in the mind (mental activity) can allow us to remove or modify the cause to remove or modify the effect (experience). For the mind to arrest all activity and settle on a single object without interruption, all momentum must be removed or controlled. This is our science.

You may not be interested in focusing your mind on a single object. Even if you are, you might not be willing to alter your behaviors and your life sufficiently to disable all the causes of momentum. This is, however, the ultimate evidence and test of the theories. If you can’t sustain uninterrupted focus on a single object in your mind, it’s because other thoughts have too much momentum. Any theory on the cause of that momentum should provide a means to remove it. And that means can be tested by the depth and stability of focus.

As true as the above is, we are left with a thorny problem. How does this get proved? No one can observe another’s focus. We can only know our own experiences, and even that can be deceiving. We can observe the behaviors of others and we can listen to their descriptions of their experiences, which can support or conflict with our theories. But none of these are facts like we have when studying objective reality.

Because of this, many have chosen to dismiss the study of subjective reality as unscientific because science requires objective, observable, measurable facts. In my opinion, this is like the old joke: A couple sees a young man carefully scouring the sidewalk so they start looking also. They ask what they’re looking for. “My apartment key. There’s a hole in my pocket and it fell out.” After a few minutes of looking, the woman asks, “Are you sure it fell out here?” The young man stops, “Oh no. It fell out in the dark alley over there. This is just where the light is.”

The light of science’s approach to the objective reality simply can’t shine on the subjective reality. We have to find another way.

The Hard Problem

Objective reality exists. We have a solid understanding of how it works within “normal” parameters. Newtonian physics and Euclidean geometry explain the rules of observable phenomena well. Beyond these “normal” parameters, we need theories of relativity and quantum mechanics to better explain observable phenomena, and even then there are plenty of gaps in our knowledge.

Subjective reality exists. Humans are aware of their own existence. This awareness is associated with feelings and sensations. This awareness is also associated with meaning. These all fall in the general category of knowledge. Knowledge is key to science, but studying knowledge itself has been particularly problematic because of the subjective nature of thought and experience.

The term “consciousness” has been used in a variety of ways to speak to this subjective, experiential awareness of feelings and meanings. What is this “consciousness” and where does it come from?

Answering these questions requires a careful approach because you can’t explain subjective reality using objective phenomena (and vice versa), and subjective phenomena defy observation and measurement.

This has been called the “hard problem of consciousness.” We have these phenomena that are primary characteristics of life, yet there has been no adequate explanation of where they come from or how they operate. The purpose of this website is to explain them, but it requires a paradigm shift in thinking.

I propose a definition of pure consciousness as a fundamental (self-existing) principle that is the undifferentiated potential for knowledge. All the awareness and feelings and meanings found in the human experience are not consciousness itself, but rather the various manifestations that result from the union of pure consciousness and nature. We don’t have adequate language for all this (yet), but I hope this website pushes us in the right direction.

I believe there are two key problems in the current discussions about awareness and qualia and consciousness. They are either trying to explain these phenomena objectively, which is impossible, or exclusively within the active functioning of the mind. The activity of the mind is a complex layering of multiple phenomena. Trying to identify the source of the conscious mind in its activity is like trying to explain oxygen by studying water. Oxygen is there, but not in its true form. It’s also like trying to use Newtonian physics to explain quantum phenomena.

Untangling Mental Activity

Mind is the term we give for the constant, subjective activity of experiencing life. Everything we know about ourselves and the world, our identity, our will or volition, our perceptions and our feelings occur in the mind. Technically, they occur as activity of the mind.

If we truly want to understand the source and cause of awareness and experience, we have to untangle the morass of mental activity to see causal principles in action. This is a tricky concept for science because you can’t do it objectively. It can be done methodically, but by definition, we’re working with subjective reality

It’s important to note that the term subjective does not mean random, unreal, or unknowable. The mind, in fact, does operate by predictable, knowable rules. This website is primarily about describing those rules.

If we use artistic painting as an analogy, examples of rules would be about how different kinds of paint interact with each other and the canvas, how different brushes or other implements affect the look, and how layering paint affects color. These rules are true for all painters, but they say nothing of the quality or subject of the art created. In the same way, these rules of the mind are true for everyone, but in no way limit the variety and diversity of human experience or potential.

The activity of the mind is layered, and it is possible to remove the causes of each layer. Removing each cause removes the activity of that layer. Like peeling away the layers of an onion, each layer looks a lot like the previous until you get to the core.

The core itself is also layered, but these layers are not the same as the outer layers. This is similar to the shift between Newtonian and quantum physics. The two are not incompatible, they just explain different aspects of the same realities.

The outer shell of the core is the foundation of normal functioning (our version of Newtonian physics). This is the root identity, which is the linking of the sense of existence (self) with a particular living organism (human in this case). All normal functioning is based on this linking. This linking, though, is also a form of mental activity that can be removed.

The next layer in is the sense of individualized existence alone without any further qualification, or pure agency. This is not a philosophical opinion. It is the nature of the activity of the mind when all other activity has been removed. It’s very difficult for the active mind to understand the still mind, but this layering is universal. All the differences in human experience occur in the outer layers. The core functioning is the same for everyone because these are the primary causes of mental activity.

Now, as relatively still as the mind has to be to isolate pure agency, this is also a form of activity. When the activity of pure individualized existence is abandoned, what remains is a universal or undifferentiated sense of existence. There is awareness, but not of anything. There is no experience or recognition of being alive, just undifferentiated awareness.

As still as the mind must be in this state of undifferentiated awareness, this is also a subtle form of activity. As even this undifferentiated awareness becomes stabilized, it becomes clear that the source of awareness is a reflection. The mind is not the source of awareness. Instead, it “reflects” or “borrows” it from “outside” itself (I’m using quotes because language is inadequate to describe it properly). The term I’m using for that “outside” source is pure consciousness.

This description may seem like philosophy or imagination or even spiritual mumbo-jumbo. It is none of these. It is instead a description of the causal layers of all activity in the mind. These realizations and observations are available to anyone and everyone who is willing to still their mind completely. This is not easy, and very few people seem to make it into the core layers, which is the metaphorical shift from Newtonian to quantum physics. Outside the core, all experiences are unique. Inside the core, the layers of causation are the same.

Looking at this process in reverse becomes a description of the cause and effect of all activity of the mind, which another way of saying all experiences, all “qualia,” all sensations and all feelings. They stack, with each layer requiring the existence of the previous layer. It should be noted that this is not a temporal cause and effect, meaning these layers don’t happen one at a time in sequence. Instead, they are foundational. We know these layers exist because they are identified as activity in the mind is eliminated.

The primary (original) aspect is a fundamental (uncaused) principle we’re calling pure consciousness. This is “reflected” in the mind in the form of awareness. This awareness is qualified by the activity of the mind in layers as it gets linked to increasingly complex phenomena. In humans, the agency is enveloped in a rich, complex, and layered identity. This identity is the filter for all acts of will, which is also known as life force. The will and identity work together to create all experiences.

The primary characteristic differentiating living organisms from inanimate objects is that they act. No matter how simplistic, all life forms exert effort to stay alive. This effort is for its own sake, meaning living organisms work to keep themselves alive (altruism is a unique characteristic of more complex organisms in which the identity is capable of incorporating others). Therefore, the primary differentiating characteristic of living organisms is agency and will since self-directed action requires a “self” and volition.

I have used the term pure consciousness as the undifferentiated potential for knowledge (to know and be known in the most rudimentary sense). Without this pure consciousness, there could be no awareness, no sense of existence, no effort or volition. These are the sources of our ability to know, feel and sense. Without them, there is no possibility for subjective reality to exist.

Logical Justification for an Uncaused Cause

The relationship between the brain and the mind is perplexing. The human mind functions with the activity of the human brain. This is well established. The brain can be observed, measured and tested. Mind is the term we give to the activity of experiencing life. The reason we do anything and everything in life is because we feel alive. Yet, nothing in the brain alone can explain how the feeling of being alive arises.

The first section above explained how a fundamental principle (pure consciousness) is the source of the ability for awareness. There has been an objection to this as “unscientific” because it can’t be observed or measured. There are, however, intractable problems with this. If we categorically dismiss any alternative to measurable, observable phenomena (like the brain) being the sole source of subjective experience, we simply can’t answer the “hard” questions: 

  1. How does subjective experience arise?
  2. Where does awareness come from?
  3. What is volition?

Second, if awareness and volition are byproducts of brain activity, there is no explanation for how they arise in simpler organisms:

  1. All life forms exert effort to stay alive.
  2. Effort is another term for volition.
  3. This effort is directed toward an end (staying alive), which requires some sense of being alive, which is another description for awareness.

In fact, these intractable problems remain with any approach suggesting that awareness or subjective reality is caused solely by objective phenomena. Instead, I am proposing a definition of pure consciousness as an uncaused, fundamental principle. This brings up the philosophical question, how can something be uncaused?

Science, in many ways, is the unending process of finding the causes to increasingly complex observable and measurable phenomena. And it works. We have collectively discovered causes for innumerable phenomena that had originally been deemed “unknowable.” So, it seems reasonable to assume that the causes of this “hard problem of consciousness” will be discovered in due time via standard scientific means. Unfortunately, I don’t believe this is true.

To evaluate the assumption, let us turn our attention to the nature of cause and effect itself. There is a widespread philosophical assumption that all effects are caused (whether or not we can determine the cause(s) of an effect is a separate question). Another way of saying this is something cannot come from nothing. Unfortunately, this philosophical assumption cannot be proved as inviolable.

We do know that cause and effect play real and substantial roles in the universe, but this doesn’t mean that everything has to be caused. It might be true, but it might not. In fact, it’s literally impossible to prove that the rule of cause and effect is inviolable with no exceptions.

But let’s assume for now that it is true. Something cannot come from nothing, and anything that exists must have been caused by something else. We exist because we were born from our parents, who exist because of their parents, all of whom need the life-friendly environment of planet Earth. We can trace this lineage back through the evolution of species, of the planet, even all the way back to the big bang.

With our logic, since the big bang happened, it must have been caused. What was the cause of the big bang? Now we have a problem. Even if you say that time and space originate with the big bang, you’re still left with a need for time and space to be caused. If time, space and the big bang were not caused, we’re forced to abandon the absolute nature of cause and effect. (I’m using the big bang as the first cause of everything we know. If you want to postulate a knowable cause to the big bang, then just move the question back, to what caused that cause? You have to get to a first cause somewhere.)

Logically, there are two ways to resolve the question of what caused the big bang. The first is with two primordial but unmanifest causes that are themselves uncaused. The second is to conclude that the rule of cause and effect is not inviolable. I will explain.

In the first resolution, the cause of the first manifestation (something observable, measurable or knowable) has to be unmanifested. The only notion we have to describe an unmanifested cause is potential. We would thus say the cause of the big bang was the “potential for the big bang.” There is a problem of language here because our minds are literally incapable of conceiving of anything unmanifest.

Going one step further, this “potential for the big bang” has to be two primordial causes: the potential for material existence and the potential for knowledge (awareness and volition). This can also be described as the potential for objective reality and the potential for subjective reality. These two are required because neither one is capable of causing the other. Objective (material) reality cannot cause or explain subjective (experiential) reality, and vice versa. Life cannot occur without both matter and awareness/volition.

It should be made explicit that these two primordial causes do not separately co-exist within time and space. Together, they are the cause of (or at least requisites for) time and space (and everything else). In the manifest universe, they are inseparable like the illuminated forms on a traditional movie screen that result from light hitting film in the projector (see the Definition article for a full explanation).

So, to summarize, if the law of cause and effect is inviolable, then there must be two primordial causes of the universe (the totality of manifest existence). One cause must be material (or energetic since E=mc2). The other cause must be the potential for knowledge and experience, which I’m calling pure consciousness. But, as discussed above, the law of cause and effect may not be inviolable.

If it is not inviolable, and there can be uncaused effects, then everything we think we know about science has to be qualified. Now, this doesn’t assume that the principle of cause and effect isn’t real, because science has already proven it is. The question is can there be exceptions? And if so, are there limitations to those exceptions or could they appear spontaneously? From our standpoint, though, if there are any exceptions to the law of cause and effect, then there can be no outright philosophical rejection of the theory that pure consciousness is uncaused.

The “hard problem” results from the fact that objective or material realities cannot give rise to subjective or experiential realities (or vice versa). So, something has to create the possibility of awareness and volition since they are present in all life forms. I’m using the term pure consciousness for it.

Conclusion

Objective reality exists. Subjective reality exists. Neither one can be explained by the other. The human mind is incapable of conceiving of unmanifested causes, so we use the word potential. Whether you take the philosophical stance that cause and effect are inviolable or not, the theory that the unmanifested potential for knowledge is an uncaused, fundamental principle cannot be eliminated as a possibility. I happen to be using the term pure consciousness for that potential.

Since this concept of pure consciousness as a fundamental principle cannot be rejected outright, it should be evaluated on the same terms as all theories: how well does it explain known phenomena, and how effectively does it predict changes in effects via changes in causes?

At present, I believe this definition is unmatched in its ability to explain how subjective experience arises, how the mind creates the experiences of life, what the primary drivers of activity in the mind are, and what the tools are to make substantive changes in the nature of subjective experiences.

Originally published: 9/17/15
Last copy edit: 3/13/16
List of content edits:
9/18/15 Added analogy of painting
3/13/16 Added new introduction

Simplified Explanation

In this article, I will explain what consciousness is and how the mind works. These are both concepts that are difficult to understand because they don’t fall into our normal thought structures. Before we get into all that, let’s establish a few key points that may seem obvious, but have been debated by philosophers over the years.

You are real. Your body is real. Your brain is real. Your mind is real.

You are aware of things. You can look around and see them. You can think about people and objects. You can also imagine things that don’t really exist in the world. They all appear in your mind.

You can also think about ideas. You can reason. You can think symbolically (language is symbolic so if you’re reading this, you’re thinking symbolically). You can even think about how you think, which is called metacognition.

You have volition and will. You can evaluate options and decide among them. You also have instincts, desires, and habits that influence your decision making. Your will is free to act like your body is free to move: the more you’ve trained in the past determines how much you can do in the present.

All of the experiences of your life occur in your mind. This can be a little harder to accept, but it’s true. If you stub your toe, you feel the pain in your toe, but you experience that feeling in your mind. The mind has the amazing ability to present feelings, objects and interactions as if they’re happening all around. But they’re really just presented to “you” inside a theater-like feature of the mind. There’s a lot more about this below.

All living organisms have agency. Agency is a nonverbal awareness of existence. It is the sense of boundary between self and other. For example, if a dozen plants of the same species are growing in a tight space, and one plant dies, the others keep on living. Somehow, those plants have a sense of the boundaries that keep their lives distinct from one another. This sense is agency.

In people, agency is buried deep within identity. Your identity is a very complex, multi-layered sense of who you are. It has physical, psychological, social, intellectual, and stylistic elements. For example, you have a body, personality, preferences, habits, friends, family, and place in life (student, parent, spouse, work, play). You are aware of many parts of your identity, but there are probably many aspects so deep or so ingrained that you don’t even realize they’re there. Your identity is a filter that your mind automatically uses to evaluate everything that happens. Finally, your identity both evolves naturally over time and can be changed deliberately if you want and are willing to work at it.

The will always works to support the identity. The identity is the filter for all experiences and actions. The will interprets everything according to how it impacts the identity, and makes all decisions based on supporting or enhancing the identity. Since the identity is the sense of self, this means that all actions are selfish.

There is, however, an important catch. The identity is very capable of including others. Most of us strongly identify with our relationships. Being a good parent or a good friend or a good citizen all require actions that benefit others directly. Therefore, acts of kindness and altruism are both genuinely for the identity (selfish) and genuinely for others (altruistic).

We now have to use a little of our ability for metacognition (thinking about thinking). As you may remember from grammar class, all complete sentences require a subject, an object, and a verb. For example, you (subject) are reading (verb) this article (object). There’s a reason why grammar requires this structure. All of your thoughts, sensations, emotions and feelings are also structured in the same three-sided format. Usually, you are the subject of your experiences. The experience requires something to happen (action). And, there is always an associated object. In the case of an emotion, the emotion itself is the object that you (subject) are feeling (action). Even nonverbal experiences are structured this way, just without the language. With music, you (subject) are playing or hearing (action) the notes (object).

I bring this up because it’s always true, and will be a factor when we define pure consciousness later. Our minds are literally incapable of thoughts, feelings, experiences that don’t have this three-sided structure. Just like a CD player can only play CDs and not vinyl records, we can only think in subject – object – action.

Another limitation of our minds is time and space. We always structure our thoughts, feelings and experiences at a certain time and place. It’s possible that other species in other universes live without time and space, but we literally can’t imagine what that could be.

What the mind does do really well is create meaningful experiences. The mind takes the events of objective reality, which are inherently bland and boring, and enhances them with meaning in order to create relevance, drama, and excitement. This happens on every level all the time. In fact, we couldn’t live without it.

Let’s look at a very basic example. When you open your refrigerator, light hits the food items and containers on your shelves. Each item absorbs some of the light in a particular way, changing the wavelengths of the light that bounces off it and into the back of your eye. Your mind instantly converts all this raw data into three-dimensional colored shapes. Immediately, your mind also identifies these colored shapes as various types of food and drink, and you make a decision about what to grab.

All this happens so fast that you don’t realize it’s happening. You just think, “There’s the OJ.” But in reality, the concept of a jug of orange juice is a mental creation. There is an objective reality of a sugary liquid made from the fruit we call oranges sitting in a container on the shelf. But the scene you experience when you open the fridge is much richer and more meaningful than the objective reality.

Three Layers of Reality

Looking further at this example, there are three key layers of reality that affect us all the time. The first is the objective reality, which in this case are the molecules grouped into objects and bouncing light. The second is the shared subjective reality, which are the concepts like eggs, butter, OJ, and leftovers. Pretty much everyone who speaks English would use the same words and same concepts for the same objects.

The third layer is the individual subjective reality. This is how all those objects relate to you, often stirring emotion and/or desire. This layer is always contextual. The way you look at what’s in the fridge is entirely dependent on why you’re there. Are you making a list before heading to the grocery store? Are you hungry for breakfast? Are you hungry but conflicted because you’re trying to change your diet?

Unless you’re a scientist, engineer, or philosopher, the objective reality rarely gets your direct attention. The mind works automatically to convert the bland and mundane objective reality into an interesting and meaningful world. Everyone does this, and most of what constitutes raising children is training them how to do this effectively.

In any given society, there are lots of expectations for how everyone is supposed to operate with and in this shared subjective reality. All language, laws, politics, and social norms are part of the shared subjective reality. Each person then relates to all these expectations in their own way (based on the unique characteristics of their identities and will).  

The analogy of a DVD player can help understand this process. If you want to watch a DVD movie, you need a working DVD player along with a TV and speakers. The reality of the DVD itself is a very long sequence of 1s and 0s organized into code. The DVD player takes these 1s and 0s and converts them into a set of signals that activate pixels in the TV and sound from the speakers. When you watch, you organize what you see and hear on the fly. You turn the light from the TV into shapes and images, and you convert the sound from the speakers into dialog and mood music. You then invest yourself into the moving images and soundtrack in such a way that the movie comes to life and means something.

In this analogy, the data on the DVD is the “boring” objective reality. The DVD player is the part of your mind that works with your senses to convert and interpret the raw data. The TV and speakers are another part of the mind (the theater). The “you” in this analogy is a third part of the mind (the identity). The will, which is a fourth part of the mind, groups the raw data into known objects and ascribes meaning to them and their interactions. In this way, the entire experience occurs in the mind.

There is an important difference between a DVD player and the mind. The same DVD will play exactly the same movie no matter which working DVD player you use. The human mind, though, always has some bias and some agenda. This means everyone’s individual experiences of the movie differ. While we usually agree about the shared realities of the length, plot, and characters, how each of us interprets what the movie means, or what we feel about it can vary significantly.

The reason this happens is because your will is the driving force for all your experiences. And, the motivation behind this force of will is your identity. Your identity is the lens that filters all your interpretations, evaluations and decisions whether you want it to or not. This is happening on all levels of the mind, from the deliberate to the subconscious and instinctual. Furthermore, your identity has a set of essential qualities that influence the nature of your experiences. This identity is a strong force indeed, but it is also malleable, so there are ways for you to tweak it or even restructure it if you want to change your experiences.

Let’s dig into this concept a little. The characteristics of your identity and will are the key determining factors in how you experience the world. There is an objective reality. There is a shared subjective reality. And both of them are substantially out of your control. So, if you want to understand, influence, or fundamentally change your experiences, you have to work with your identity and will.

At first, they both feel like they are fixed entities that operate on their own. But they’re not. They do have lots of momentum and habits, but they can be changed with consistent and sincere effort. The first step is an honest look at how your mind works minute by minute. Notice where your attention goes and what kinds of thoughts result from what kinds of experiences. Talk to your friends and family about their thought processes and notice the differences. You’re likely to see a lot of discretionary activity that you can start influencing.

Defining Consciousness

Consciousness makes all this possible. We’re going to create a very specific definition of consciousness, so try not to assume or picture what it is yet. The word “consciousness” has been used in so many ways that it’s nearly impossible to make sense of it. The Eskimos have 50 words for snow, but we only have one for consciousness? No wonder there’s so much confusion.

Remember we talked about the mind only thinking in subject – object – action within time and space? Well, pure consciousness has none of these characteristics, so the mind simply cannot conceive of it. It’s like putting a vinyl record into a CD player. The music is there, but you can’t access it with the CD player.

Also, there are two distinct “realities” for consciousness. Pure consciousness “by itself” and consciousness “combined” with the biological building blocks of life. The terms “by itself” and “combined” are in quotations because pure consciousness has no time, no space, and no form, which means there’s no “real” way for it to be “by itself” or “combined.”

A limited metaphor for this is oxygen and water. Water is H20, which means hydrogen and oxygen chemically combined. Water is a liquid but oxygen is a gas. You can learn a lot about the world by seeing all the different ways that water supports life. But oxygen also exists separate from water, so if you only study water, you miss some of what oxygen really is. The metaphor is limited because oxygen and water both exist in measurable forms within time and space, whereas consciousness does not.

Consciousness in its simplest “combined” aspect is the power for agency and will within a living organism. It has to be a “combination” because there is no way to explain awareness and volition with biological processes alone. And, consciousness has no material or energetic reality on its own, so it can’t function in any way “by itself.” Instead, consciousness empowers physical organisms to be capable of awareness and volition.

So what is pure consciousness “by itself?” Technically, it is the undifferentiated potential for knowledge. Let’s break down what this means.

First, consciousness exists on its own, which means it’s not created by anything else or by any combination of other things. Some philosophers have said that consciousness is created by activities of the brain, but this isn’t the case.

Second, the word potential means that it can do nothing by itself. It needs the building blocks of nature for anything to know or be known.

Third, the word undifferentiated means that consciousness has no specific form or energy of its own. Instead, it empowers the organism according to the nature of that living organism. A limited analogy is electricity, which activates heat in a stove, light in a bulb, and rotation in a blender. The electricity is the same in each, but the activity is dependent on the design of the appliance. The analogy is limited because electricity is an independent energy, whereas consciousness is not energy.

Fourth, the word knowledge is meant in the purest sense, and can be any kind of living knowledge. Consciousness empowers the human brain to be capable of more sophisticated knowledge than any other organism we know about. But consciousness also empowers the simplest organisms to sense and adapt. For example, consciousness gives plants the ability to sense light and move toward it. The plant cannot think because it doesn’t have a brain, but it does have an awareness of the light and can grow toward it. One technical point is that awareness and volition are elements of knowledge, not the other way around.  

Fifth, the concept of quantity is irrelevant to consciousness. The common phrases of one organism being “more conscious” or “less conscious” than another are technically incorrect. A dog is not more conscious than a fish. Instead, the dog’s brain is larger and more sophisticated than the fish’s brain. When this phrase is used with people, it’s typically referring to qualities of the identity and will, which are parts of the mind.

Putting this all together, all life as we know it cannot be possible without two independent but interconnected “realities.” The union of these two becomes the physical manifestation of the universe (nature). Without consciousness, nature cannot have any awareness or volition. Without nature, consciousness has no form, no energy, and nothing to know.
Understanding how agency and will arise from the union of consciousness and nature is extremely difficult for the human brain since pure consciousness does not have any manifestation of its own within time and space. There are three analogies that help explain it.

The first analogy is the difference between oxygen alone and oxygen within water. Water is H20, which means hydrogen and oxygen chemically combined. Water is a liquid but oxygen is a gas. You can learn a lot about the world by seeing all the different ways that water supports life. But oxygen also exists separate from water, so if you only study water, you miss some of what oxygen really is. The metaphor is limited because oxygen and water both exist in measurable forms within time and space, whereas consciousness does not.

Film movie projectorThe second analogy is a traditional movie projected on a screen. In the projector, colored film passes in front of a white (full spectrum) light source. The film has form and color but no illumination, while the light has illumination but no form or differentiated colors. They never mix with each other in the projector, meaning the light is always white and the film is the same no matter how many times you play it.

The images on the screen, however, are illuminated, colored forms. The light and form are not only mixed on the screen, they are inseparable. No matter what you do with the images on the screen, you cannot separate the light from the form. Yet back in the projector, they are still entirely separate.

A living organism is like the image on the screen. Consciousness and nature are mixed in a way that they are inseparable in that life. No matter what, you can’t find consciousness, or even a conscious mind, as a unique reality separate from the brain.

The third analogy is the concept of driving. Driving is the term we give to the active functioning of a car with a person controlling it. The driving is not a unique reality that can be separated from the car, the person, and their activity. In the same way, mind is the term we give to the active functioning of the brain inherently fused with consciousness for the purposes of creating experience. There is no mind existing as a unique, separate reality.

Conclusion

The mind is the vehicle for experiencing the world. The objective world is inherently bland and without meaning. The mind is incredibly creative. It filters, organizes and augments the raw data of the world so that a meaningful life can be experienced. This requires layers of perception, interpretation, grouping, imagination, reasoning, explanation, organization, and ascribing meaning to be working full time. The mind is part decoder ring, part interpreter, part bouncer, part streaming media player, and part producer/director. The mind, ironically, is also the viewer/experiencer. And to top it all off, it’s part critic and part General.

All these activities of the mind happen automatically unless you deliberately train the will to wrestle control of them. This is a lot like training a wild horse to be ridden. It’s not easy to accomplish, but it provides a fundamentally different way of maneuvering through life.

For more details on how this works, see the Philosophy of Mind article.

Originally published: 9/9/15
Last copy edit: 9/11/15
List of content edits:
9/11/15 – Added explanation of will, identity and altruism.

Glossary of Key Terms

Agency – The sense of individualized existence that is the motivation for the will. The sense of boundary between self and other. Inorganic matter and dead organisms lack agency (and will). Agency is the subtlest aspect of identity.

Altruism – The inclusion of others in one or more aspects of identity. The will always works for the identity, so when others are included in identity, the will acts for the benefit of others by supporting that aspect of identity.

Arete – An ancient Greek word meaning excellence, moral virtue, fulfillment of one’s highest potential. Pronounced “arr-ah-tee.”

Discernment – Action of the mind that recognizes, differentiates, decides, always for the benefit and/or reinforcement of the agent or identity. The primary activity of will.

Experience – The complex, personal, subjective, interpreted interplay of the elements and energies of the universe with a living organism as constructed by that individual organism. The term is used primarily for the human mind, but can be cautiously applied to any living organism.

Identity – The active, layered sense of self (ego) in humans (and potentially other sophisticated animals) that each uses to differentiate themselves personally and socially. All human actions are performed to reinforce their identity. Agency is the foundation upon which identity is built.

Intentionality – The philosophical term meaning representation, not to be confused with the common term “intention,” which means design, plan or purpose. The ability of the mind to hold the forms of objects, which get presented to the identity and will in the theater of the mind. In a dream, for example, all the objects in the mind are from memory and/or imagination, but they appear as real because of intentionality.

Knowledge – Awareness of a manifest phenomenon within time and space with a structure of subject, object, action. The subtlest aspect of knowledge is agency. Knowledge is the manifestation of pure consciousness imbued in a living organism. Knowledge is an act of will.

Manifest – Some measurable existence within time and space.

Nature – Anything manifest. The universe (this one or any other). Any aspect of manifest existence. Anything with material or energetic reality.

Pure consciousness – The undifferentiated potential for knowledge (to know and be known). Consciousness imbues nature such that living organisms have the powers of agency (awareness) and will (volition), both of which are aspects of knowledge and requisites for life. These powers reside neither in consciousness nor in nature alone; it is only in their union that life is possible.

Reality, Individual Subjective – The experiential reality in one mind, whose impact is determined by the belief in the reality, independent of alignment with shared or objective realities. For example, a dream may be imagined but experienced as real.

Reality, Objective – The simple interplay of elements and energies within the manifest universe that exists independent of interpretation by the mind. For example, colored pixels on a screen are real, but have no meaning of their own beyond their physical and energetic characteristics.

Reality, Shared Subjective – The shared layering of mental interpretations common to any group, society or species. For example, language and laws have no objective reality but are agreed upon and enforced within a society.

Theater – The aspect of the mind where all the experiences of life are played out. The arena of attention in which the identity and will view and “enjoy” experiences. The place where the objects of experience are created and presented.

Undifferentiated – Has no specifics, no manifestation within time and space.

Unmanifest – No measurable existence within time and space. Exists only as the potential to manifest under proper conditions.

Will – The force within a living organism toward preservation and/or enhancement of life, for the benefit of the agent. The primary acts of will are discernment and decisions.

About

I have always been interested in philosophy, particularly in how the mind operates and creates meaning. By the time I was a young man, I had a burning desire to understand the purpose of life. This led me on a decade-long personal journey way down the rabbit hole of Eastern metaphysical traditions, studying, practicing, writing and teaching. I was fortunate to study and work closely with Baba Hari Dass, a silent monk from the lower Indian Himalayas.

TonyOpDefConI’ve also taught logical reasoning in the LSAT prep course for Kaplan, taught high school literature and writing, helped define fitness and popularize CrossFit, produced thousands of videos and articles, and edited, published and/or co-written three books. Throughout all this is a unifying theme: the practical application of theory.

My favorite Eastern metaphysical philosophy is Samkhya (an ancient and now dead Indian philosophy). Among all the mystical traditions I could find, Samkhya offers the most scientifically rigorous explanation of consciousness and the mind. It has a robust, internally consistent logical structure, taking the principles of cause and effect to its extreme limit, particularly around the activity of the mind. Samkhya never relies on faith, and remains internally consistent. In science, we evaluate a theory by its ability to predict results. The goal of Samkhya is to identify and remove the cause of thoughts so that they may be stopped, and it works. 

The reason I am not simply offering a modern explanation of Samkhya is because its purpose is different. It is designed for practitioners seeking enlightenment and the removal of suffering. As such, it focuses entirely on individual subjective experience. While there is enormous value in this, it falls short of providing a true operational definition of consciousness. I have thus adapted the core concepts for a Western scientific orientation.

One of the biggest problems I see in the current approaches to defining consciousness is anthropocentrism. From the beginning of time, the human mind has fashioned itself as exceptional. In 1633, Galileo was imprisoned for promoting Copernicus’s dangerous and crazy heliocentric astronomy (the notion that the earth revolves around the sun). While we may have eradicated anthropocentrism from astronomy, it’s as present and as preposterous in today’s discussions about consciousness as it was in Galileo’s time about astronomy.

The other major problem is the attempt to explain consciousness within the realm of thought. This is like trying to explain oxygen within the realm of water. It’s there, but not in its true form. The mystical traditions have the advantage of practicing the elimination of thought activity, which provides an entirely different perspective.

During my early years at CrossFit, I worked closely with Greg Glassman as he developed an empirical, operational definition of fitness in an industry that didn’t have one. I saw first hand how important good definitions are, along with the challenges, responsibilities and consequences of creating them. My hope is that this operational definition of consciousness provides a common terminology and framework for furthering the full scope of scientific studies of mind and consciousness.

I’m very interested in making this content as useful as possible, so please send issues, questions, and/or corrections to OpDefCon at gmail dot com.

– Tony Budding