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Ignorance — a bug or a feature?
Thinking radically in the face of radical evil
A recent post by Nicolas Tenzer (Strategic Amnesia: Time, Delay and Forgetting) came as a sharp reminder of the enormous challenges that are to be met, not only intellectually but in actual life, through a radical transformation of the consciousness by which we experience the world and act in it. And I mean enormous. Here are two passages from Tenzer’s post (the emphasis is mine):
From [Putin’s] point of view too, the failures of the Russian army and the appalling toll in human lives are not a major factor, nor is the effect of sanctions, alleviated by their circumvention, on the Russian economy. These are not realities that really matter to him. The destruction of a large part of Ukraine and the murder of over a hundred thousand Ukrainians are ultimately what he wanted most, and the losses on the Russian side carry little weight in his mind. We must never forget that his actions are guided by an ideology of total annihilation. For him, imperial conquest was a secondary argument.
We find here a phenomenon that seems to me crucial to any understanding: the impossibility of thinking radically in the face of radical evil, the desire to reduce the unspeakable, in the literal sense of the term, to something that can be named with trivial words, the propensity to resort to a theory of international relations or the classic geopolitical “great game” when we have moved into another universe, that of the will to annihilate. And, in the face of this radical reality, our thinking is unable to cope—and, consequently, neither are our actions.
We need to understand the true origin and nature of such radical evil, so that we may not only recognize its enormity but also, without trivializing it, see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, and that again without being disheartened by the real or apparent length of the tunnel. This requires nothing less than an understanding of who we really are and what the world really is, and then some.
To begin with, imagining that you alone exist, and that you are all-powerful and all-knowing — you can create any world you like, and you can know anything about any world you have created.
Now ask yourself: Could you have the joy of winning a victory? The joy of overcoming a challenge, a difficulty, an obstacle, an opposition? Could you experience the delight we experience at a discovery? Or simply the pleasure of a pleasant surprise?
You could not. To make all of this possible, you need to impose limitations on your omnipotence and your omniscience.
Whenever you create a world, you do this by entering into relations with yourself. You can’t have the multiplicity of a world without becoming many, and you can’t become many without entering into relations with yourself. In your original status, you are conscious of being each of the many beings you have created by entering into relations with yourself, and you experience the world you have created from the perspectives of all these beings.
Moreover, your self-relations are not simply spatial or geometrical relations obtaining between the locations from which you or your individual selves experience and act in the world. Your self-relations possess a range of qualities far exceeding the breadth and scale of our human emotions, and they can be mutual or one-sided and either active or passive.
But presently you want to experience the aforementioned joys, and for that you must limit your omnipotence and omniscience. And since you do nothing in half measures, what you do is you turn yourself inside out, completely and without reservations. All your self-relations, instead of being internal to yourself, are now external to yourself.
When your self-relations are internal to yourself, you are directly conscious of them, just as you are of your identity with the many beings between which they obtain. When your self-relations are external to yourself, you are locked up as it were, Houdini-like, in each of these beings. You are conscious of nothing except, perhaps, a mysterious urge to recover, eventually, your omnipotence and omniscience. The only relations in existence are then the spatial or geometrical relations that obtain between an apparent multiplicity of relata, which physicists often describe as the “ultimate constituents of matter.”
Again — and this is even more challenging to conceive — in your original status your power and your knowledge are not as distinct as power and knowledge are for a human being. Rational human beings cogitate before they decide to act, and they decide to act before they act. In fact, between the decision to act and the act itself, they must also work up an effective will. In your original status, on the other hand, your knowledge is a creative self-knowledge, and this commands a wholly effective will-power. For you, to know a thing is to be or become that thing. You know everything because you are everything. And therefore, if you act from the standpoints of the many beings that you have become, their actions will harmonize with each other; they will complement each other and never be in conflict (except for the fun of it).
What becomes of your spontaneously effective will when your self-relations become external? In order for you to have the full measure of the aforementioned experiences, your willpower will take on the aspect of interactions between unconscious particles lacking any will or power of their own. These interactions will be governed by laws, and these laws will allow for the evolution of life and mind and eventually supermind.
To explain the sense in which the words “life,” “mind,” and “supermind” are used here, I must now redress an omission. In your original status you are not only all-powerful and all-knowing; you are also an infinite, self-existing Quality/Delight, which has the power to experience and express itself in an infinite variety of actions and forms. (I call it “Quality/Delight” because it antecedes the subject/object distinction. If we think of it in subjective terms, it is best characterized as Delight, and if we think of it in objective terms, it is best characterized as Quality.)
Essentially, then, supermind stands for the original knowledge-power by which you express your infinite Quality/Delight in actions and forms. This creative power encompasses two intermediate stages: one in which Quality/Delight gets cast into expressive ideas, and one in which ideas are realized as actions or forms. Mind is essentially the power that creates ideas, and life is essentially the force that executes ideas.
So, your self-relations are reduced to a set of spatial relations obtaining between what appears to be a multitude of particles, your spontaneously effective will is reduced to a force or forces that act between them, and the laws governing these forces must be such as to allow for the evolution of life and mind. Incidentally, the well-established laws of particle physics can be shown to have more or less exactly the form they need to have if they are to set the stage for your adventure of evolution.
To the Aurobindonian insider, it will be of interest that in her Agenda of June 9, 1962, the Mother made the following remarks:
There is nothing to change! Only the relations between things change.... Everything has one and the same constituent element, you see; and everything lies in the interrelations. Well, it’s exactly the same for the transformation.... It is one and the same Power that changes the interrelations within one and the same element; to put things simply, the Power that gives the subjective experience and the objective realization is the same.
The human condition
We ordinary humans are conditioned in at least three general ways.
First, our mental consciousness is devolved from a supramental consciousness. This devolution takes place when the multiple concentration of consciousness, by which the true You experiences the world and acts in it from a multiplicity of perspectives, becomes exclusive. The result is ignorance (avidya), a quintessential concept of Indian metaphysics. It denotes the loss, by the many, of the consciousness of their mutual identity, and of all that this loss entails.
Second, our consciousness is evolved from the inconscience of a world of effectively external relations governed by physical laws. Limited not only by the principle of ignorance, which is characteristic of the involution of supermind in mind, our minds are subject to further constraints: those imposed by their prior involution in life, and those imposed by life’s prior involution in matter.
And third, the upward struggle of life out of matter, of mind out of life, and eventually of supermind out of mind — in short, the adventure of evolution — is not only helped but also powerfully hampered by subliminal influences originating from supraphysical planes of existence, as may be gleaned from this post.
One of the more serious problems in the philosophy of mind concerns the representational character of (human) consciousness: how can something internal represent something external? This is an instance of the general problem of intentionality: how can something — be it a belief or a pattern of neuronal activity — be about something else?
Here is how. In your original status, knowledge and being are one. You know everything because you are everything. At its origin, all knowledge is knowledge by identity. If, on the other hand, you adopt a multitude of perspectives, so that you experience the world and act in it from a multitude of locations, knowledge by identity takes the form of direct knowledge: each being knows the other beings directly, without any need for mediating representations. The possibility of this direct knowledge rests on the underlying identity of the knower with the known.
But if you identify yourself exclusively with each being, then each being’s knowledge of the others becomes indirect. This situation is often described in terms of representations. The knower is physically affected by the known, whereby a physical representation of the known is created in the knower. It’s hard to think of a sillier explanation of how we know or are conscious of things.
We arrive at a slightly more promising approach to understanding our cognitive situation if we substitute the word “encoding” for the word “representation.” Thus while our brains extract information from the physical images falling on our retinas, this information gets encoded in our brains and therefore needs to be decoded. Yet this way of talking, too, is confused, inasmuch as it fails to distinguish between several kinds of information.
There is, first, information about correlations between neuronal firing patterns and “external” objects, as exemplified by the correlations a neuroscientist observes when she perceives (i) a particular pattern of electrochemical pulses in a subject’s visual cortex and (ii) a green apple located in the subject’s visual field. Since such correlations obtain between perceived objects — the neuronal firing pattern and the green apple, both perceived by Alice — they can’t help us understand how we come to be conscious of things in the first place.
Then there is the information which is encoded in the neuronal firing patters studied by Alice, and which she cannot possibly extract from the objects of her studies.
Then there is the information which Alice obtains when she is seeing a green apple, which consists in the knowledge that a green apple is situated in front of her.
And finally, there is the information that is required to decode the information which is encoded in a neuronal firing pattern — for example, the information needed to interpret a specific neuronal firing pattern as a green apple. This information both is and is not available to Alice. Alice receives it — otherwise she wouldn’t be seeing a green apple — but she is unaware of its source.
The bottom line: As the identity of knower and known makes direct knowledge possible, so a secret direct knowledge undergirds the possibility of our indirect knowledge. The insufficient information provided by neuronal firing patterns is supplemented by a direct knowledge, which springs from a source that is subliminal to our normal waking consciousness. Like so:
I have used this illustration on two previous occasions (here and here). Interested readers may want to read the quotations following the respective locations. What Sri Aurobindo is saying in the first quote would today be expressed by saying that our brains’ contributions to our knowledge are, by themselves, so ineffectual that without intuitions from various subliminal sources “we could know little or nothing or only achieve a great blur of confusion.”
Our world-knowledge is therefore a difficult structure made up of the imperfect documentation of the sense image, an intuitional interpretation of it by perceptive mind, life-mind and sense-mind, and a supplementary filling up, correction, addition of supplementary knowledge, co-ordination, by the reason. Even so our knowledge of the world we live in is narrow and imperfect, our interpretations of its significances doubtful. [LD 548]
Throw science into the mix, and “the result still remains a half-certain, half-dubious accumulation of acquired indirect knowledge.”
It could not be otherwise since our awareness of the world is born of a separative and surface observation with only an indirect means of cognition at its disposal; our knowledge of ourselves, though more direct, is stultified by its restriction to the surface of our being, by an ignorance of our true self, the true sources of our nature, the true motive-forces of our action....
[T]he sources of our consciousness and thought are a mystery; the true nature of our mind, emotions, sensations is a mystery; our cause of being and our end of being, the significance of our life and its activities are a mystery: this could not be if we had a real self-knowledge and a real world-knowledge. [LD 549]
As mentioned above, the adventure of evolution is not only handicapped by the inertia of matter and the refractoriness of life but also hampered by nefarious influences originating from supraphysical worlds. In a letter written in 1931, Sri Aurobindo wrote:
For instance, looking at what happened in 1914—or for that matter at all that is and has been happening in human history—the eye of the Yogin sees not only the outward events and persons and causes, but the enormous forces which precipitate them into action. If the men who fought were instruments in the hands of rulers and financiers, these in turn were mere puppets in the clutch of those forces. When one is habituated to see the things behind, one is no longer prone to be touched by the outward aspects—or to expect any remedy from political, institutional or social changes; the only way out is through the descent of a consciousness which is not the puppet of these forces but is greater than they are and can compel them either to change or disappear.1
The last sentence cannot be overemphasized. Here are the relevant passages from a previous post:
There are in these planes of supraphysical experience powers and forms of vital mind and life that seem to be the prephysical foundation of the discordant, defective or perverse forms and powers of life-mind and life-force which we find in the terrestrial existence. There are forces, and subliminal experience seems to show that there are supraphysical beings embodying those forces, that are attached in their root-nature to ignorance, to darkness of consciousness, to misuse of force, to perversity of delight, to all the causes and consequences of the things that we call evil. These powers, beings or forces are active to impose their adverse constructions upon terrestrial creatures; eager to maintain their reign in the manifestation, they oppose the increase of light and truth and good and, still more, are antagonistic to the progress of the soul towards a divine consciousness and divine existence....
As there are Powers of Knowledge or Forces of the Light, so there are Powers of Ignorance and tenebrous Forces of the Darkness whose work is to prolong the reign of Ignorance and Inconscience. As there are Forces of Truth, so there are Forces that live by the Falsehood and support it and work for its victory; as there are powers whose life is intimately bound up with the existence, the idea and the impulse of Good, so there are Forces whose life is bound up with the existence and the idea and the impulse of Evil. [LD 624–25]
At times the progress of earthly life seems to be a vast field of battle between supraphysical Forces of either character, those that strive to uplift, encourage and illumine and those that strive to deflect, depress or prevent or even shatter our upward evolution or the soul’s self-expression in the material universe. Some of these Beings, Powers or Forces are such that we think of them as divine; they are luminous, benignant or powerfully helpful: there are others that are Titanic, gigantic or demoniac, inordinate Influences, instigators or creators often of vast and formidable inner upheavals or of actions that overpass the normal human measure. [LD 806]
Not a bug but a feature
In various traditions, the world’s imperfections have been attributed to some kind of fall. If we penetrate to the cause of this “fall,” writes Sri Aurobindo, “we shall find that all proceeds from the one primal fact that our being, consciousness, force, experience of things represent — not in their very self, but in their surface pragmatic nature — a principle or an effective phenomenon of division or rupture in the unity of the Divine Existence.” [LD 406]
However, “the existence of ignorance, error, limitation, suffering, division and discord in the world need not by itself, as we too hastily imagine, be a denial or a disproof of the divine being, consciousness, power, knowledge, will, delight in the universe.” Nonetheless, even if there is “no real division or limitation of being ... there does seem to be a real limitation of consciousness: there is an ignorance of self, a veiling of the inner Divinity, and all imperfection is its consequence.” But this ignorance of veiling, from which all imperfection ensues, is really “an operation of knowledge and not a true ignorance.” [LD 416–18]
[F]or behind it is an indivisible all-consciousness: the ignorance is a frontal power of that all-consciousness which limits itself in a certain field, within certain boundaries to a particular operation of knowledge, a particular mode of conscious working, and keeps back all the rest of its knowledge in waiting as a force behind it. All that is thus hidden is an occult store of light and power for the All-Consciousness to draw upon for the evolution of our being in Nature; there is a secret working which fills up all the deficiencies of the frontal Ignorance, acts through its apparent stumblings, prevents them from leading to another final result than that which the All-Knowledge has decreed, helps the soul in the Ignorance to draw from its experience, even from the natural personality’s sufferings and errors, what is necessary for its evolution and to leave behind what is no longer utilisable. This frontal power of Ignorance is a power of concentration in a limited working, much like that power in our human mentality by which we absorb ourselves in a particular object and in a particular work and seem to use only so much knowledge, only such ideas as are necessary for it,— the rest, which are alien to it or would interfere with it, are put back for the moment: yet, in reality, all the time it is the indivisible consciousness which we are that has done the work to be done, seen the thing that has to be seen,— that and not any fragment of consciousness or any exclusive ignorance in us is the silent knower and worker: so is it too with this frontal power of concentration of the All-Consciousness within us.
In our valuation of the movements of our consciousness this ability of concentration is rightly held to be one of the greatest powers of the human mentality. But equally the power of putting forth what seems to be an exclusive working of limited knowledge, that which presents itself to us as ignorance, must be considered one of the greatest powers of the divine Consciousness. It is only a supreme self-possessing Knowledge which can thus be powerful to limit itself in the act and yet work out perfectly all its intentions through that apparent ignorance. In the universe we see this supreme self-possessing Knowledge work through a multitude of ignorances, each striving to act according to its own blindness, yet through them all it constructs and executes its universal harmonies.... We may say then that this action of the ignorance or nescience is no real ignorance, but a power, a sign, a proof of an omniscient self-knowledge and all-knowledge.
If we need any personal and inner witness to this indivisible all-consciousness behind the ignorance ... we can get it with any completeness only in our deeper inner being or larger and higher spiritual state when we draw back behind the veil of our own surface ignorance and come into contact with the divine Idea and Will behind it. Then we see clearly enough that what we have done by ourselves in our ignorance was yet overseen and guided in its result by the invisible Omniscience; we discover a greater working behind our ignorant working and begin to glimpse its purpose in us: then only can we see and know what now we worship in faith, recognise wholly the pure and universal Presence, meet the Lord of all being and all Nature.
As with the cause,— the Ignorance,— so is it with the consequences of the Ignorance. All this that seems to us incapacity, weakness, impotence, limitation of power, our will’s hampered struggle and fettered labour, takes from the point of view of the Divine in his self-workings the aspect of a just limitation of an omniscient power by the free will of that Power itself so that the surface energy shall be in exact correspondence with the work that it has to do, with its attempt, its allotted success or its destined because necessary failure, with the balance of the sum of forces in which it is a part and with the larger result of which its own results are an indivisible portion. Behind this limitation of power is the All-Power and in the limitation that All-Power is at work; but it is through the sum of many limited workings that the indivisible Omnipotence executes infallibly and sovereignly its purposes. This power to limit its force and to work through that self-limitation, by what we call labour, struggle, difficulty, by what seems to us a series of failures or half-baulked successes and through them to achieve its secret intention, is not therefore a sign, proof or reality of weakness, but a sign, proof, reality — the greatest possible — of an absolute omnipotence. [LD 418–20]
And so also it is with our own limited surface consciousness:
[O]ur apparent separative individuality is only a surface movement and behind it our real individuality stretches out to unity with all things and upward to oneness with the transcendent Divine Infinity. Thus our ego, which seems to be a limitation of existence, is really a power of infinity; the boundless multiplicity of beings in the world is a result and signal evidence, not of limitation or finiteness, but of that illimitable Infinity. Apparent division can never erect itself into a real separateness; there is supporting and overriding it an indivisible unity which division itself cannot divide. This fundamental world-fact of ego and apparent division and their separative workings in the world existence is no denial of the Divine Nature of unity and indivisible being; they are the surface results of an infinite multiplicity which is a power of the infinite Oneness. [LD 417]
[T]he All-Delight of the universal being ... is not present in the universal alone, but it is here secret in ourselves, as we discover when we go back from our outward consciousness into the Self within us; the psychic being in us … extracts a divine meaning and use from our most poignant sufferings, difficulties, misfortunes. Nothing but this All-Delight could dare or bear to impose such experiences on itself or on us; nothing else could turn them thus to its own utility and our spiritual profit. So too nothing but an inalienable harmony of being inherent in an inalienable unity of being would throw out so many harshest apparent discords and yet force them to its purpose so that in the end they are unable to do anything else but to serve and secure, and even themselves change into elements that constitute, a growing universal rhythm and ultimate harmony. [LD 420–21]
That, I’d say, points to an extremely bright light at the end of an admittedly very long tunnel. At present, all depends on whether we can catch a glimpse of it, even though mere faith or belief isn’t enough.
There is, no doubt, a key in the divine reason that would justify things as they are by revealing their right significance and true secret as other, subtler, deeper than their outward meaning and phenomenal appearance which is all that can normally be caught by our present intelligence: but we cannot be content with that belief, to search for and find the spiritual key of things is the law of our being. The sign of the finding is not a philosophic intellectual recognition and a resigned or sage acceptance of things as they are because of some divine sense and purpose in them which is beyond us; the real sign is an elevation towards the spiritual knowledge and power which will transform the law and phenomena and external forms of our life nearer to a true image of that divine sense and purpose. [LD 411–12]
Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Poetry and Art, p. 109 (Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department, 2004).