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.

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