The principle that I am adopting is that consciousness presupposes experience, and not experience consciousness.
Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (Corrected Edition, 53)
Whitehead and spiritualism seem a bit like peanut butter and chocolate to me, so I thought I would throw up a post about this quote. I’ll unpack the two key terms in it before diving into the spiritualist angle.
When Whitehead uses the term ‘consciousness’ he means something close to the everyday sense of the term. Consciousness is our awareness of ourself as a being that has experiences. When I jab my finger with a pin, I become aware of the pain it causes and that awareness is my consciousness. Sometimes I can be aware of this awareness, but in general consciousness just happens.
Whitehead’s use of the term ‘experience’ is similarly common sensical. When I jab my finger, what I am conscious of is the experience of my finger being jabbed. An experience is simply an event about which I can become conscious.
Whitehead’s peculiarity comes from how he relates these two terms, most specifically in his assertion that there can be experiences without consciousness. We have to be careful not to read this in a Freudian sense. Whereas Freud asserted the existence, in the psyche, of experiences that remained outside of consciousness, Whitehead asserts that the totality of existence is experiences.
Let’s dredge up the old philosophical conundrum: If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears or sees it, there is a still an experience of a tree falling in the forest even though the event enters no one’s consciousness. Or, more directly, a corpse continues to have experiences even though it has no consciousness.
Consciousness, rather than being prior to experience, becomes a particular expression of it. What distinguishes consciousness from other forms of experience is that it is capable of self-modulation. As we become aware of the world and of our experience of it, we can alter our attention to it. Altering attention alters experience and with that we become capable of altering our responses.
That sounds arcane and circuitous because it is. As most of us are keenly aware, we aren’t able to alter all of our behaviors simply by an act of will. We sometimes have to ‘trick’ ourselves into changing through the indirect manipulation of our own thoughts and attitudes.
Spiritualist applications and speculations:
Okay, so let’s get to the fun stuff. How does this help us understand spiritualist practice? What does it tell us about spirits?
If we examine our own consciousness from this perspective, we quickly become aware of how much richer it is because of our peculiar connection to the temporal world (i.e., our body). Our body provides us with access to a lot of different experiences and so provides us with more occasions to modulate. Disembodied spirits simply don’t have this and so have fewer opportunities to modulate themselves. For this reason alone, they are more fixed in their attitudes and behavior.
It tells us, too, why there are so many spirits that are interested in interacting with us in a corporeal manner, through the medium of our corporeal existence. Mediumship provides spirits with access to our existence in ways that allow them to modulate themselves more easily.
This raises concern for mediums. What kind of consciousness are we providing spirits? What kind of opportunities do they have when they access our consciousness? How can we modulate ourselves in ways that enable them to better use those opportunities (or better hinder them when they would use those opportunities for ends we oppose)?
This suggests some avenues for considering what goes on when an object, person, or thought is consecrated to a spirit. Do these consecrations provide the spirits with a dim sort of body through which they can acquire a more material consciousness? If so, what sort of body are we providing them and how are we treating it? In what ways is their consciousness altered in this intensification of their embodiment?
To the extent that spirits manifest independently of our own consciousness, what experiences do they animate? If we are experiencing a consciousness, that consciousness must have an extension much like our own, even if that extension is defined by subtler things like the life of a concept or culture.
It allows us to talk, too, about the interpenetration of consciousness. Since they depend on experiences, we can identify the degree to which this or that consciousness converges around a common set of experiences and the limits of that convergence. It allows us to talk about whether this or that sort of experience is more or less receptive to becoming conscious.
It provides a basis for talking about servitors and controls, too. There are portions of world-experience can be ‘energized’ and brought to some kind of consciousness. Because they rest in blocks of experience that are outside of our own, they have a degree of independence from us. Some forms of spiritual obsession can be explained from this perspective, too. Chunks of experience can be lifted to consciousness and promptly become a sort of attention-parasite.
If consciousness is a temporal object, that suggests that the eternal part of ourselves becomes conscious through participation in the temporal world. If there is an eternal correlate to our being, it lies outside of experience and so outside of consciousness. We come to an appreciation of it only indirectly within our temporal experience, as a ripple. Perhaps, too, it is precisely the passage of the eternal through the temporal that generates consciousness, as a sort of interference or ripple effect.