Our Metaphysical Meat


I have written many times with dismay about the “I am not my body” ideology that permeates contemporary yoga. To view the body, as so many spiritual seekers seem to do, as a vehicle or ‘meat-suit’ – whilst our true self lies ‘elsewhere’ is to fall victim to what author Philip Shepherd calls the “great wound of our culture” – the mind/body split. Because “if you are divided from your body you are divided from…the living continuum to which you belong.”

That’s why I was so thrilled to read Matthews Remski’s brilliant and insightful article If We Erase “I Am Not My Body” What Is Left of Yoga Philosophy? Remski urges us to stop looking ‘out there’ for transcendence and he questions the idea so prevalent in many streams of yogic tradition, that the body is to be sloughed off like an old suit when we ‘ascend’ and reach Nirvana. Remski is not, as he writes “ in sympathy with this dualist portrayal” of an “immaterial mind trapped inside an alien body.” He goes right for the jugular of the mind/body split when he asks – what if there is no post body state to work towards, no body to overcome? Right on Matthew!

Photo by Flora Borsi
Photo by Flora Borsi

But sadly, it is with his materialist hardline, that we must part ways. And while I am oversimplifying Remski’s complex analysis, lets just say he sees our experience of “I am not my body” as simply a trick of perception, a biological glitch, “a temporary experiential response to developmental patterning or phenomenological conditions”.  It implies no greater truth, only “a common experience we would do better to integrate rather than reify.”

Remski’s opinion takes root in the dominant paradigm of neuroscience that mind derives from matter – so let’s jubodydiivine1079907-001st deal with the matter – please. But does that necessarily make the “I am not my body” experience illusory? Because, lets face it, we won’t really know the answer to that question until the hard problem (how our matter, our meat produces mind-stuff, qualia, the experience of consciousness) is solved.

I don’t disagree with Remski that consciousness is an artifact of the body, it’s why in fact, I believe the body CAN know or apprehend a metaphysical reality. Because it is the bodies very nature.

This idea of a metaphysical body (defined as that which transcends or goes beyond the physical) goes to the heart of why I started writing this blog. I wanted to respond to my yoga students requests to work on their abs, butts or shoulders, as if the body was just a mechanistic collection of parts to be kept in ‘shape’. I wanted them not to see their body as inert meat, cut off from the greater “I’ or self that was driving their ‘vehicle’ but as part of, or “one with” their consciousness.

Now I know that statement makes some people upset , because to claim consciousness extends beyond the brain, is to disregard the hard cold facts of science. Yet what proof is there that the body (or the mind for that matter) is separate from – anything?  In fact, the more we zero in, looking for the hard edges between this and that, between body and mind, between consciousness and matter, the more they dissolve into the proverbial vanishing point. Our minds may seem immaterial and our bodies may seem like solid flesh and bone, but both flow together (into everything and each other) as interconnected energy fields encompassed in larger interconnected energy fields – ad infinitum.

davidbohmThis is why the great quantum physicist David Bohm postulated that there is both an implicate and explicate order to things. The “implicate order” was the unseen realm of complete unity in which everything, including consciousness, is enfolded together and in contact with everything else. And it was from this realm that the seemingly isolated things and events of the world unfold in the “explicate order”, the material day-to-day reality in which we live.

So can we really seal the body off from this ‘greater’ energetic continuum as a strictly material phenomenon, any more than we can seal consciousness solely into the flesh? Despite our dualistic penchant for dividing you from me, me from that, body from mind, we must acknowledge that there exists a higher/deeper/ greater(?) metaphysical reality in which both are united.

This is why (as I have also written so copiously about in this blog) I resonate so deeply with Tantric philosophy. In my view Tantra, unlike the later ascetic schools that derived from it, sought not transcendence but immanence, the “felt” perception of this greater unified reality.

This experience of the flesh, that we are more than JUST our bodies, was not, as Remski suggests, a teleological process which progresses, “towards a higher state than the body can offer on its own”. Because the Tantrics didn’t seek to ‘go’ anywhere, they ‘surrendered’  to their true nature, the experience that  “everything is one”. And it is no small point that when this gnosis happens, it happens in the body. It infuses our cells, skin, and heart, with ecstasy, and we know (egad, dare I say it) ‘god-stuff’ as ourselves.

brainvatThis idea of a divine body of “metaphysical meat” flies in face of the mind/body split as upheld by Cartesian science, and it flies in the face of our technological posthuman ideals. Our search for transcendence “out there” has led to a mechanical model of our brains as nothing more than computers, with consciousness as a running program. And it is thus, with Transhumanists at the fore, we make ready to download the mind. But what we will achieve (or lose) if we succeed in leaving the body behind?

That’s why spiritual seekers who see the body as a kind of suitcase we tote about on the path to enlightenment are so dangerously missing the point. Nature spent eons creating ever more complex and conscious forms of life, from one-celled organisms into plant and animal life, to the individually unique bodies we seem so eager to dispossess. Our bodies are not meaningless in the ‘greater’ scheme of things – they are why we are here at all.

So this is the dualistic paradox I seek to explore in this blog – that we are finite flesh in the “here and now” AND part of an infinite metaphysical reality. It’s why I disagree with Remski’s assertion that our bodily experience of  ” I am not my body” is just an epiphenomenon of our meat – because it implies we are JUST our bodies. But when you boil it down, we can’t shivastrip the body of metaphysics because the body is about as metaphysical as it gets. And isn’t this what yoga, or at least what Tantra yoga,  sought to help us understand? Yoga consciously “yokes” the inner world of our thought emotions and imagination to the physical world of our body, fingers, and toes because the body IS a microcosm of the macrocosm. And as such, it is a mystery of metaphysical proportions.

So like Matthew, I ask the question – what are we left with when we subtract “I am not my body’ from yoga philosophy? As he so beautifully writes, “We are left with the very flesh of yoga”. “We are left with the mystery of insides and outsides, selves and others, and other selves…We are left with knowing that all we have ever learned has come through this flesh that we are right now. We are left, not with “I am my body” but I, body: something I may not always want to be, but a matter I have no say in. This matter, to which the “I” must surrender.”

Now to that, Matthew, I can wholeheartedly agree.

46 Comments Add yours

  1. Thanks Danielle for the kind reading. Readers might be interested in running through the original article to see that it’s not just the hard materialism of neuroscience I refer to while showing that “I am not my body” is an unsustainable artifact of dualistic poetics. I also draw on psychoanalytic and anthropological arguments to show how the statement makes experiential sense, and is therefore still with us, and will be perhaps indefinitely.

    Using these arguments to push back against flesh-spirit dualism doesn’t lose anything, in my view. Collapsing the distinction re-enchants me, in fact, which feels like the opposite of reductionism.

    Readers might also be interested in the vigorous discussion that ensued from this article on Facebook. This very point of “where consciousness is”, which central to yogic concern, was chewed on with relish by many:

    1. Danielle Prohom Olson says:

      Thanks for the comment and thanks for the link to the Facebook commentary -truly a enlightening dialogue! I was going to link it up today!

  2. In the spirit of your thought-provoking and affirming post I offer one of my favorite quotes on body image:
    “Why, I say, should I ever have bitterly blamed (my body) for such trifles as I have blamed it for: for having too much flesh in this spot, too little muscle in that, for producing this wrinkle, that sag, that gray hair, or this texture? Dear body! My dear body! It has gone about its incessant business with very little thanks.” – Janet Burroway
    I thank my body after each practice. Grateful for this fleshy, bony frame which, as you note, goes way beyond a “meat suit.”

    1. Toma says:

      lovely quote, I try to remember to thank my body for all it offers, especially after practice and also the patience it has when dealing with my, sometimes overanalytical, mind

  3. Well done, Danielle. As you know, I have argued passionately to no apparent avail that Matthew is badly misrepresenting the Bhagavad Gita itself in order to build an dualistic strawman that he can then demolish with his flesh logic. My arguments are the same as yours in your eloquent article above. I felt so strongly about it that I invented an imaginary conversation with the author of the Gita himself to clear things up for Matthew and others. I struck out with them, but it was still a lot of fun to write!: “My Dinner with Vyasa: The Legendary Author of the Bhagavad Gita Comes Out of Hiding to Answer All Our Questions (After 2300 Years)” http://bobweisenberg.wordpress.com/my-dinner-with-vyasa/

    Bob W.

    1. Danielle Prohom Olson says:

      Thanks for your link on the Bhagavad Gita, I look forward to checking it out soon. Of course I was in sympathy with many of your comments on Matthew’s article, and I have to admit – I especially liked the “looking into a room through a keyhole” analogy….

      1. Hi, Danielle. I removed that one because it was an unfair off-the-cuff snipe. I regret making that comment, because it doesn’t do justice to Matthew.


      2. Danielle Prohom Olson says:

        I know, I know, – but the image was so lovely!

  4. Christine Binnendyk says:

    Thanks for a thought-provoking, well-researched piece — your beacon of light in the world is much appreciated!

    Along the same thought line, here’s a meditation favorite of my yin yoga peeps:
    The sun rises for you
    The leaves change for you
    The grasses sway for you
    The stars shift for you
    The body breathes for you
    Take in all the gifts the universe has for you
    Exhale and see them
    Exhale and give thanks

  5. (0v0) says:


    Conceptually clear. Philosophically grounded. Jargon free.

    What a relief!

  6. It’s simply untrue that Krishna presents a non-dual integration of flesh and spirit in the Gita. To argue that he does, one must leap over not only Krishna’s metaphysical justification for the impending slaughter, but also slokas like 2.22 among others: “As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.” (Prabhupada)

    1. (with reference to Bob’s thoughts above…)

    2. A single quote from a self-contradictory ancient text does not a rebuttal make! One has to look at the whole, not just selected quotes, and preferably with a less religion oriented and more historically rounded interpretation than Prabhupada’s, like Feuerstein’s, for example. As Feuerstein points out, the Gita is deeply “syncretic” text. So you can find individual stanzas and ideas to support almost any interpretation, if you’re willing to disregard the overall thrust, which, in my opinion, is not disembodiment at all, but rather living with love and purpose right now, and not dualism, but rather absolute oneness of the kind Danielle describes in her article. (But I do, of course, respect my good friend Matthew’s opinion on anything. I’ve given it my very best shot!)


      1. It was one quote plus the whole narrative arc of the text. Of course it’s as syncretic as any authorless/co-authored/oral tradition text will be. But not so syncretic as to accommodate a flesh-and-spirit cohesion view, unless you’re reading the text through later commentaries: Sankara and Abhinavagupta for example.

        When I claimed that Krishna is arguing: “Arjuna shouldn’t worry about killing bodies because bodies don’t matter” and then asked you: “What part of the book refutes that (or even softens that) specifically?” You offered the following slokas:

        Mature in yoga, impartial
        everywhere that he looks,
        he sees himself in all beings
        and all beings in himself.

        The man who sees me in everything
        and everything within me
        will not be lost to me, nor
        will I ever be lost to him.

        He who is rooted in oneness
        realizes that I am
        in every being, wherever
        he goes, he remains in me.

        When he sees all beings as equal
        in suffering or in joy
        because they are like himself,
        that man has grown perfect in yoga. (BG 6.29-32)

        None of these slokas, nor any other in the text I’ve come across, place the Gita beyond the “I am not my body” framework. Feeling spiritually interconnected with all beings because of belief in the pervasiveness of the avatar — which I think is what you’re getting at really — does not indicate or promote a protective or even positive view of the flesh, which at most is seen as instrumental to realizing the metaphysical claims. Whether the flesh is dead or alive or reborn: the soul belongs to Krishna.

        Anyway, we’ve covered this already! Cheers, Bob.

      2. Yes, the soul belongs to Krishna. But Krishna clearly includes the flesh, because Krishna IS the ultimate reality, which unequivocally from the text itself, includes absolutely the entire universe:

        The whole universe, all things
        animate or inanimate,
        are gathered here—look!—enfolded
        inside my infinite body. (BG 11.5-7)


        crowned with fire, wrapped
        in pure light, with celestial fragrance,
        he stood forth as the infinite
        God, composed of all wonders.

        If a thousand suns were to rise
        and stand in the noon sky, blazing,
        such brilliance would be like the fierce
        brilliance of that mighty Self.

        Arjuna saw the whole universe
        enfolded, with its countless billions
        of life forms, gathered together
        in the body of the God of gods. (BG 11.11-13)


        I see you everywhere, with billions
        of arms, eyes, bellies, faces,
        without end, middle, or beginning,
        your body the whole universe, Lord. (BG 11.16)


        Why should they not bow, eternal
        Creator, infinite Lord?
        You are both being and nonbeing,
        and what is beyond them both,

        the primal God, the primordial
        Person, the ultimate place
        of the universe, the knower and the known,
        the presence that fills all things.

        You are wind, death, fire, the moon,
        the Lord of life, the great ancestor
        of all things. A thousand times
        I bow in front of you, Lord.

        Again and again I bow to you,
        from all sides, in every direction.
        Majesty infinite in power,
        you pervade—no, you are—all things. (BG 11.37-40)

        Case closed?


  7. Not for me.

    So God says: “I am all things: your flesh, your spirit, your breath, rocks and stones and trees. So if I encourage you to go to war, don’t worry about killing or dying or wrecking the environment, because all action resolves into me.” Would you buy it? Would you pick up your bow again?

    What Krishna claims about himself (and what Arjuna and we believe him to mean) matters far less to the structure of the narrative in my view than what he uses to convince Arjuna he should re-arm himself, which is an appeal to the eternality of the soul and the disposability of the flesh. We’re all mesmerized by Krishna’s divine form. But what does that spell make the people in the story do?

    This is the last comment for me: I don’t want to hijack Danielle’s post with old stuff!

    1. Agreed, Matthew. There is little more to say if one can interpret the quoted philosophy (which reach a crescendo in Chapter 11, but which is pervasive throughout the Gita) as consistent with sharp dualism of soul and flesh! Let’s agree to disagree. Thanks for all the engagement. It’s been very good for me, and hopefully for others as well.


  8. Danielle Prohom Olson says:

    I’m loving this dialogue with Matthew Remsk on my Body Divine Yoga Facebook page ( https://www.facebook.com/pages/Body-Divine-Yoga/276197114086 ) so I’m sharing it over here as well…

    Matthew Remski: I appreciate the both-and stance, Danielle, but I don’t understand the complexity behind this statement: “I don’t disagree with Remski that consciousness is an artifact of the body, it’s why in fact, I believe the body CAN know or apprehend a metaphysical reality. Because it is the body’s very nature.”

    If we want to avoid speculation, isn’t it much simpler to say that “consciousness is an artifact of the flesh, and it can entertain a metaphysical claim, including the thought that the flesh itself is an illusion?”

    The way you have it, metaphysical “realities” are simply given, things already there for the flesh-derived consciousness to discover. Is this what you mean?

    Danielle Prohom Olson: Okay, I admit I’m getting befuddled by the labyrinthine intricacies of the debate. So please bear with me when I say while I do not disagree with your statement “consciousness is an artifact of the flesh, and it can entertain a metaphysical claim, including the thought that the flesh itself is an illusion” my personal belief is yes, metaphysical “realities” are simply given, things already there for the flesh-derived consciousness to discover”. Both -and.

    Matthew Remski: I think we might be talking about two different things, then. My critique of “I am not my body” targets the “I am something else” implication of the statement, which can only be a metaphysical assumption about oneself. If we’re both saying that consciousness arises from biology, we’re on the same page. But I wasn’t tackling the reality-status of what that consciousness wants to believe in once arisen — but it sounds like you thought I was. That’s a whole other kettle of fish!

    Danielle Prohom Olson: Yes, we are both saying that consciousness arises from biology, but where we differ – I think – is the “reality-status of what that consciousness wants to believe in once arisen.”

    While this sensation that I am something else than just my body is a “experiential response to developmental patterning or phenomenological conditions” that does NOT necessarily deny its “reality status” as an experience of a higher truth, or a metaphysical reality. Ultimately I think that whatever we choose to believe about the “greater” realm, in which the body, physical existence, duality and time are fused, doesn’t refute the fact it exists. And that’s a hard scientific fact as any.

    So here in a nutshell, is the materialist hardline with which I disagree – not that mind derives from matter – but that matter CANNOT also originate in mind. Because until we can solve the “hard problem” and separate mind from matter, consciousness from observing, or the observer from the observed, how can we really know for sure?

    Matthew Remski: You’re right: claims about god and the soul and a greater realm are as impossible to refute as the claim “unicorns exist”, which puts them beyond the discourse of science altogether, which requires falsifiable premises. But if we get into speculating about mind creating matter, don’t we want some evidence? Any evidence at all? I’m not sure how Chalmers’ ‘hard problem’ applies, really, and you’ve lost me with the notions “separating consciousness from observing or the observer from the observed.”

    Danielle Prohom Olson: Sorry too much shorthand, so here is the long version….

    I’m not saying that mind (consciousness) is the SOLE agent directly responsible for creating matter – just that we CAN’T rule out it’s ‘participatory’ nature in the greater scheme of things.

    Because there is just no proof that mind and matter are separate entities as Newtonian/Cartesian science implies. Further, Chalmer’s ‘hard problem” how meat-stuff creates mind-stuff, is still unexplained. He writes, ‘the problem of how qualia causally affect the physical world remains pressing… with no easy answer in sight’…‘[It] may be the largest outstanding obstacle in our quest for a scientific understanding of the universe.’

    So my point is this – since were not really sure exactly how matter creates mind (or that they are even separate entities) – how can we then say, with absolute certainty, that mind arises from matter alone?

    Believing that our minds can actually affect the physical world, may defy credulity, but there is in fact a great deal of evidence suggesting consciousness is somehow linked to the manifestation of the material world. Countless experiments in quantum mechanics have established that the intervention of consciousness (the observer) collapse the quantum realm of all possibility into a specific discrete result or event. And it suggests the observer is not only necessary to observe the properties of phenomena – but to bring them into being.

    Thisis why I resonate with the idea of the “participatory universe” as postulated by quantum physicists John Wheeler and Henry Stapp. (And these guys I hasten to add are no quantum quacks, but leading authorities in the theoretical foundations of quantum physics.)

    Stapp believes what drives the process of quantum mechanics is the input of the “psychological realm” (our thoughts, feelings and emotions) into the physical realm. Similarly Wheeler proposes “genesis by observership.” – that our observations might actually contribute to the creation of physical reality. “We are not simply bystanders on a cosmic stage; we are shapers and creators living in a participatory universe.”

    And herein lies the heart of the problem, because in classical materialist model of reality consciousness’s ability to intervene – in anything – just doesn’t exist. But Stapp reminds us that materialism is only half of the equation. As Stapp writes, for a full explanation and understanding of the universe you need to include conscious intervention by free agents (e.g. human observers).

    Wheeler writes “To describe what has happened, one has to cross out that old word “observer,” and put in its place the new word “participator.” In some strange sense the universe is a participatory universe”

    And I want to add that this role of the observer to shape physical outcomes HAS been demonstrated in a laboratory. http://en.wikipedia.org/

    In 1984 Carroll Alley, Oleg Jakubowicz, and William Wickes, physicists at the University of Maryland, used photons to demonstrate (through a light source and an arrangement of mirrors) that the paths the photons took were not fixed until the physicists made their measurements, even though those measurements were made AFTER the photons had already left the light source and begun their circuit through the course of mirrors.

    So it seems when we apply the lens of classical science we see consciousness as byproduct of mechanical processes but when we apply the quantum lens – consciousness is all that seems to matter. And despite what the evangelists of materialism would have us believe, both worlds are verifiably ‘real. One is not less scientifically true than the other.

    The dominant view of neuroscience, that the brain’s material particles and fields can give a full account of consciousness take root in the Cartesian dualism of classical mechanics which officially banished consciousness from the physical universe. But the problem with the idea that we’re computers made of meat “or “zombies,” (as Daniel Dennett asserts) poses that other pesky problem – why does consciousness exist at all?

    Ignoring the very real evidence that our minds, our consciousness entangles with the material world, is barricading our minds into only one half of the big picture. So until materialists come to terms with this, their grip on anything else becomes questionable.

    Consciousness (defined as awareness plus volition) is a property of a metaphysical universal field. Thus awareness is primordial, and its interaction with matter is local. This ‘locality’, I think, is where our viewpoints on the body merge.

  9. Danielle Prohom Olson says:

    And if your curious about Henry Stapp – check out this link:


  10. I don’t think anyone in neuroscience is implying that mind and matter are separate entities anymore. Or — that consciousness doesn’t impact material facts. Neural plasticity itself suggests that cognition forms and reforms its material pathways. People who study psychoneuroimmunology are pretty clear that subjective states have glandular effects. And everyone accepts that beliefs can influence behaviours. So I’m not quite sure what old-school dualists you’re referring to. Dennett spends a good deal of his breath taking the piss out of the various Cartesian models vestigial to the sciences.

    You’re right that the common line in neuroscience now is that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of nervous function. But that’s pretty close to saying that they are the same, and that we’ve just falsely categorized them as exclusive to each other. My understanding is that not only is Chalmers’ hard problem in heavy dispute, it isn’t so much about the problem of how meat-stuff creates mind-stuff (because he does believe that mind arises from brain) but how neuroscience at this point cannot really account for the subjective nature of conscious experience: it will never overcome an interpretative gap between objective and subjective data. He poses a philosophical problem essentially, which harder physicalists like Dennett deflate by looking forward to harder labwork.

    Thanks for introducing me to Wheeler and Stapp. It looks like they did interesting modelling, and that Wheeler’s delayed choice experiments got some wild results. It looks like Stapp has been heavily attacked by other researchers for apparent flaws (which I’m not qualified to assess!) in his application of quantum mechanics to cognitive function. That conversation reminds me of Michael Shermer’s attack on Deepak Chopra’s (surely less coherent than Stapp’s) modeling of “quantum consciousness” — which Chopra confessed to Dawkins he was only using as a metaphor. Shermer says something like: “Quantum mechanics is weird. Consciousness is weird. That doesn’t mean they have anything to do with each other!”

    I’m sure the search goes on!

    But in the end, you are right: nothing can absolutely refute the claim that mind creates matter. Which is why science demands falsifiable experiments. I’d be interested to overhear experts in Wheeler and neuroscience chat about where and how their findings meet, interact, and diverge.

    1. Danielle Prohom Olson says:

      Yes, yes, thanks for clarifying, I agree. There is far too much research in fields such as neuroplascity, psychoneuroimmunology, epi-genetics (even the placebo response) to think of mind and matter as separate any more, or that consciousness can’t impact material facts.

      But the dominant paradigm in neuroscience, as you’ve pointed out, is that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of biology. And to give it any causative agency is to fall victim to what you’ve dubbed the ‘fallacy of consciousness presumptuousness”… “the unwarranted conviction” that consciousness is a priori to physical presence.

      This is the materialist hardline which I refer to because it falls into the trap of Cartesian dualism. Yes consciousness is an epiphenomenon of biology – but it also more than JUST that.

      And it occurs to me, as Stapp suggests, if a priori is defined as existing before, doesn’t the “observer effect” (and the Maryland experiment) provide some evidence that consciousness plays an a priori role in the manifestation of reality?

      And I suggest the reason Stapp has been attacked by other physicists is not that his research is flawed or his credentials suspect – but because this view is simply so untenable within the Cartesian model of science itself.

      You write in your article concerning Deepak Chopra, to posit “consciousness” as the “ground of being” rather than as an evolute of bio-complexity that can introspect as a scientific fact is a gross misappropriation of science”. Now, I’m not overlooking your point that Chopra was muddling his definitions of consciousness – and I may be misinterpreting your meaning – but it seems this statement is about as materialistic as it gets.

      There are plenty of old school dualists still out there . Shermer and Dawkins both come to mind. And considering the response of Dennet, and other philosophers to Thomas Nagels book Mind and Cosmos as chronicled in The Heretic (in which Nagel is called an idiot and many other bad names ) – materialism’s status as a scientific absolute is unquestionable.

      Nagel’s crime is insisting that materialism is a premise of science, not a finding. If science can’t quantify something, it doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t exist. It doesn’t mean the subjective, unquantifiable, immaterial mental life, can be relegated to the realm of illusion.

      In Mind and Cosmos, Nagel theorizes matter itself has a bias toward producing mind by producing ever more conscious creatures. This teleological process is not random, but tending towards a goal or purpose. And the beauty of his idea – which I’m sure you’ll appreciate – is that this allows mental life to be accounted for without any theistic reference.

      I’m with you when you say science demands falsifiable experiments. And I’m with you when you say neuroscience “cannot really account for the subjective nature of conscious experience: it will never overcome an interpretative gap between objective and subjective data.”

      But I differ with this statement – “that at this point in history, the claim that consciousness is immaterial seems to me to be an extraordinary claim that really demands extraordinary evidence.” Because maybe the shoe needs to try the other foot? I want the hard proof that it’s NOT!

      In the end, I want to say thank-you. While I may not always grasp the complexity of your work, your writing and your ideas have given me hours of contemplative enjoyment. You ask such important questions and your research and analytic insights continually enrich my thinking. Thank you for your kindness and patience in this exchange!

      1. Well I’m much obliged. I learn a lot here. I’ll make two more brief points: one about evidence, and the other about “materialism”.

        We agree that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the flesh.
        You claim that it’s more than just that.
        I’m agnostic on the point, for lack of evidence.
        Isn’t your claim the extraordinary one?

        Isn’t the burden on you to provide the extra-materialist evidence, the testing models, or some coherent way of describing how an oddball quantum physics experiment relates to the stranger aspects of consciousness?

        I’m also aware of the creeping semiotics here that’s turning “materialism” into a curse-word. My position appreciates the material — but it’s more than that. It also wants evidence, peer review, sharable results, a vision of subjectivity that won’t be used to validate The Secret or push other forms of magical thinking on people in pain. The position appreciates the materiality of life, the psyche, social and economic realities, the crucially engaged politics of recognizing this is the only ecology we have and shitali pranayma will not restore the sea ice. “Materialism” in these senses is a call to presence, not a negation of those joys and terrors that we formerly bracketed off as “spiritual”.


  11. Danielle Prohom Olson says:

    Matthew, I take all your points, but have nothing further to add beyond what I’ve already written – well, at least for now! 🙂

  12. Danielle Prohom Olson says:

    Okay, I do have a few more things to add – this could go on forever!

    When it comes to our social and environmental ills, I don’t believe viewing consciousness as ‘participatory’ contributes in any way to postmodern ennui. Quite the opposite.

    Countless psychological studies show that believing our minds have the power to affect reality (magical thinking) is psychologically empowering. Far from disconnecting us from reality, it has been shown to give us confidence, the feeling of “I can do this”, that actually supports our participation in the world. (See my post Yoga & Magical Thinking: A Defense)

    Seeing ourselves, our immaterial “I” or even our souls as ‘cut off’ from the greater cosmos, encourages disassociation, it promotes alienation from our fellow creatures and the plunder of the natural world.

    It lies in direct opposition to the metaphysical experience of the flesh, the “felt” perception that everything is connected. Carl Jung, William James, Gopi Krishna and Joseph Campbell, all believed that this revelation – everything is one – was a profound spiritual epiphany which has shaped human culture – for the better.

    Stanislav Grof, Ph. D. founder of Transpersonal Psychology argues that the experience that we are MORE than just our body is a “spiritually transformative experience” that positively changes lives. People become happier, less focused on material achievements, and more directed towards family and personal relationships.

    Finally, Dr. Andrew Newberg has conducted many neuro-imaging research projects to examine how brain function is associated with mystical states. He concluded “Mystical transcendence is as real as any perception of physical reality. It is not rooted in emotion or wishful thinking but in the genetically arranged wiring of the brain.” So here arises the marvelous question – are we designed to apprehend a greater metaphysical reality?

    Choosing to integrate the possibility that consciousness is participatory is heretical within current scientific dogma. So I understand that I risk being accused of quantum quackery, when I say consciousness does seem able to interact with the material world. I fully acknowledge that these spooky quantum effects do SEEM to wash out on the macro level of everyday reality. But that necessarily mean, as many contend, that quantum physics is irrelevant to the ‘real’ material world in which we live?

    Anyway, I think one thing becomes clear in this dialogue. We have each made a choice to incorporate and present evidence according to our world view. As each and all of us are called to do when we formulate our beliefs. So I hope, the yin and yang of our thinking (if you will) can contribute towards a more holistic view of the big picture.

    1. Where’s the “like” button for this last comment from Danielle. Oh yeah, that’s just on facebook.

      I actually think this is something that even the most extreme materialists will have to accept eventually–that the brain is often (not always) functioning in a highly natural and psychologically healthy manner, even when it makes up things that are not literally true.

      And the effect can probably be simulated, for the highly rational, by turning the same things into rich metaphors for life, thereby achieving a certain spiritual understanding even between atheists and non-atheists.

      But it doesn’t take anything irrational to believe in the oneness of the world. It just takes a certain openness to amazement and wonder, alla Einstein.


    2. Well I don’t really think there’s much daylight between our ying and yang, except in a few small areas, most of which have to do with whether the positive psychic impacts of metaphysical claims become reified into rational possibilities without evidence. There’s a difference between saying “My mind can affect my experience” as a form of CBT, and claiming that “My mind can affect reality” is a fact. The latter is downright dangerous, not to mention unnecessary. Beyond this there is the problem of isolating the positive impacts of metaphysical claims from the negative, of which there are too many to mention. Certain people claiming, for example, that “quantum healing” can cure cancer, or that remote prayer will help us out in Fukushima.

      “Participatory” is fine, as I was driving at above. Human consciousness is obviously participating/interfering with our natural foundation, or else we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in. But to extend the model into the suggest that human consciousness is a priori to the world is both unsupported and unnecessary, and by definition is hard-dualist. The standard evolutionary approach I favour and that you’ve said you accept avoids this, describing consciousness a seamless evolute of biology, and really finding no daylight between them.

      The problem with your invocation of quantum strangeness is that no one has ever produced a coherent hypothesis about its connection to consciousness-strangeness. Lumping them together is what laypeople like us do, and I imagine there’s a high degree of correlation between that lumping-phenomena and the kind of magical thinking that also fails to distinguish between instrumental claims and truth claims.

      Thanks again for the links!

      1. I agree with all this, too. The brain is plenty wondrous all by itself, without inventing any individual consciousness independent of the brain. And, as Matthew points out, none of this negates the natural and healthy metaphysical impulses of the brain, which seems to be as natural as the human impulses toward music and art. It only becomes unhealthy when used in inappropriate and abusive ways.


      2. Danielle Prohom Olson says:

        Yes, I agree with all your points Matthew and Bob. But remember despite my many, perhaps fanciful conjectures, all I am really claiming is we have no final absolute proof that mind and matter are indeed separate – no matter what die-hard materialists would have us believe. So when it comes to this matter of the body and consciousness, I return to my original thesis, that despite our dualist tendencies, both are part of a greater unified metaphysical reality – as defined as going beyond or transcending the physical. Everything else I’ve put forth are questions, suggestions, possibilities, that’s all. So again Matthew, I thank you for hearing me out, its been fun!

  13. I think we’re perpetuating a fundamental misunderstanding in languaging here.

    No one — neither myself in my original post, nor any of the theorists I cite, nor Daniel Dennett or Michael Shermer — would ever claim that matter and mind are “separate”. We’re saying the exact opposite: that the latter is caused by and dependent upon the former. The only folks I can even think of who would separate matter and mind would be any old-school Skinner behaviourists that are still alive: they almost denied mind altogether. So I’m perplexed as to who your target is, really. I can’t think of anyone or any discipline to which your charge of Cartesianism applies.

    Asserting that there is no non-subjective evidence for “a greater unified metaphysical reality” (as I and the others above would maintain) does not mean that one is separating matter from mind. Quite the opposite. It just means we’re not resorting to speculation for our models of coherence.

    And asserting the lack of evidence does not mean that “a greater unified metaphysical reality” is disproved, as you’ve pointed out. It just leaves us with the question: what does such a claim add to the conversation, and to human well-being?

    1. Danielle Prohom Olson says:

      No, you haven’t said directly that body and mind are separate. But you do say consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the flesh -and you say my claim (that it is MORE than that) is the extraordinary one. But as Matthew D. Lieberman Ph.D. the director of the UCLA Social Cognitive Neuroscience laboratory points out “We assume consciousness is a causal result of the neurochemical processes in our brain, but”” We don’t actually know this. We really don’t… this is a leap of faith”.

      I get it that “Cartesian dualism” is on the wane, but is this because the very idea of the” ghost in the machine” has grown increasingly quaint? Dennet wants to banish it altogether; he writes “We don’t need something weird or an unexplained property of biological [matter] for consciousness any more than we need to posit ‘ficto-plasm’ to be the mysterious substance in which Sherlock Holmes and Ebenezer Scrooge find their fictive reality. They are fictions, and hence do not exist”

      So if you want to know where all the old Cartesian materialists are hiding – perhaps it’s in plain sight. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio states, Cartesian materialism “informs virtually all research on mind and brain, explicitly and implicitly”. Dr. Steven Novella a neurologist at Yale claims that the materialist hypothesis– that the brain causes consciousness — has been validated, “the mind is merely a secretion of the brain, just as bile is a secretion of the liver.”

      Sam Harris also seems to think that all causes are ultimately physical, and if you believe otherwise you are in the company of believers in ghosts, souls, gods and other supernatural nonsense. And let’s remember that when Chalmers first aired his idea that “consciousness, is a fundamental component of reality, as much so as time, space, matter and energy” he was described as a crank.

      This is what bothers me most about the die-hard materialists (i.e. Dawkins) – their condescending paternalistic attitude. There is no live and let live attitude here. They KNOW the truth. The idea that consciousness is a priori or participatory is not only just plain WRONG, anyone believing so is well, just stupid. And they relegate the whole school of “non-materialist neuroscience” to pure pseudo-science.

      I do agree that mind is dependent on and takes source in matter (that was the point of my post) but I have a more metaphysical view of matter itself. I stand by my assertion that we are far more than the inert meat than” I am not my body” implies – and that consciousness is far more than JUST an epiphenomenon of the flesh. And I completely agree on the importance of your question: what does such a claim add to the conversation, and to human well-being?

      1. Thanks: I’ve said exactly the opposite, and will go further to say that not only are body and mind not separate, it makes no sense to preserve the nomenclature of two names. Which is why I default to Merleau-Ponty’s flesh.

        Lieberman is right that causality hasn’t been established, but it’s so close that it really challenges the “argument from ignorance” that you’re making here.

        Julian Walker sums this rhetorical gesture up in “The Devil in the Details” this way:
        “Neuroscientists say that consciousness is created in the brain, but they can’t exactly tell us how. Therefore consciousness is (or could be a non-biological process that comes from an eternal soul.

        This way of thinking usually has one of two variations:
        a) The lack of evidence/explanation A proves claim B, without recognizing that there are other possibilities — or that this does not in fact amount to evidence for claim B.
        b) The incomplete evidence for A means that we now magically have a blank slate so that any and all hypotheses become equally plausible.”


        I still don’t know why you are calling people “Cartesian materialists” when they don’t deny the mind, but simply say there is not evidence for the mind being OTHER than an epiphenomenon of the brain. They’re saying the distinction between the two has become meaningless. If anything, they are monists.

        Point of clarity: “Cartesian materialism” is a specific near-minority stance within cognitive science that many of those you call “Cartesian materialists” laugh about. I’m including the wiki link below.

        As for the manners of Harris and Dawkins and the attackers of Chalmers (which I think most Canadians like us would find rude!) — they never say they know the truth. They say they have evidence for their claims. Let’s remember that they are debating according to accepted rules of evidence, and when someone steps into that ring without evidence while wanting to continue to present claims they deem scientific rather than poetic or political, they’re going to get knocked around just as hard as they would be in any grad school seminar. Chopra is a perfect example here, saying that “quantum consciousness is a metaphor” when both “quantum” and “consciousness” mean very specific things to people who spend their entire lives investigating them according to certain rules Chopra won’t play by, and doesn’t have to, after all, because he’s Oprah’s friend. He doesn’t need to appeal to evidence to keep his job.

        To get our of the jargon somewhat, and make the emotions behind this more transparent, how does this sound as a summary?

        1. I claim whatever “mind” is, it’s inseparable from the flesh.

        2. You agree, but suggest mind is more than that, and that matter itself is metaphysical, and that it’s possible that consciousness is a priori.

        3. I ask: where is the evidence for this and what does it add for us?

        4. You reference the incompleteness of science. You want to save both matter and mind from the aspersion of the “inert”, in which I also read perhaps “the non-expansive”, or “the non-wondrous”.

        Is that about right?



        Julian’s excellent little book: http://www.amazon.com/Devil-In-Details-Thinking-Spirituality-ebook/dp/B009VNTKK8

  14. During the original Gita Talk on elephant journal, we had a fascinating discussion about science vs. religion, with some similarity to the one above, at the end of which I wrote the following to a strong supporter of the scientific view:

    Ah, the beauty of Yoga.

    One can take a scientific view of the universe,
    like yours,
    or a divinity view
    like Graham Schweig’s,
    and still end up in pretty much
    the same blissful place.

    The bliss can be seen
    as the release of certain chemicals in the brain,
    as in your view,
    or a personal love affair with God,
    as in Schweig’s view.

    The Gita doesn’t really care.
    Both of you are experiencing
    the infinite unfathomable wonder of the universe
    first hand.

    I then went on to use to explain how different types of brains have different tendencies, some of whom are more prone to the metaphysical than others:

    The ancient Yoga sage(s) who wrote the Gita recognized that different people would need different types of Yoga to match their personality types.

    People who are primarily analytical in nature might feel most comfortable with Jnana Yoga, or the Yoga of Understanding. They like to think and philosophize about Yoga.

    People who are primarily people oriented might be most attracted to Karma Yoga, or the Yoga of Action, which emphasizes selfless giving and compassion.

    People who are highly emotional in nature might prefer Bhakti Yoga, or the Yoga of Love and Devotion, which emphasizes love, sacred chanting, mantras, and devotional kirtan music.

    Finally, people who are what psychologists call “drivers” might tend towards Raja Yoga, or the Yoga of Meditation, as exemplified by the progressive spiritual attainment of the Yoga Sutra.

    None of this is meant to pigeonhole people. We all have aspects of all these types within us. But most people have what psychologists call a “dominant style.” And, according to the Gita, all of these paths lead to the same place–a deep awareness of the infinite wonder of the universe.

    I was surprised by how closely the types of Yoga in the Gita correspond to modern personality theory. It’s almost an exact match. The ancient Yoga guys figured out thousands of years ago that there are different Yoga strokes for different Yoga folks.

    1. Danielle Prohom Olson says:

      Thanks Bob, very interesting!

  15. Danielle Prohom Olson says:

    Yes, perhaps its best to drop “material” and “materialism” and just refer to empiricism —the idea that all explanation-providing models of causal relations should be constrained by observation.

    I have yet to read Julian’s book (which I plan to) but I question these statements “…Very often those claiming a kind of religious non-dualism subscribe to an all-pervading consciousness that is transcendent of human biology…This is a central challenge for anyone who wants to reconcile our current knowledge with an ancient spiritual cosmology (whether of Western, Eastern or Middle Eastern origin)—it requires a central mind/body dualist belief to subscribe to ghosts, souls, and yes, an un-embodied god or spirit, yet this central belief has no evidence to support it, and instead all the evidence points to mind/consciousness as an expression of brain/biology/body”.

    “…what we often think of as ‘spirituality’ can also be seen as a form of psychological denial that distorts reality to fit our wishful thinking and avoid our existential dread… when we distinguish what is either superficial, outdated or untrue about certain spiritual beliefs we are left with what is most effective, most honest and most coherent with what we now know about reality.”

    It seems to that Julian is saying that the subjective experience of (and belief in) an “all-pervading consciousness that is transcendent of human biology” must be disregarded because it can’t be explained in an empiric manner.

    Obviously neuroscience does a spectacular job when it comes measuring the material world of the objective. But I think it’s safe to assume that the material world is only what empirical reductionist science can measure. It works detecting and quantifying things that have a material or mechanistic explanation – but it cannot do more than that.

    As Nagel points out science is a tool not a premise. Not being able to measure something doesn’t mean we can reject its existence. For example, it is possible to have scientific evidence that suggests consciousness may indeed be a priori -and not be able to explain how it functions.

    I am not saying that consciousness is material nor am I saying that consciousness is non-biological process that comes from an eternal soul. I am not making these arguments. I am merely pointing out, as you do, that absence of evidence is neither evidence of absence nor evidence of presence. It’s just absence of evidence.

    Now obviously I’m just an amateur enthusiast when it comes to neuroscience and philosophy. But I veer away from absolutist statements in general, including your assertion there is simply no evidence for the mind being OTHER than an epiphenomenon of the brain.

    Consider for example the exhaustively referenced “Irreducible Mind”, an 800 page book which critiques this reductionist theory of neurology as not only incomplete but false.

    I could go and provide a list of studies and books that, in my view, support the POSSIBILITY that consciousness is more than a mere epiphenomena -but would it make any difference? That’s why I say it all comes down to finding the facts to fit our world view.

    And finally, when it comes to spiritual beliefs and wishful thinking, I find it extremely interesting that the woo-woo metaphysical experience, that we are more than just our flesh, that we are all interconnected, that we are all one –is well supported by science. The spiritual impulse which arises from this experience may be subjective but it could also be described as a kind of ‘embodied cognition’ of a greater/deeper reality in which we are embedded.

    1. I think your presentation of the “empirical” is unnecessarily narrow. There are all kinds of subjective evidences admitted in the sciences: they just have to be accounted for. Clinical psychology provides a wonderful example of the measuring of immeasurables.

      I don’t really understand the charge of “reductionism”. What exactly is taken away when we say that mind is an epiphenomenon of the flesh? Do people stop having experiences? Are mysticism and poetry outlawed? Does it kill God again? Is “reductionism” a curse word for evidence + economy?

      I haven’t read “irreducible Mind”, obviously, but the academic reviews are pretty scathing. Here’s one.


      It seems the editors build their entire mind-body dualism argument (which I’m sure you’re not supporting, given what you’ve said above) upon the psychical work of 19th century theorists Myers and James. Their clinical examples are all NDEs and placebo effects, presented as evidence for panpsychism.

      I think the spiritual impulse that attenuates our interconnectedness is a wonderful thing. I just don’t see any reason to dress it up or make it seem stranger or more magical than it is, or imagine a “greater reality” than the one I’m sitting in, talking with you.

      1. I agree with Matthew that spirituality is not diminished in any way by locating it all in the brain. Unfortunately, some (not all) materialists manage to throw out the baby with the bathwater, urging us to dispense with a lot of natural human spiritual impulses altogether, all the ones except those they happen to enjoy themselves it seems.

      2. Danielle Prohom Olson says:

        Yes, busted, my presentation of ’empirical’ was narrow. Yes, we have devised methods for measuring the immeasurable – but they remain clinical methods -and there is nothing wrong with that. I’m a big a sucker as any for the latest ‘discoveries’ in neuroscience.

        What is taken away when we say mind is an epiphenomenon of the flesh – nothing. But perhaps something is taken away when we say it is only epiphenomena? Because, really, have we discovered all there is to know about consciousness and the brain?

        One of the reasons I love your work, aside from the amazing ideas you constantly serve up, is your beautiful and brilliant writing on the nature/experience of embodiment. I feel it; I know it to be true.

        For me, your words indeed capture the awe inspiring and wondrous mystery of the flesh. I’ve belabored (so I won’t repeat) why I see the meat as metaphysical in nature. And while you see no evidence of a greater spiritual reality (beyond the constraints of the body itself) I do. I see the Monad in the fractals of our cells.

        So I’m outed as a believer. Because I admit, in the final analysis, despite all the facts, studies and research, I trust the wisdom of my body more. It tells me that while I’m in the material reality of the here and now, I’m also connected to something wondrous and magical and awe-inspiring as well.

        Yes it’s not rational or scientific- but it doesn’t mean I’m above using science to support my world view. So when it comes to providing proof, I could list more research and studies, but what is the point? Obviously what flies in face of the dominant paradigm will inevitably be attacked.

        I will never change your mind (?) just as you won’t change mine (?) – we believe what we choose to believe. But it bears repeating that your view has greatly enriched mine. Thank- you for your work and this dialogue.

      3. Hi, Danielle. Einstein and others solved this dilemma by simply embracing the infinite wonder of all we don’t know about the universe and about its origins, without even pretending to be able to define it any further. Einstein openly calls this “mystical” and “spiritual” and even “God”, without losing any of his scientific credentials or rationality whatsoever.

        I’m with Einstein. And, in my humble opinion (but based on many years of thinking and study) that’s what the Bhagavad Gita is saying as well, in as clear a manner as one could 2300 years ago (even though it also contains some contradictory material as well, as someone is bound to jump in and quote here).


      4. Danielle Prohom Olson says:

        I love your point Bob. But to be clear, I’m with Einstein too, I’m not seeking to name or classify that ‘infinite wonder’ either…

  16. Yes, Danielle. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. I see this as supporting your point from a slightly different angle. Thanks for creating this excellent discussion.


  17. Well it’s a pleasure. Perhaps I also see the Monad in the fractals of our cells. But to me it just looks like fractals and cells. “The material reality of here and now” doesn’t have any edges to me. It extends in all directions, back and forward through time, and I’m glad to share it with you.

  18. Holly says:

    Hello Danielle and friends, What an interesting discussion. I am curious if you have checked out Integral thought, (Ken Wilber’s work). I believe there is room for all these views, you could looked to his idea about Quadrants and see that each of your positions come from a different perspective or quadrant. Everything “tetra-arises in these 4 perspectives.

    I really enjoy this blog. Holly

    1. Thanks Holly. I’ve been alerted to this in the past, but whenever I go near Wilbur it seems like he’s made way too many gaffes as a devotee (Adi Da, association with Andrew Cohen) to effect the kind of dispassion and open curiosity I really value in analysis.

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