The Theosophical Society in America

From the Editor's Desk

Printed in the Fall 2013 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Smoley, Richard. "From the Editor's Desk" Quest  101. 4 (Fall 2013): pg. 122.

Richard SmoleyWhat is it like to be a bat? Bats, as many people know, have a sense that we don't. They are able to bounce sonar—microsound waves—off objects to help them navigate, and they use this to supplement their sense of sight. This is called echolocation. Human beings understand the principle of sonar and use it in many applications: the navy uses it to sound the depths of oceans. But we ourselves don't have a sense of echolocation. Therefore we will never be able to know what it's like to perceive with this sense.

This, in sum, is the argument of a famous article by the philosopher Thomas Nagel. (Its title is the first sentence of this editorial.) Originally published in 1974, it's one of the most influential philosophical articles to have appeared in recent decades. Nagel contends that we can know everything about how the brain works from a neurological point of view—just as we can explain how sonar works—but there is nothing as yet to explain how and why this relates to subjective experience. As one psychologist put it, "The brain resembles the mind about as much as a telephone number resembles its subscriber."

Nagel's argument, now nearly forty years old, has never been refuted. Since then, neurology has explained a great deal of how the brain works, but it has never explained, or come close to explaining, how the mind arises out of the brain. Nor has it told us if the mind can exist independently of it, although materialists tend to blithely assert that it cannot.

In fact at present the field of consciousness studies is faced with two diametrically opposite propositions: (1) the mind is the result of brain functions; (2) the mind is more than the brain and can exist outside of it. Both seem to be true, and both are backed up by substantial evidence. The second proposition, it is true, is based on anecdotal evidence (that is, these experiences are onetime events and are not repeatable in a scientific sense). But at some point enough anecdotal evidence piles up so that it cannot be ignored. Eben Alexander's bestselling Proof of Heaven, in which the author, a neurologist, tells about his experience of other realities while he was in a coma and his higher brain was not functioning, is one of the most recent of many examples. (Eben, by the way, will be a featured speaker at the TS's Summer National Convention in July 2014.)

What does all this show? Theosophy, like most esoteric traditions, sets out several planes of existence. While these don't correlate exactly between the various systems, there is a rough correspondence, and the similarities are usually more striking than the differences. In terms of the mind-brain problem, we could say that the neurological operations of the brain correspond to the physical, or lowest, plane—the only one whose existence science admits. The inner, subjective sense—how a bat, or a human being, experiences the world—could be equated with the astral plane.

Classic Theosophy speaks of a mental plane as well, this being associated with thoughts, while the astral plane is associated with emotions and desires. But in the discussion here I will lump them together under the term "astral plane," partly for the sake of simplicity, partly because it strikes me as extremely hard to posit any radical separation between thoughts and feelings.

In any event, the astral and the physical planes overlap or coincide: an emotion, we're told, corresponds to certain brain responses (in the amygdala, if I remember correctly). But they operate in quite different ways, and apparently by different laws. The neurology of the brain works electrochemically—by a certain sequence of chemical and electrical impulses. Subjectively, however, we do not experience these impulses. Instead we experience the contents of consciousness as a kind of flow—one thought leads to an emotion, the emotion to another thought, and so on. It is no coincidence that one of the most ancient and universal symbols for this astral plane is water. We even acknowledge its liquid nature with such phrases as "stream of consciousness."

This astral level is also likened to the sea. And this points to an extremely important, and often overlooked, aspect of the human condition. We live in this sea like fish, and, perhaps like fish, we are usually unaware of this medium that surrounds us. We do not even differentiate it from ourselves in the deepest sense. We take the ocean of thoughts, emotions, and images that we swim in to be identical to ourselves, to be ourselves.Hence when I am struck by an overpowering emotion, I often fail to step back from it and realize that I am not that emotion.

How I know that I am not? By the simple fact that I can step back in my mind's eye and look at this emotion. If you can look at something, it means that you are not there. You are somewhere else; thus it follows you must be something other than that thing. It requires some insight, and a little bit of training, to come to this realization, but I believe it is one of the central ideas that the esoteric traditions are trying to teach us. There is something in us that sees, and because it sees, it necessarily can never be seen; but we can never be apart from it. It is a funny coincidence that in English the words "I" and "eye" sound the same—or is it a coincidence?

Richard Smoley