A Few Books About Infinity and Consciousness

A Few Books About Infinity and Consciousness April 6, 2013

Back in the early 1980s, when Alta, my second wife, was working on her LCSW, her mentor John recommended that she keep files chronologically. That is, rather than filing information topically, one can keep everything associated with a particular year— correspondence, souvenirs, miscellaneous writings, etc.—in a file for that year. That seemed a useful concept to me; I adopted it also. Lately, in lower-energy moments, I have been bringing one armload of folders at a time from my file cabinet out in the garage to my office corner in the basement and resorting their contents into my chronological files. It’s time to do this. I am 72. I expect to be around for another 20 years—but one never knows, do one?

My chron files extend from 1957 (I didn’t save much from my teen years) to now, currently measure more than three feet from front to back, and consist mostly of my own writing. I am rediscovering many bits of writing I had entirely forgotten about as I work on this. I also came across two sheets of paper I typed in 1964 and may not have looked at since, although their contents have been foundational to much of my poetry and thinking for these 47 years. They are excerpts from Alan Watts’ Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion (1947) and Beyond Theology: The Art of Godmanship (1964), books that helped me comprehend the two Awakening experiences I had by then been gifted with and that I have described in previous blogs.

I would like to begin sharing some of those passages from Watts and some of my thoughts about them. Watts is generally remembered as an expert on Zen, but he began as, and continued to be, an Anglican mystic. The earlier book is in good part an explication of The Cloud of Unknowing, attributed to Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite. However, before plunging into it, I need to provide some context from three other writers.

The first, J. B. Phillips, another Anglican, wrote, among many other useful books, one entitled Your God Is Too Small. In it he points out the theological inadequacies that result from failure to comprehend the difference between the incredibly big and the infinite. Please let me here just stipulate (and not demonstrate) that a “finite God” is an oxymoron and a logical impossibility, and that any adequate concept of a deity must conceive of Him/Her/Them as infinite. An infinite deity is necessarily utterly paradoxical from a human viewpoint and is not limited by human logic.

The second writer is Amit Goswami, now a Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Oregon. I had the great pleasure and privilege of editing his The Self-Aware Universe while working for Jeremy Tarcher in 1991. I was afraid that Goswami’s concepts, which are completely consonant with those of John Wheeler, would not be taken seriously merely because he had been published by Jeremy, who specialized in metaphysical books, but recently, because of discovering a new colleague, Facundo Bromberg, I learned that Goswami’s proposals are being taken very seriously indeed as a possible alternative to the Copenhagen Interpretation by many front-line physicists.  What Goswami pointed out is that the “paradoxes” of quantum mechanics are paradoxical only from the viewpoint of Western philosophy, with its usual assumption of creation ex nihilo, which, as I have argued in previous blogs, is not a viable explanation of why anything at all exists. Goswami argued that, if one begins instead from the Hindu concept of monistic idealism, which proposes that the fundamental reality is an infinite, compassionate consciousness, then all those “paradoxes” are resolved. For a lot of reasons I won’t go into here, I think his proposal is also preferable by Ockham’s Razor.

I don’t know whether Goswami’s monistic idealism differs radically from Berkeleyan idealism (I might or might not get around to figuring that out), but by now Berkeley’s concepts seem more plausible than they did in his time. One of his most apparently paradoxical conclusions, that physical things exist only while being perceived, seems more likely now that we know our conscious perceiving is what collapses the indeterminate equations of quantum mechanics into specific solutions. I have always loved the witty Berkeleyan limerick that answers (yes, it really does) one typical objection to his theory:


You think it exceedingly odd

That the tree could exist in the quad

When there’s no one to see,

But it will always be

Observed by,

Yours faithfully,


This is also related to the possibility that our ordinary perception is eidetic in character, but first I’ll need to talk about William Blake in order to explain that.

The third writer is Roger Penrose, one of the truly great physicists of the twentieth century. I saw a copy of his The Emperor’s New Mind on a shelf at Goodwill, glanced through it, put it back, got a hard nudge from intuition, and bought it. In it he presents a thorough yet nontechnical tour through the mathematics related to quantum mechanics, including Goedel’s proof and the issues of artificial intelligence. He then presents two intriguing arguments.

First, he points out that the Big Bang should have produced a sphere of energy in thermal equilibrium, that is, at maximum entropy. Instead, since entropy continually increases in our universe, it had to begin with an extremely low entropy. He calculates the extremely low probability of that configuration as being 1 in 10 raised to the 10128 power. That number is so huge (but still not infinite) that if a digit were placed on every particle in our universe, we’d run out of particles. Despite a delightful drawing of God placing His finger on the point in a “phase space” needed to produce that outcome, Penrose refrains from stating explicitly that our universe could not have begun thusly by accident. However, Goswami’s hypothesis of monistic idealism does provide a plausible explanation of how that could have happened; I’ll get back to that.

Second, looking at the Schroedinger’s Cat paradox—which is that a quantum event is resolved by two different, contradictory, and incompatible series of equations depending on whether it is observed or not—Penrose points out that this paradox cannot be resolved until we have a new theory as far beyond quantum mechanics as the latter is beyond Newtonian physics. Furthermore—and this is the real point I’ve been getting to—because there is a nonquantifiable aspect to our consciousness, which does that observing, we will not be able to understand the nature of our own minds and consciousness until we have that new theory—and perhaps not even then.

Penrose was also making the point that our having a fundamentally nonquantifiable aspect in our consciousness means that it is inherently impossible to duplicate human thinking by means of any sort of “artificial intelligence.” I first ran into that sort of argument while editing Joseph Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason while working for Scientific American Books back in the early 1970s.  In it Weizenbaum says that a computer could think like a human only when it can stand by its infant daughter’s crib and feel unconditional love for her. As it later happened, in 1998, coming out of the worst year of my illness, during which I would have been homeless save for the generosity of Dave and Joann, and of Lynn and Avilynn, I was applying for a writing position with a company in Seattle. One staff member, looking at my resume, recognized my name and recommended that they hire me, because she remembered my work on her father’s book. Her name was Pm Weizenbaum. She had been that infant daughter he spoke of. As a result, Melinda, Evan, and I were able to rent the lovely little house in Tacoma that we lived in for the next six years. There’s synchronicity for you.

Next (or soon) I will begin telling you about Alan Watts.

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