G . O . R . I . L . L . A .

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Space and consciousness

John Heron

Cartesian duality

Descartes was without doubt the most influential thinker at the launch of the modern era. His philosophy provided the backdrop for the development of science. It still shapes the way most people experience the world in their everyday perception. It divides the world into two independent realities, matter and mind. Matter is distinguished by its extension in space and has none of the properties of mind. Mind is characterized by thinking and related mental processes and has none of the features of matter; it is entirely non-spatial.

The resulting worldview is one of matter in motion in a single universal mindless space, with private centres of spaceless consciousness looking out on it. Within this framework, science could get on with quantifying an external reality conceived only as a self-contained mechanical system. By the time science had dominated the world with its achievements, Cartesian duality had permeated general culture so that it has become part and parcel of everybody's way of lookling at things. We see the world out there extended in a single universal space which has nothing to do with mind, and we as observers look out on this space with separate minds that have nothing spatial about them.

Descartes' philosophy fails most obviously because it can give no account of how a spaceless mind can interact with its spatial body in order to look out on and do things in a spatial world: it can give no intelligible description of perception and action. Even more fundamentally, all thinking involves some kind of mental imagery, and all such imagery has spatial properties. Whether or not there is such a thing as imageless thought, it is clear that great deal of mental activity includes imaging. And while this imaging is not in physical space, the images used are in their own kind of space: the mental image of a tiger has a left and a right, an up and a down, a front and a rear. In the light of this simple mental fact, the whole Cartesian edifice tumbles: mind is not entirely non-spatial, rather it includes the space of imagery.

Meaning and symbol

What Descartes overlooked was the distinction between meaning and symbol. When I am thinking, I use images of various kinds as symbols of what I mean. The symbolic images have their own kind of spatial properties, but the meaning they carry is not spatial. If I am thinking that three times six is eighteen, using more or less precise visual imagery, then that imagery will be in its own image-space with a left and a right and an up and a down, but what the imagery means doesn't have a left and a right and an up and a down. Meaning is not extended in any kind of space.

Descartes was right in the sense that there is something about thinking that is entirely non-spatial. He was wrong in supposing that everything about it is non-spatial. On the contrary, thinking involves an interdependent polarity of meaning and imagery, of non-spatial import and the image-spatial that has that import.

A lost opportunity

In his famous Meditations, published in 1641, Descartes searches for the indubitable. He dismisses the evidence of sense perception, since the senses can sometimes deceive and since perception might be a dream. Then he imagines a demon deceiving him to the extent that all his perceptions 'are not more than the delusions of dreams'. He ends up being certain only about his own existence, as long as he thinks of it. For this certainty, he realizes, is immune from diabolic doubt.

In passing, he does acknowledge that some sensory evidence is so clear that only a madman would doubt it, 'for example that I am seated here by the fire wearing a dressing gown'. But he sweeps past this to the dreaming doubt and the device of the deceiving demon. This sweeping past is a lost opportunity.

The experience of dreaming presupposes and depends on the experience of being awake, of ordinary perceiving. Perceiving the world is the standard for identifying dreams as only dreams. It is the conviction of perception that gives dreams their status as dreams. To suppose that all perception is dreaming is like supposing that a building can stand when its foundations are removed. Perception is the bedrock without which Descartes could not even construct his neurotic, madman's argument. Ignoring this bedrock as a basis for understanding the nature of mind and the world was his lost opportunity.

Perception as a transaction

Perceiving the world is a transaction, an intelligent construing of forms. We shape percepts, there's no separation between the mind and its percepts. Any sensory image of the world, whether visual or auditory or tactile, is mind-dependent. You can't say the mind stops here and the sensory image, the percept, begins there. They are seamless: the percept is in the mind; consciousness includes its content, which is the percept. At the same time they are not identical: the mind cannot be reduced to the percepts or other images it contains, since it also transcends them by engaging with their meaning - which it can do in many different ways, and by its intentionality - its ability to direct consciousness and action where it will.

Another reason the mind is not identical with the percept is that the percept is also body-world-dependent. It is to do with what is going on in the body, especially the sense organs and the brain, and its relation with the world. There's no separation here either. The percept and the body-in-a-world are a continuous union, a seamless whole: a transaction of energy and information. It is also clear that the body-in-a-world transcends any particular percept, since it can elaborate it and supplement it with a seemingly endless array of different and related percepts.

The percept is subjective-objective: it is both mind-dependent and body-world dependent. It is continuous with the mind and with the body-in-a-world, but is identical with neither, since both the mind and the body-in-a-world transcend it. It is the participative bridge between mind and world. It is a permeable membrane or boundary which enables their partial interfusion of being. Through the percept, the mind participates in the world, not completely but inaugurally as a foothold or mindhold; and the world engages with the mind, informing it, not fully but initially as a worldhold.

G.E.Moore argued against the idea that physical objects are mind-dependent by saying that this confuses the act of perception with its object: the act is mind-dependent, the object is not. His argument leaves out of account the percept, whose status makes the object in one respect mind-dependent, and in another mind-independent. Both the act of perceiving and the percept are mind-dependent, and the percept is also object-dependent. What this means is that the object has a mind-dependent aspect, the percept, but can't be reduced to it, since it always transcends any given set of percepts. The object, construed as the set of all possible percepts, is mind-independent so far as any particular minds perceiving it are concerned.

The subject-object split

Subject and object are correlative and interdependent, each involved in and participating in the other to some partial extent and each transcending that participation to an unknown and possibly unlimited extent. The result is a seamlessly interwoven subjective-objective world whose nature can become transformed as a result of changes occurring in either or both of its poles.

Awareness of this metamorphic subjective-objective world is lost when the percept, the subjective-objective bridge, is itself turned into an object out there in the world. This happens when we apply to the content of our perceiving the concepts that come with language, and start to 'perceive' a world of tacitly labelled objects, a world full of houses, trees, stones, cars, mountains and roads. This linguistic, conceptual overlay on the process of perceiving, obscures and suppresses the dynamic engagement of the percept with both mind and world. It misrepresents the active subjective-objective nature of the percept and converts it into the illusion of a static, given independent object of a certain kind out there entirely independent of us. We then live in a concept-laden world of objects cut off from us as perceiving subjects, who are looking out at those objects, having no intrinsic connection with them. This is the split between subject and object, and yields an illusory view of the world in which concepts turn participative percepts into separate things, and in which subjects become alienated in their own minds from the perceiving process.

One consequence of the subject-object split is that our knowledge becomes object-oriented. We seek to know more and more about what is out there, as if it had nothing much to do with us and how we are and how we are perceiving and knowing. When knowledge returns to its base in the seamless subjective-objective world, we seek to know more and more about the dynamics of person-in-world, through participative forms of knowing, in which mind and world engage more fully with each other through deepening and extending the percept and other sorts of imagery.

Cartesian philosophy turns the subject-object split into a cosmic rift, with minds that only think and have no attributes of space, over against matter that is non-mental and extended in space.

Post-linguistic perception and non-Cartesian polarity

This is a way of perceiving the world that transcends the splitting effects of language - the conceptualization and reification of percepts - and dismantles the influence of Cartesian dualism. It involves the mental knack of lifting concepts off percepts so that in the act of perceiving we can feel the subjective-objective status of percepts, can experience our ongoing participation in the world through perceiving it. At the same time we school our minds to construe perception in terms of the logic of dialectic, of the interpenetration of opposites, of the interdependence of polar principles of being.

The most basic polar principles appear to be those of person and world. Persons are in part world-dependent: they are in part constituted by their relation with, and participation in, and inclusion of, those aspects of a world we call percepts. Persons are in part world-independent: they transcend it in terms of their involvement with meaning, and in terms of their intentionality, their ability to direct their consciousness and actions where they will.

The world is in part person-dependent: it is in part consituted by its engagement with those aspects of persons we call percepts. The world is in part person-independent: it transcends persons in terms of its seemingly endless possibilities for new appearances and presentations of itself.

Consciousness and space

Consciousness is always consciousness of some kind of imagery, and of its significance and of its meaning. When an image signifies another image it refers you on from one image to another of some kind. When an image means something, it makes sense, it has intelligible content: meaning transcends imagery and takes you into the realm of ideas and the relations between them.

Imagery is a content of consciousness; it is internal to it, is included in it. It is the transient, passing form of consciousness and is inherently spatial. Consciousness always has the spatial form of imagery of some kind, and may combine the spatial forms of imagery of different kinds.

Imagery always exhibits a figure-ground logic. Every image is a figure in relation to some ground, and that ground is a larger figure in relation to some wider ground, and so on. When the apparently limiting ground of some kind of imagery is met, then the mind jumps to its meta-ground in some other kind of imagery. Thus I look at a tree in its ground of this near field, then I look at the field in its ground of this near landscape, then I look at this near landscape in its ground of the total panoramic scene. I have now met the limits of my perceptual imagery, but the total panoramic scene is grasped as a figure in relation to my imaginative grasp of the landscape beyond my perceptual field. And so on.

Every limited figure-ground totality in one modality of imagery points to its meta-ground in some other modality of imagery. Every spatial limit or boundary encountered with any kind of imagery, announces that there is something beyond it, either in terms of the same imagery or in terms of another kind. Imagery, the spatial form of consciousness, is self-transcending: it shades off into a penumbra of infinite directionality and expanse, at one level of imagery or another. For ordinary consciousness this infinite directionality may be known only as a cloud of unknowing. But this cloud is an image of a ground, which still points on beyond itself, where 'benumbed conceiving soars'.

The spatial form of your consciousness, of my consciousness, is of infinite extent, boundaryless. So there is no boundary between yours and mine. The boundary to personal consciousness is an appearance only; it is in fact set in the context of unlimited horizons which we all share. To open to these horizons is to open to each other in their remarkable transcendental, unitive embrace.

This is the point that the theological Karl Rahner is groping towards, although he is unable to start it in terms of the intrinsic connection between human consciousness and imagery and of the imaginal logic of an infinite figure-ground progression. He took the view that the boundaries of being human are set in the context of unlimited horizons. In this sense the human being is transcendent, a spirit, open to infinite being, the fullness of reality, reality as such, infinite reality. This horizon of infinite possibility is the tacit, ultimate ground of human transcendence. Explicit theology, he believes, is 'sustained by a previous, unthematic, transcendental relatedness of our whole intellectuality to the incomprehensible infinite'.

Imagination and space

Space is essentially that which is imagined. It is constituted by a patterning of imagery. This is true of physical space. The imagination is active in ordinary perceiving, organizing percepts into a space-making pattern. This is Kant's productive imagination which synthesizes into concrete wholes the manifold of sensory apprehension. Without this imaginative grasp, he realized, there would be no coherent sense experience. For example, the imagination maintains the perceptual constancies: we see things in terms of their real shape, size, spatial relationships and colour, not in terms of their apparent shape, size, spatial relationships and colour.

Conversely, the imagination is essentially spatial and therefore always has an element of the objective in it. There is no such thing as a purely, absolutely private space in the sense that no other consciousness can participate in it. Or, which is the same point, there is no absolutely private image which in principle excludes access to it of someone else's mind. Imaging is always subjective-objective: it participates in an idiosyncratic, subjective way in collective space. The primary home of both the spatial and the objective is the imagination, where it is in full, active and open relationship with its correlate, the subjective.

Physical space is a special case, a limiting form, a precipitate and an offshoot of imaginal space.

Non-Cartesian unity of mind and space

Let us suppose there is one infinite universal imaginal consciousness, whose form is multispatial, consisting of whole array of different kinds of imagery, which generate different kinds of interrelated spaces. Let us suppose, also, that you and I are each of us a self-limiting, multispatial area within it, finite but with infinite horizons. On this view we are no longer, as with Descartes' model, isolated specks of nonspatial consciousness in one universal nonmental space. Instead we have become many self-limiting mental spaces that are deeply interrelated in one universal spatial consciousness. The Cartesian duality between space and mind is overcome: the individual mind is a spatial set that is within and opens onto cosmic space-mind.

We no longer talk of being conscious of universal space, but of having a spatial form - the form of all our imagery - within a universal consciousness. We undergo a systematic revolution in our thinking. Instead of thinking of consciousness of space, this new paradigm thinks of the space of consciousness. Instead of thinking of personal consciousness being in a universal space, it thinks of personal space being in a universal consciousness: so a person is not conscious of a thing in space, but a thing is in a personal space in universal consciousness. Instead of each of us being a limited consciousness in a universal nonmental space, each of us is a limited mental space in a universal consciousness: not one endless mindless space and many different finite minds, but many different mental spaces in one universal mind. On this view, universal space is no longer separate from and independent of individual minds, but individuals are local imaginal spaces within universal imaginal mind.

Many similar transformations bring home the new paradigm. Instead of my consciousness being somewhere in mindless space, my imaged space is somewhere in a wider consciousness. Instead of my mind being where my body is in space, my body is where my mental space is in cosmic mind. Instead of my being aware of a shape in space, there is a shape in my imaged part of the space of universal awareness.

In this new paradigm, an individual consciousness, a person, becomes a locus within the space of universal consciousness. A set of spaces becomes a local and limited form of consciousness within universal consciousness. Thus a person is, in part, a set of interconnected different kinds of limited spatial forms of an unlimited consciousness.

Imagination, consciousness and the imaginal

If consciousness is always consciousness of some kind of imagery which is internal to it - although not necessarily exclusive to it - then imagination is in some ways the wider and more inclusive term, since it involves both consciousness and imagery, while adding the element of activity and creativity. It is a precondition of perception, as I have said, organizing percepts into a coherent space-making pattern.

An imaginal, as a noun, is a term I shall use to indicate a being that includes consciousness, imagery and creativity: it makes, by patterns of imagery, spatial worlds as the forms of, and as included in, its consciousness. The infinite, universal imaginal is the one infinite multispatial horizon onto which each finite, human imaginal opens, and by which each finite, human imaginal is dynamically informed. Imaginal, as an adjective, means of, or pertaining to, or created by, an imaginal.

Person as a multispatial imaginal

Each person can be construed as a multispatial imaginal, that is, a conscious being that is involved in creating a set of different, yet interrelated, imaged spatial worlds. The word 'involved' is important here since a person participates in the creativity, refracts it, manifests it, relays it, gives idiosyncratic form to it. It is a life-given power of the mind, like breathing is life-given power of the body; and as with breathing, we can influence and modify it, but we do not produce it. This power, it seems, comes from the infinite, universal imaginal - within which each person is a finite mental space, a local eddy in its cosmos-creating mutlimodal imaging.

So a person is involved in creating the following kinds of space:

Physical space. The space of the physical world, constituted by imaginal power manifesting as sensory imagery, mainly visual, auditory, tactile and kinaesthetic.

Sheath space. The space internal to any body, constituted by imaginal power manifesting as kinaesthetic imagery which gives spatial form to the position and movement of the body from within it. This body or sheath space - a felt sense of total bodily gesture, feeling where every part is in the whole configuration all at the same time - is not restricted to the physical body, but can also manifest, it seems, as the virtual body, the mental body, the dream body, the subtle body, and the sacred body.

Virtual space. (1) The intraphysical space that appears in paintings, photographs, single image random dot stereograms, mirrors, film and television screens, computer screens, virtual reality interactive computer systems, theatrical productions, musical performances, telephones, sound effects. It is constituted by imaginal power manifesting as sensory imagery, and, by virtue of the physical devices used, transforming that imagery to generate intraphysical spatial effects that appear in the midst of physical space, which thus becomes occluded to a greater or lesser degree. The imagery is visual or auditory or both, with the addition of tactile and kinaesthetic imagery in the case of some virtual reality devices. (2) The intraphysical space that appears in a shiny or polished physical surface, such as a crystal ball, mirror, polished metal, coal or bone, or in a cup of clear liquid, when a practitioner of skrying gazes into it to produce a trance state. The space is constituted by imaginal power projected out as images of people, scenes, words, symbols appearing intraphysicallly - within the surface.

Mental space. The space of mentation - of mental processes and states of mind. It is constituted by imaginal power focussed in various combinations of imagery, including the imagery of inner vision (sacred images, ESP impacts of various kinds), the imagery of imagination, memory imagery, thought imagery (the imagery involved in entertaining any kind of idea), affective imagery (the imagery involved in entertaining any kind of emotion, mood, want). Each of these kinds of mental imagery can involve visual, auditory, tactile and kinaesthetic components.

Dream space. The space within dreams. It is constituted by imaginal power focussed as dream imagery, which includes visual, auditory, tactile and kinaesthetic modalities.

Subtle space. The space of realms which may interpenetrate or transcend the physical world, and are distinct from it. It is constituted by imaginal power focussed through the extrasensory perceptual imagery mediated by the secondary or subtle body, as in out of the (physical) body experiences, and which includes visual, auditory, tactile and kinaesthetic modalities.

Matrix space. The subtle space that most immediately upholds, informs and interpenetrates physical space. It is constituted by imaginal power focussed through extrasensory imagery mediated by the incarnate - physically embodied - secondary or subtle body. Sheath space at the physical level is really, in my view, the most immediate and basic form of matrix space: in other words, a felt sense of the total gesture of the physical body in physical space is essentially an incarnate subtle body experience. However, matrix space as such can be generated beyond the limits of physical sheath space.

Sacred space. The numinous space of the divine as all-inclusive presence: the source of all imaginal power, manifesting in and through its fourfold nature.

There are several points to be made about this array of imaginal spaces.

1. Whatever the kind of space or level of imagery, the imagery appears to have four basic modalities, visual, auditory, tactile and kinaesthetic. These four correspond to the classic four elements, respectively, of fire, air, earth and water: fire provides the light for vision, air the medium for sound waves, earth on which our feet our grounded is the continuous basis of touch, the body of whose position and movement the kinaesthetic sense informs us is mostly water. There are, of course, both olfactory and gustatory sorts of imagery, but they are not centrally involved in space formation.

2. These four basic modalities are central to imaginal power as such: they are not exclusively or primarily to do with the generation of physical space. Thus they are even more potent in the generation of subtle space, as in out of the (physical) body experiences. They are the stuff of dreams, and of virtual and mental spaces.

3. They generate both a spatial centre of personal experience and the spatial extent, the ambient, of that experience. Touch and kinaesthesia establish the centre: tactile imagery creates the immediate local boundary - the body - of the perceptual spatial centre, a boundary which does not separate but procures interfusion of being with what is beyond it; kinaesthetic imagery creates the postural and mobile core within the boundary. Vision and hearing establish the extent of perceptual space: they create a comprehensive ambience of visual and auditory space, the auditory being the more circumscribed.

In the case of subtle space, both vision and kinaesthesia can operate at either pole: you can see the centre from the periphery as well as vice versa; and you can feel the presence of the whole field as well as feel the presence of the sheath, the locus of the experiential centre.

4. The four modalities are involved in another dynamic polarity which interacts with the one just mentioned. This further polarity is between a voluntary, focal generation of space as a local area, and an involuntary, whole-field generation of space. For the spatial surround, visual imagery is the means of voluntary focal generation: you can only look in one direction, and you can choose which direction and how far or near you look in that direction. And also for the spatial surround, auditory imagery is the means of involuntary whole-field generation. Of course you can incline and turn the head, and use selective attention, but the basic fact is that auditory imagery generates whole-field auditory space: you are hearing everything on all sides all the time.

For the spatial centre of experience, tactile imagery is the means of voluntary focal generation: you can only touch one or two things at a time and you can choose which and when and for how long. So you can selectively generate the immediate boundary of your spatial centre of experience. Kinaesthetic imagery is the means of involuntary generation of the whole experiential spatial centre: it is always generating the total spatial disposition of your body.

Spaces in spatial relation

Perhaps the most important point about all these spaces is the way they are spatially related to each other. Some people have held that there can be two different kinds of space which are not in any way spatially related, which means there is no spatial route from one to the other. I find this notion intuitively implausible, if not incoherent.

The spaces I have described above clearly are related to each other, and by the unique spatial relation of nesting, or, to change the metaphor, interpenetration. You can also say that one space is 'within' another, where this is a special use of the word: not like the ring is within the box where ring and box are at the same level of being, but like the person is 'within' the physical body, where person and physical body are at different levels of being but interpenetrating.

Sheath space of the physical body is 'within' physical space. Looking at the body, hearing it by knocking on its bones or slapping its skin, touching it - all these give an external account of the body as perceived in physical space. Whereas having a felt sense from within the body of its total, all-at-once gesture in space is of a totally different order of experience. The former is perspectival, piecemeal, seriatim - a physical view: but the latter is four-dimensional - knowing where the body is in all three dimensions at the same time from a standpoint that is 'within' them - and is at the matrix space level, where the subtle body is embedded in the physical. Sheath space relating to the physical body could also be called matrix body space, which is to be distinguished from the subtle body space which occurs when the subtle body is out of the physical body and manifesting independently.

Matrix space is 'within' physical space in a more general sense.

This document is unfinished.

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Except where otherwise indicated, these screens are maintained and © 1995,1996,1997,1998,1999,2000, 2002, 2003,2004 Denis Postle. All rights reserved. Last updated 30th May 2004