SynTalk is a podcast series where each hour-long episode is a free-wheeling interdisciplinary conversation containing a philosophical examination of a theme from the viewpoint of 3–4 different disciplines. While I have not had the opportunity to be a part of a SynTalk conversation as yet, I am on a list of people to be considered for future conversations. I was asked to write a SyndWich — a short text that reflects on 3–4 SynTalk conversations heard together. This was my offering:
There is a story that is told about the king and sage, Janaka, who had an intensely lucid dream one night that he was a beggar, destitute, hungry, and in rags. Waking up, he saw around him a palace that held him in the lap of luxury. At that initial moment of wakefulness, the image of the dream and the image of the palace in front of his eyes were equally vivid, and he wondered which was the true reality. Was it that the scene of the palace played out longer in front of his eyes and it is duration that determines which one is reality? Knowing how easy it is for a man to convince himself about anything, duration did not seem to be a basis substantive enough for differentiating between illusion and reality. His bewilderment on this question continued into the morning when his guru Yajnavalkya arrived at the palace, and eager for wisdom to dispel this confusion, he placed his dilemma in front of his teacher. “You are steering your attention in the wrong direction,” Yajnavalkya advised Janaka, “The fact that you are able to compare these two scenes means that there is a common thread running across both of them; a witness who was present in both. Rather than trying to sort out which is the true scene, you should seek awareness of the truth of the essential nature of this witness.”
It is this strategy of the witness I am forced to deploy in responding to a request to examine a few SynTalk episodes and pen down my response. I examined three SynTalk episodes, each one a rich, diverse, intense and reflective conversation. The episodes were:
- #TNSO (The Not So Obvious — on truth, logic, proofs, the criteria for assessing a proof…)
- #TATT (The Attempts to Team — on teams, cooperation, competition, individuals, groups…)
- #TBAN (The Belligerents And Neutrals — on violence, nation states, institutions, war…)
The disciplines represented in these three discussions covered philosophy, theoretical computer science, linguistics, evolutionary biology, economic sociology, military history, international relations and journalism; with each participant demonstrating a breadth of vision that covered territory far wider than their official domain of specialisation.
In a sense, all three talks centre on the question of truth, how one determines what is true, and how to deal with complexity and contradiction in the process of arriving at the truth. The first approaches it directly by centring on the issue of proof, but accepts, fairly early in the dialogue, that one cannot have a pure and logical rationality, and even proofs have to be assessed by far more nuanced criteria such as elegance. The second and third talks deal with the fallout when multiple actors seek to define truth; the second looking at the challenge in tackling common definitions necessary for groups to cooperate, and the third looking at the tendency to violence, including the calibrated use of violence by nation states, when the quest for shared truth collapses and a multiplicity of self-centred motives are in conflict.
It is impossible to distil these three talks to a common intellectual ground that permits speaking on them as a group, and that is to do with the nature of the problem of truth. Firstly, truth within human society is what Michael Polanyi defined as a polycentric problem, without a central core that contains the essence of the problem. This is best described through the metaphor of a spider’s web: one’s analysis can only grasp one or two strands of the web, but any attempt to deal with even a single strand results in a redistribution of tension across the entire web. Secondly, humans differ from other animals in their capacity to be reflexive: they can think about themselves, and through this thinking alter who they are. This implies that truth belongs to that class of problems called “wicked problems”, that, leave alone resolution, even elude definition. The inquiring mind is one of the constituents of the problem, so even the act of touching the problem changes the nature of the problem. This is why I suggest here that the deployment of the witness is far more productive than deploying the intellectual analyst.
The difference between the analyst and the witness is that the analyst seeks detachment deploying only the intellectual mind, whereas the witness’s inherent embedment into a scene pre-empts detachment, implicating the entire body. The analyst can focus on intelligence, the witness must also come to terms with consciousness, and the nature of the problem changes radically when it is founded on consciousness. Consciousness contains within its core fundamental properties that cannot be comprehended by intelligence: emotions, tacit knowledge and transcendental wisdom that is beyond one’s capacity to put into words. Intelligence’s memory resides in the brain, the memory of consciousness pervades our muscles, our entire body (artistic practices that depend on consciousness more than intelligence rely heavily on muscle memory). Intelligence can be abstracted; consciousness is inseparable from the body. The neuroscientist Anil Seth describes recent experiments in the field that demonstrate that, while we may debate artificial intelligence, we never need to speculate on artificial consciousness, for consciousness is inherently a property of living, breathing, feeling, embodied, sensory beings.
Given that consciousness is so closely tied to individualised bodies, the conventions of intelligence dismiss it as being of little value for it is captured by pointless subjectivity. But questions of truth are often far more objective when approached from the vantage point of consciousness. In the first volume of his four-volume inquiry, The Nature of Order, Christopher Alexander shows that when people are asked to make a choice between two objects or scenes, the objectivity on display is radically tied to the way the question is framed. When asked to consider the question, “Which one do I like more?” (a question that appeals more to the faculty of intelligent analysis), there is tremendous subjectivity. But when asked to consider the question, “Which one, as a living mirror to the core of my being, makes me feel more whole?” (a question that appeals more to consciousness), there is an over ninety-percent correlation steering the preference to one side: the wooden bench over the metal stool, the hand-painted mocha cup over the gaudy mass-produced mug, the wood-handle axe over the plastic-handle screwdriver, the street with trees over the street without trees.
This is the way we intuitively live, but formal education schools us to forget it. Take the example of friendship. If we set out to find friends by first constructing a theory or philosophy of friendship, we would probably be hard-pressed to find friends. Friendships are typically stressed to the point of fracture by a demand that they conform to a priori truths. We find a friend by investing in the shared time necessary to open up our consciousness to another, and in the resonances of shared consciousness lie the foundations of friendship. So much of what makes life worth living — love, joy, empathy, beauty — are effectively handled by consciousness, but poorly by intelligence. To paraphrase Joseph Campbell, intelligence delves into the meaning of life, whereas consciousness seeks the rapture of being alive. A truth of shared rapture is far more significant than an intellectual consensus on shared abstract meanings. Intelligence steps away from the world to arrive at meaning through analysis. Consciousness steps into the world to discover rapture through shared practices, and the protocols of practice we share are of far greater value than the intellectual concepts we agree on.
If I have argued for privileging the consciousness of the witness, does that mean I see little value in the intellectual explorations of the three SynTalk conversations that provoked this essay? Far from it! Consciousness suffers serious limitations if it ignores intelligence. My own consciousness is the foothold through which I know the authenticity of being alive. But being embedded in the world, I am forced to acknowledge that mine is not the only consciousness that exists, and there are many beings and forms of consciousness that make up the world. The very fact of my birth inserts me into this larger web of consciousness, and I must come to terms with my place in this wider context. I cannot do this purely from the vantage point of my consciousness, for that would privilege my viewpoint over others. To do this, I need to develop a critical inner voice, one that can split my being to examine myself in the same light under which I examine the world. I need intelligence to do this.
The evolution of my Being is not a linear process where one step follows the other. It follows a continuous back-and-forth conversational movement, where each move critiques the one made in the other direction. If I rely on being a witness, this act of witnessing takes two forms. I bear witness to the world and deploy my consciousness to validate thoughts about the world so that they are not limited to detached abstractions and become a part of my being. But I can also deploy my intelligence to be a witness testifying against myself, provoking that inner critical voice that allows me to not only be in the world but also of the world. For whatever limited ability I have acquired to be both types of witness, making moves in both directions, I am deeply grateful to SynTalk and all the other rigorous critical conversations to which I have been granted the privilege of either witnessing or participating.