Life without the Background

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts 30 Comments

On Friday October 22nd I will be presenting at the Science and Nonduality Conference in San Rafael, California. The topic of my presentation will be Evolutionary Non-duality, and I will introduce people to the same evolutionary philosophical tradition in American philosophy that has been the major theme of this blog. My intention is to use my blog posts leading up to the event to work out some of the ideas that I want to share at the conference. If you have any thoughts that might help me formulate the presentation I would very much appreciate them.

If any of you are so inclined you can find out more about the conference and how to attend here: http://www.scienceandnonduality.com/

The over-arching theme that I want to use to introduce my topic is the idea of what it means to dissolve the foreground/background boundary. This metaphor was one I picked up originally from the writings and lectures of Dr. Timothy Morton of the University of California, Davis. Dr. Morton is the author of two books Ecology without Nature and The Ecological Thought. (You can find his blog here.) His perspective stems from his love for and study of the great Romantic writers. His idea that in some ways Romanticism was an exploration of the foreground/background boundary is one that I have found fascinating, illuminating and compelling.

I also think it’s a metaphor that fits well into a discussion of non-duality, especially when that discussion centers on the non-dual evolutionary philosophy of the American tradition. I can see how the classical American thinkers, Emerson, James, Peirce and Dewey were all, each in their own way, working to dissolve some aspect of the background/foreground boundary. And as I said, this can be seen as an effort to explain and define a non-dual experience of reality.

Let’s think about our own experience of foreground and background for a moment. If you do you will see that our experience tends to arise in the form of foreground objects set against a background field of some type. William James in his essay Does Consciousness Exist? recognized that consciousness, or the idea of consciousness, is the ultimate background to all of the experiences that exists within it. In his philosophy called Radical Empiricism he wanted to do away with the whole notion of consciousness and in his own way dissolve the background and exchange it for a non-dual sense of reality composed solely of pure experience. At times some of our experience “appears” to be the foreground and other parts of our experience “appears” to be the background. James put it this way.

There is, I mean, no aboriginal stuff or quality of being, contrasted with that of which material objects are made, out of which our thoughts of them are made; but there is a function in experience which thoughts perform, and for the performance of which this quality of being is invoked. That function is knowing. ‘Consciousness' is supposed necessary to explain the fact that things not only are, but get reported, are known. Whoever blots out the notion of consciousness from his list of first principles must still provide in some way for that function's being carried on.

My thesis is that if we start with the supposition that there is only one primal stuff or material in the world, a stuff of which everything is composed, and if we call that stuff ‘pure experience,' the knowing can easily be explained as a particular sort of relation towards one another into which portions of pure experience may enter. The relation itself is a part of pure experience; one if its ‘terms' becomes the subject or bearer of the knowledge, the knower, the other becomes the object known.

In the essay James explains and illustrates his powerful insight that the exact nature of the foreground and background in our experience is arbitrary and constantly shifting.

“…what I maintain is, that any single non-perceptual experience tends to get counted twice over, just as a perceptual experience does, figuring in one context as an object or field of objects, in another as a state of mind…”

A brief description of James’ insight about the non-dual nature of our experience will be the way I open my talk at the conference. I think it will fit it in well with the general discussion of the place where non-dual philosophy and science meet that the conference is devoted to. Let me know what you think.

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Stuart
Stuart
11 years ago

Hi Jeff, the conference looks really interesting. I watched some of the videos of past speakers. You’ll have some really interesting and smart company. Congratulations! Of course Heidegger is all about background familiarity and foreground practices. Could be interesting to try to bring him into the discussion. The Heideggerian challenge to non-duality is that it doesn’t seem possible, given the assumption that our consciousness develops out of the background of what Heidegger calls “familiarity”, to respond to the world without some set of familiar practices that are generated from that background. Even the term “consciousness” betrays a way of interacting… Read more »

Lulu
Lulu
11 years ago

How does James distinguish between consciousness and pure experience? Experience of what appears to be the foreground sounds like consciousness directed toward objects in the world, whereas experience of what normally appears in the background sounds like consciousness directed inward toward itself, i.e. self-consciousness. I guess I’m not sure what is gained by dropping consciousness. Also, I don’t see how doing away with consciousness and replacing with pure experience leads to nonduality. Once you start talking about relationships between “portions” of pure experience, you have a dualistic system. It may not be substance dualism – there is still only one… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

Hi Jeff, the conference looks nice… Congratulations to you! I am in Korea at a hard core Physics conference and met a colleague of Gotswami here [ he was the dean of Oregon University]. I couldn’t help but asking him about how Eugene Physics department felt about Gotswami. His answer: Gostwami went completely crazy and there is nothing we can do anymore about it. I completely lack courage and didn’t tell this guy that I am just coming back form a retreat which would be qualified as crazy probably. So you’ll tell me about it; whether the guy is a… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
11 years ago

Reading the blog yesterday I it did not really connect. But today, reading James’ article Carl immediately came to my mind. A year ago in response to Multiple Dimensional Reality tagged Idealism, Non-duality on December 22, Carl wrote: we can observe and understand what the things that we percieve DO — how they behave. And we can understand how what one aspect of our experience DOES influences what other parts DO through experimental science. Jeff responded: I do think that there is an underlying model of reality behind behaviorism. It is the model in which there are individual people, with… Read more »

Eb
Eb
11 years ago

Dear Jeff,
It is great that you are going to present at this conference – congratulations! I also like your choice of topic. While I have no specific suggestions at this point, I am sure that presenting these thoughts as a natural consequence to the American philosophical ideas you have presented in your blog so far is going to be really mind-blowing!
Much love and success!
Eb

Frank Luke
11 years ago

Hello all! Bringing up Stephen Hawkings saying in his recently published book that Creation could happen w/o God: It’s not a surprise to hear a scientist believing that and I posted awhile back that Creation to me is a big Petrie dish (has that already been said anywhere or should I copyright that? Only Bent commented when I posted that.) and believe that with proper conditions, stardust could have processed to eventually become what we humans are. Is that too far out? It seems obvioius to me. If that can happen with God’s intervention I can also accept that but… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
11 years ago

I made notes searching for meaning of blog & what Stuart said (foreground/background is the end: fall of Being in the West) Non-duality From the book: ‘Perfect Brilliant Stillness, beyond the individual self’ by David Carse (an account of no-self). Carse: the ‘I’ knows nothing whatever, and there is no ‘me’ to see anything, nor is there any ‘thing’ to see. What is known is impossible to communicate. In ‘Itself’ it cannot be experienced, it can only be ‘known’. And even this knowing is not knowledge, not intellectual; this has nothing to do with mental comprehension. – Heidegger comes closest… Read more »

Frank Luke
11 years ago

Liesbeth, re: at the end of human vision lies the final, ultimate Truth, it cannot be experienced or thought of or spoken of because it cannot be conceptualized. ”

Humans seem to have a strong desire to discern Ultimate Truth and your statement speaks to the futility of it for those who have thought deeply about it.

It’s still interesting to ponder and posit ultimates but that will likely always present other suppositions that counter those certainties. Only the most credible enjoy the common consent of most thinkers colllectively until more credible formulations are presented.

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
11 years ago

This statement came from a book about non-duality. It is not my statement, it is his. The writer says ultimate truth can never be put into words or concepts, so what you say -more credible formulations- can never be, according to the writer of the book. I do understand that it connects to the ‘Being’ Heidegger is talking about, which connects to Tao (whatever can be said about Tao is not Tao). I think the essence of what I understood today is that ‘Being’ is not the end point for Heidegger like it is for non-dualists who for example say… Read more »

shamansun
11 years ago

Hi Jeff! I find it so fascinating that the mysterious union of subject with object is realized, and expressed in so many ways. It’s exciting to find it emerging organically even in Western, American culture, which we often do not associate with the esoteric or the mystical. The background, foreground description reminds me very much of the Taoist philosopher Wei Wu Wei (paraphrasing): To realize that all objects are one Subject. I certainly hope that we can encourage to pursue and explore the fascinating notion of what Jung described as “mysterium coniunctionis,” and end the subject-object duality. Non-dual mysticism has… Read more »

Non-Duality America
11 years ago

Great blog Jeff.

I stumbled across it tonight and I am glad. Perhaps it was the SAND name?

I am the Editor of a new blog called Non-Duality America -we have some similarities that I think you might find interesting.

Please have a look at your convenience.

The next SAND 2010 looks to be another great gathering of minds. Further exploration of “science and non-duality” fascinates me and it’s certainly an exciting time to be living! I just watched their 3-DVD set from 2009.

Thanks again for your sharing of words here on Evolutionary Philosophy.

Much Love,

Matthew King

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

“The main point is that spiritual science, with its methods of research, only begins where modern natural science leaves off. Humanity is indebted to the view of the world adopted by natural science for which I would call a logic which educates itself by the facts of nature. An important method of training has been introduced, amongst those who have concerned themselves with natural science, with regard to the inner application of thinking.” Rudolf Steiner. “Approaches to Anthroposophy.” Sussex: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1992. Page 11. For me this is everything, and precisely where I stand. It is also the predicament… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago
Reply to  Catherine

Catherine, I think at least some at this conference will be exactly on your wavelength. Not all probably but many – others will probably push the first point the first point you made that science needs to be spiritual.

Catherine
Catherine
11 years ago

Dear Jeff, I completely agree with the first point: that Science needs to be spiritual. The only problem is that there is an issue of priority. In my understanding to have spiritual Science is to have a “fantastic science” I mean the best, with discoveries all the time. It would mean to have an Intuitive Science, which is still far from the reach of our human capacities [ I would put A Einstein as the leader of this]. now to have a scientific spirituality, that is a very affordable goal for us at this stage of evolution. A Steiner says… Read more »

Darryl
Darryl
11 years ago

Jeff, I heard about the nondual conferance becuase a guy i have been in communication in email over is also going to be speaking. His name is Peter francis dziuban. He owns a really good website. http://www.consciousnessisall.com He teaches that only Pure presence exists. If only the present exists how can evolution be true? Evolution is an idea which claims to be a slow progress and never present. In Peters’s book ‘Consciousness is all’ in Chapter 13 he explains how an apple does not outside outside or inside the mind but it actually the mind in operation. He explains “What… Read more »

Frank Luke
11 years ago

Hi Darryl, re: “I have never known a spiritual teacher to “believe” in evolution becuase that is exactly what evolution is a “belief” and nonduality is not based around beliefs.”

Would you not consider Andrew Cohen or Ken Wilber as spiritual teachers who I’ve gathered espouse the concept of evolution?

I don’t consider evolution as “just” a belief but rather more like a force of nature, happening as change and all phenomena happens. If you subscribe to the idea that “all is illusion”, then there’s little to discuss, is there (if that’s at all of any interest) ?

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
11 years ago

As far as I know what they call God is the force that caused the universe to come into existence. Yesterday I found something similar with Thomas of Aquino (ca. 1200) who connected the philosophy of Aristotle with Christianity. Even though of course his philsophy is different, he sais that something had to be the cause of this universe. It is against the background of the evolutionary findings that reading about the history of philosophy is so exiting. Normally I would not be interested in Aquino, but reading this suddenly makes history alive. Last week someone said that the ‘categories’… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
11 years ago

I did not say it clearly above: Aquino’s first prove of the existence of God is grounded in ‘movement’; we can prove with sense perception that something on earth is moving and movement can never be the cause of itself. Something has to cause this movement, that is not caused by something else.

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
11 years ago

If I say something about Aquinas, I should also mention Neoplatonism. Plotinus (265 AD) started to integrate a more mystical element into the Platonic scheme while incorporating some aspects of Aristotelian thoughts. Rationality reached its end point and passed over in a more suprarational mysticism. The Neoplatonic cosmos is the result of a divine emanation from the supreme one, which is infinite in being and beyond all description or categories. The One, also called the Good, in an overflow of perfection produces ‘the other’ -the created cosmos in all its variety. The first creative act, is the issuing forth from… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
11 years ago

If anybody is interested in this, I should say a bit more about Thomas Aquinas, who lives a century after Plotinus. In the same book p. 181: (freely) Man’s autonomy of will and intellect where themselves founded in God’s own nature (Aristotle and Neoplatonic concept). Within human nature lay the potential for actively moving toward perfect communion with the infinite ground of men’s being, God, who was the source of all development toward perfection in nature. Human intelligence and freedom received their reality and value from God, his infinite generosity allowed the creatures to participate in his own being, and… Read more »

Darryl
Darryl
11 years ago

Frank Luke you need to understand the material world is an illusion. How can evolution be true if matter doesn’t exist? Nothing evolves. Andrew Cohen and Ken wilber both say the world is 13.7 billion years old. That life came from lifeless matter. And they both believe in Darwins theory of evolution. All this is just pointless belief. Unreal. They miss the point of nonduality. Evolution is duality. Evolution is a long process. It is Not present. Thesedays i have little time for people who want to bang on about beliefs. Been there done that, at one point my life… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago

Darryl, Wouldn’t ideas like “nothing evolves” or “Human selfhood is an illusion, there is no seperation” or “in reality only ONENESS exists.” also be beliefs? Nonduality is absolute subjectivity, consciousness without content, one without second. So wouldn’t any thought about nonduality be an interpretation of an experieince which is unknowable? I agree with you that the idea of evolution occurs in duality, I would only add that all ideas about nonduality also exist in duality. For myself I have decided that the reality of duality is also real and therefore the ideas we hold are important as they guide our… Read more »

Darryl
Darryl
11 years ago

Jeff, My brother is an author who writes about creationism, he believes the earth is 6,000 years old and that evolution is a hoax created by atheists. Il be open right honest with you, i just have to agree with him on some of this stuff not about the age of the earth but about evolution being false. I am not a crackpot. There really is no objective scientific evidence for evolution. I am 20 years old, and not one time in my life have i ever experienced anything evolving. I have never understood why people believe in evolution. It… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago

Dear Darryl,

I do beleive in Evolution – although I would have to admit that it is not from any first hand expereince. I also during two months on a silent meditation retreat drank deeply of my own non-existance. All I could write about was how the idea of “Jeff” is just that, an idea, a fictional history that never actually existed. I do not doubt that to be the ultimate truth – I don’t necessarily see that that truth cannot go exist with a belief in evoluiton. Thank you for your sincere thoughts. Jeff

Darryl
Darryl
11 years ago

“I also during two months on a silent meditation retreat drank deeply of my own non-existance. All I could write about was how the idea of “Jeff” is just that, an idea, a fictional history that never actually existed. ” That is exactly it. Very little people have waken up to this. The idea that we are seperate from what is “out there” is wrong. People start thinking they are a self composed of seperate mind.. individuality etc and are seperate from the cosmos. I would be lieing if i said i have no beliefs. I still do but i… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago

So after realizing beyond doubt that nothing called “Jeff” exists in the universe. There is simply a string of ideas connected together by other ideas that create a seemingly solid sense of Jeffness, but if you look for this Jeff you cannot find him. You can find atributes and qualities that you imagine belong to a something called a Jeff, but a Jeff you will never find. From this realization it becomes possible to let go of all conceptualization at very deep levels and you see that it is all thought, all just ideas that connect to other ideas and… Read more »

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8 years ago

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8 years ago

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Hugo
8 years ago

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