Back in undergraduate school, I had the opportunity to take a class in Transcendental Meditation [TM], over a weekend during my freshman year. The concept that a simple practice could have potentially profound effects on both the physiology and psychology of a person was a stunning idea back then. The weekend progressed with lessons, audio tapes of the founder, and eventually the private revealing of the secret mantra alleged to be somehow specially chosen for me. A fellow classmate and I faithfully met each morning for the rest of the academic year and spent the twenty minutes in silent meditation. We figured that if we practiced together it would increase our likelihood of making the practice regular. I noticed throughout the year that I generally felt more relaxed and found the practice useful.
An equally profound realization crystalized later in the year, however, when attending a class led by the priest of our local Episcopal Church. He had described this as a course which would demonstrate a different form of prayer, called contemplative prayer, distinctly different from the more recognized prayer of petition common in church services. The Reverend at least provided some information that this earlier form of prayer had been quite central to the practice of early Christianity. As that weekend class continued, it became rapidly clear that the actual practice of contemplative prayer was in virtually every way identical to that of TM. The focus of contemplative prayer was a short phrase silently repeated, a mantra, but one in English.
What was special about this practice of quiet mental repetition? How or why did traditions so disparate as Hinduism and Christianity feature a practice identical except in the phrase of repetition itself. What kinds of benefits might accrue from such a practice? Does science have any information to bear on such an esoteric topic? What exactly is meditation, and what is the range of meditative practice? Good questions, and few enough answers.
There is a rather delightful aphorism from the yogic traditions, which will paraphrase, and perhaps mangle a bit:
I have feelings, but I am not my feelings. I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts.
This pearl of exceptional wisdom should probably be on a plaque on the wall of every therapist and psychiatrist in the world. For this is, in essence, the purpose of many forms of psychotherapy. In cognitive models one learns to identify negative thoughts as not intrinsic to the person. In psychodynamic models, one learns that we are distinct from the patterns we unconsciously repeat in life. In family therapy on learns that one is affected by and affects the family system but is not identical to it.
Gaining this ability to observe without fully identifying is core to adult maturation.
One of the most dramatic examples of this union of opposites in recent cinema occurred in the second film of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Two Towers.”
The movie opens with Gandalf the Grey engaged in a battle with a fire demon called the Balrog. Gandalf the Grey and the Balrog are polar opposites in every respect. Their battle results in mutual destruction as is shown later in the film when several characters meet the new Gandalf the White in Fangorn Forest.
Gandalf the White represents the union of the opposites into a stronger, more balanced character. The benevolence and wisdom of Gandolf the Grey combined with the fiery power of the Balrog, which represented Gandalf’s shadow.
But, as per this model from Jung, Gandalf the White is a new whole person who is greater than the sum of the two parts [opposites].
Consider the snakes as they wind around the staff of Mercury. They are in eternal conflict. They represent the opposites that can be perceived. Life & Death. Science & Art. Any pair of opposites you can imagine. They cannot unite at their own level, as Jung described because they are in eternal conflict. But provided enough energy and focus, a transcendent third may appear, represented by the winged globe above. This is wholeness, or the synthesis which arises from thesis and antithesis.
“As opposites never unite at their own level, a supraordinate ‘third’ is always required, in which the two parts can come together. And since the symbol derives as much from the conscious as from the unconscious, it is able to unite them both, reconciling their conceptual polarity through its form and their emotional polarity through its numinosity.” Jung – Aion
Jung’s work was central in applying the ideas relating to uniting the opposites contained within the conscious and the unconscious for psychospiritual growth. However, the seeds of this concept were planted deep in history. Plato is often attributed to first raising the concept of thesis, antithesis, synthesis, although these were not his exact words.
Meister Eckhart brought Christian concepts to the German speaking people by considering God as the thesis, Christ as the antithesis in physical form, and the unifying concept as the Holy Spirit. His work was censured by the Catholic Church soon after his death.
Hegel described this in terms of his dialectic: two opposites which created a new whole. His usage was more along the line of the abstract as the first principle which would generate a form of its automatic opposite as it became concrete in the world. The opposing energy between the two would then generate a new level of understanding. Writers who later described Hegel’s work used the Thesis – Antithesis – Synthesis model to describe his thought.
Thomas Campbell, a physicist by training, has developed a clever and seemingly complete description of the development of consciousness in his book series My Big TOE [Theory of Everything]. He correctly criticizes current scientific views of the world as being unable to incorporate subjective experience into the predominant models. His response is to suggest that by using only two a priori assumptions he can accurately model the universe more accurately than mainstream scientific theory. Campbell’s only two assumptions are that the primary primordial “stuff” of the universe contains rudimentary consciousness, and that this primordial “stuff” could evolve. He is then able to weave together a detailed description of the forces within physics and the primacy of direct experience.
He chose to use the two simplest assumptions available that would provide for the derivation of a richness of both experience and of basic physical science. He does not necessarily suggest that this basic primordial consciousness is the actual description, only that even if this very basic definition is applied that the results of the evolution of consciousness can become staggeringly complex. What is highly relevant about the model is the use of consciousness at any level as essentially a primary building block of the universe both subjective and objective. He is clearly not a monistic idealist, but his underlying assumptions at least have similarities in some ways to the idealist perspective. The difference is that he uses his assumptions to support the existence of an objective scientific universe which exists independently of the idealist. Quite an intellectual tour de force.
One other subtle requirement of Godel’s Proof is a special use of numbers in which unique numbers are used to encode mathematical formulas and even other numbers. In this manner, numbers are used to describe themselves, a form of self reference. At one level the numbers are numbers, yet at the meta-level the numbers provide information about the truth or falsity of equations.
This use of self reference may in some ways have equivalence to our own mental representations making reference to our selves or the ability to observe mental states. Theoretically the electrical and chemical processes of the brain could be understood in a mechanistic way. Yet, the actual experience of being seems to elude the reductionistic approach.
The surprise of a new insight, perspective or understanding which was true but unknown may, in fact, be a rough equivalent of the true but unprovable Godel statement. These insights often come unbidden, or through self-reflection, or depth psychotherapy, but the surprise of the AHA moment creates a new whole of reality for the individual who experiences it. An interior depth of new views of a data set that is largely unchanged in detail, the meta-view of the self.
There is one key distinction to be made in this particular discussion regarding the concept of an infinite number of truths not provable within any formal system. Many post-modernists have taken Godel’s ideas to promote the primary tenet of post-modernism which is that all narratives [truths] are equally true. The corollary to their perspective is that various truths cannot be compared, especially if they arise from different cultures or worldviews.
From that disastrous series of errors, the post-modernist arrives at political correctness and other forms of idea restriction. The reason for this degeneration in communication is because truth is no longer the value that determines what can be argued since all truths are equal. The means the post-modernist then justifies is the emotional effect on the reader. Anything that potentially offends is forbidden under this schema.
As a logician, Godel would, I believe, have been horrified by this misuse of his proof. Godel would have easily known that there are actually infinitely more false statements than there are true statements in the universe of ideas. His proof does not proclaim false statements to be true, nor would he have ever endorsed the abandonment of logic itself. His proof only stated that there exist statements which are true, but not provable; he does not claim or endorse the concept that all statements are equally true.
One of Godel’s biographers, Dr. Wang, a rather conservative philosopher himself, concluded that the consequences of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem for Mathematics included at least one of the following, if not all:
1. Mathematics is inexhaustible.
2. Any consistent formal theory of mathematics must contain undecidable propositions.
3. No theorem-proving computer (or program) can prove all and only the true propositions of mathematics.
4. No formal system of mathematics can be both consistent and complete.
5. Mathematics is mechanically (or algorithmically) inexhaustible (or incompletable)
Certainly if mathematics, as the foundation of science, is without limit, that at least suggests that other aspects of reality are also without limit, inexhaustible, and contain “undecidable propositions.” There is no reason that this limitlessness should be necessarily limited to mathematics. Godel actually believed that he had demonstrated the truth of Platonism, but neglected to publish that further proof. This proof certainly does imply that “truths” are discovered from a larger field of reality rather than merely created as an arbitrary convenience.
Godel certainly believed that although brain states might be mathematically determined as measured by such things as electo-encephalograms or brain imaging techniques, nevertheless, neither of those techniques nor any other mathematically based technique could [even in theory] predict or determine the richness of consciousness. He was certainly accurate regarding the limitations of the abilities of digital systems like computers to emulate consciousness, and was a consultant to the Artificial Intelligence community until his death.