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Book: “The Mystery of Consciousness” by John R. Searle

I just finished The Mystery of Consciousness by John R. Searle (1997, New York Review of Books, Inc.). Have you read it? Interested in the subject matter? Let me know what you think!

This little book is constituted of some revised and expanded articles of John Searle’s from the New York Review of Books, circa the mid-1990s, each being an extended review-and-response to a major philosophical and/or scientific book on consciousness studies. Its an interesting read, and a pretty quick one, and serves as an excellent introduction or refresher on a number of influential viewpoints and important modern thinkers in the area of the nature of consciousness and conscious experience. It is especially good as a quick introduction to Searle’s own position: briefly, Searle is of the mind(!) that consciousness is an irreducible feature of the universe (unlike traditional materialism), but that it is entirely biological in nature (unlike traditional dualism). He often compares consciousness to digestion or photosynthesis, and considers it to be sourced in equally physical/chemical processes of the brain, though he also emphasizes that unlike digestion or photosynthesis it is not reducible to those biological processes for the simple reason that the appearance of consciousness (ie, the fact that you and I each think that we are conscious) is the fact of consciousness (that is to say, if a being thinks it is conscious, it necessarily is because the thought, “I am conscious,” requires consciousness). The contrast, here, is that consciousness, while arising from biology, cannot be reduced to biology, while in the case of digestion we can reduce it to the individual chemical and physical processes which go into the breaking-down of food and the extraction of nutrients, etc., without risking the loss of subjective, first-person experience. In analyzing conscious experience, you can only look so far down into the biological underpinnings before you find that you are no longer dealing with conscious experience but instead with peptides, calcium ions, electrical impulses, synaptic knobs, clefts, and post-synaptic receptors, etc., etc., and have forgotten “first-person consciousness” back a few layers up the causal chain.

Whether or not one agrees with this position, it is at least logically consistent, as far as I can see, and certainly has longer legs than, say, Daniel Dennet’s or Patricia & Paul Churchland’s “functionalist” (a sort of “post-behaviorist” behaviorism) view which says simply (and naively) that all that exists are the physical brain-states, but there is no consciousness at all in reality. Searle is at least intellectually honest enough to acknowledge that “consciousness is as consciousness does”, and if we think we have it, well then we do. If nothing else, The Mystery of Consciousness is of value for pointing-out just how wrong Dennet, et al, really are.

 

Book Review: “Stargazer” by Miguel Conner

Stargazer
Miguel Conner
2011, Aeon Byte Press
280 pages

When I was looking for a good beach read, my instincts immediately pointed me toward a novel I’d been meaning to read for a while: Miguel Conner’s vampire sci-fi dystopia, Stargazer. The tagline says it all: “The future is paradise. But not for humans.”

Let’s start with a quick look at the modern vampire. Popular fiction has done the famous bloodsucker to Final Death over the course of several decades. Everybody points to Ann Rice as the last good example of vampire fiction, but if we’re being honest with ourselves she only produced one good one: Interview with the Vampire. It had a sense of romance to it, but never forgot that vampires are basically horrible supernatural parasites. Since then, it has been a downhill slide in which vampires have become more and more romantic, less and less threatening. And now we find ourselves with the totally, er, defanged Twilight. But the Twilight vampires aren’t merely overly romanticized; worse, they are symbolic (probably not intentionally, given how self-absorbed and unreflective Stephanie Meyer comes off in interviews) of the severe emotional abuse which many women suffer through at some point in their lives. The couple of Bella and Edward are the very picture of co-dependency, and Edward (the vampire, for those unfamiliar) is obviously experienced enough to be doing it on purpose, for his own ends. (Bella has no better options on her hands, as her other love interest is the werewolf Jacob, who appears to represent physical abuse, given what is revealed about the relationships habits of werewolves.) So, vampires are still symbolic of the darkest tendencies in humanity, only our contemporaries don’t seem to notice! Stephanie Meyer and her ilk have not stripped vampires of that which makes them frightening, but have instead instilled those qualities with an ersatz romanticism; Bella loves Edward because he manipulates her feelings. Anybody who has been in an abusive relationship, or who has even looked into the dynamics of them, will tell you that this is a common psychological state to find oneself in: the abused often want to return to their abuser for any number of reasons, not least of which are the need to feel needed, fear of the abuser’s retribution, and a sense that the abuser can be “saved”.

Compare the semi-conscious mindgames of Twilight, however, with the vampires of Stargazer: predatory violence hidden behind a veneer of civilization, wanton cruelty masked by “necessity”. In Miguel Conner’s literary hellscape, humans are little more than talking livestock, cattle with culture. Vampires—who refer to themselves by the more romantic title of “Stargazers”—raise them on farms, herd them into slaughterhouses, and kill them in an industrialized fashion. The Stargazers took the land over by destruction: they unleashed military power on humanity and reworked the world so that it was only by their vampiric will and technology that humanity could survive at all. Sound familiar at all? Miguel Conner, in the grand tradition of Phillip K. Dick, uses weird horror, sci-fi, supernatural tropes not to pull us away from the world, but to point us back toward it. Conner’s “vampires” are simply the worst elements of ourselves, of humanity, of intelligence and culture. We pretend to be civilized, but we are killers. We insist that we are unique among all of creation, and yet we behave toward one another and the other creatures of this planet no better than the lowest of beasts. And yet, there is no room for pessimism. Even if everything is terrible, if we look deeply within and bring with us the full force of both intellect and intuition, we will find a rationally workable something which, if we identify ourselves with that instead of with our animal bodies and passions will save us. And if we first can save ourselves, perhaps we can help others, too. And this time, really help them—unselfishly, not merely because it aids our own survival but because the Good demands it!

The Gnostic themes in Stargazer are thick but not heavy; if you know what to look for, they’re mostly pretty obvious, although by and large they are woven into the narrative such that they don’t jar you out of the action. And there is plenty of action. As a vacation read, Stargazer works: there is enough going on all the time that even without any interest in the overt Gnostic ideas, there is still plenty of story to keep the reader hooked. In fact, I passed my copy off to my father, who has no real religious leaning at all, and he’s presently enjoying it as a great sci-fi romp! It is a rare novel which can facilitate the transfer of ideas while still flowing like a story should.

The one problem with Stargazer is a mechanical one: though Conner’s style is good, the book could have lived through another cycle or two of editing. I’d say: one cycle of editing (as there are a small handful of stylistic issues which could easily be resolved), and a follow-up copy-edit (to pick up the remaining grammatical mistakes). Even these aren’t deal-breakers, but they do sometimes grab one’s attention away from the story itself.

All in all, Stargazer is a very good novel, with plenty of action and no dearth of big ideas, but it could have used just a tad more polishing. Even with that one complaint, I recommend it whole-heartedly for Gnostics in search of their own “inspirational fiction”, as well as fans of sci-fi action and new takes on the tropes of horror. Fun, intense, and thought-provoking, it provides something no matter what you’re looking for, even a bit of romance!

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“The One Year Manual” by Dr. Israel Regardie

The One Year Manual by Dr. Israel Regardie

Originally Twelve Steps to Spiritual Enlightenment

1981, Weiser Books (1976; originally 1969)

10 out of 10

God bless brevity. There is an awful tendency in occult literature to go on and on for hundreds of pages without saying much of anything of use. Most of Regardie’s books are relatively short, and the ones that are not spare no space for filler but are densely packed with information in the truest sense.

The One Year Manual is the ideal “beginner’s guide”. It is short (the editions in my possession going to 70 pages, plus preface and suggested reading list), by design, and wastes not a single word on nonessentials. With a stated mission to avoid convolutions of theory in favor of simple, effective practice, Regardie provided the would-be magician and/or mystic with a complete kit for at least a year’s worth of training.

The book starts off with Crowley’s four solar adorations, which amount to simple, poetic prayers for the four “stations” of the Sun throughout the day. The goal is simple: the Sun, as a symbol of the Unknown God, is “adored” throughout the day to keep the student’s awareness focused on the Divine, while at the same time giving a sense of connection to the macrocosmic universe and its great movements and cycles.

Body awareness follows as the first “step” of the work; this is practiced at a set time each day, as well as throughout the day during normal routines. The benefits are manifold and include a greater degree of self-awareness, Zen-like mindfulness, and the gradual relaxation of physical tension.

The second step concerns a method of very deep physical relaxation. In addition to deepending relaxation and body awareness, the student also learns to use this technique for healing simple physical ailments and complementing medical treatments for more intense illnesses. It is worth nothing that these two exercises also tend to produce a meditative state, which stands the student in good stead for more advanced training systems.

The third step, breath control, depeens the meditative state and further enhances physical and emotional relaxation. Just as importantly, we learn through breath to deepen our relationship with the vital energy which exists and moves around and through us.

What is generally the first step in contemplative and meditative practices, mental awareness, is the subject of step four. This is quite simply quietly and nonjudgmentally observing the flow of your own thoughts. Here, the student becomes very deeply acquainted with herself, as well as gradually relaxing her thinking-mind’s tensions.

Expanding on the previous step, step five introduces the student to mental concentration, and deeper meditation, by way of mantra repetition.

The second, more active, portion of the year is opened in step six with the training and strengthening of the will. Do to the discipline and concentration developed over the past few months, this exercise will likely come easily. Still, it is the first time in this programme that the student exerts any active volition as opposed to more or less passively experiencing herself.

Step seven changes the nature of the work dramatically by introducing the daily practice of the Rose Cross Ritual. This ritual is, in my opinion, one of the finest techniques to come out of the Golden Dawn’s corpus. While Regardie does not state it implicitly, this ritual has some profound effects for the careful student. It banishes negativity, makes one astra-mentally invisible (as opposed to most banishing rituals, like the LBRP, which tend to “light one up” on the inner planes), and tends to induce a deep sense of divine peace. This ritual acts as a very intense prayer, and can really exalt and humble the student.

Step eight, as is the trend, expands upon the previous work by intensifying the student’s awareness of Divine Presence and energy by way of the Middle Pillar Ritual, another gem from the Golden Dawn.

The remaining four exercises are more or less abstract magico-mystical practices entitled, in order, “Symbol of Devotion”, “Practice of the Presence of God”, “Unity—All is God”, and “Invoke Often! Inflame Thyself with Prayer”. While profoundly different on the surface, these final steps are the perfect culmination to the training year in that they entail finding and employing personalized, emotionally and intellectually engaging methods of prayer and meditation.

These final chapters also include words of immense wisdom and beauty as well as encouragement. They are alone worth the cost of the book even to the most advanced student. I return to them periodically as “inspirational reading” and find them to be ever refreshing.

While definitely based in the Hermetic and Kabbalistic systems and traditions, there is nothing in this book which cannot be easily adapted for training a new student in nearly any magic-mystical system. I myself simply handed The One Year Manual over to my own student and said, “Here. This will be your course of training for now. If you can make it through, you’ll be ready for anything else you choose to study.” For the budding Hermetic, I can imagine no better first year of training than this book with, perhaps, The Kybalion and Regardie’s The Tree of Life to provide theoretical foundation.