Reality check: Colin Wilson and consciousness theory in the 21st century
Because so much of Colin Wilson’s career dealt with questions of human consciousness and how it could be extended, as well as how a holistic underlying reality of existence could be identified, I have come to feel it’s important to discuss the relevance of his work in the context of today’s vitally important scientific and philosophical debate about consciousness, and also of the latest arguments for metaphysical idealism.
By Geoff Ward
* 'Reality tarnished by materialism'.
AS LONG AGO as 1966, Wilson (1931-2013), one of the 20th century’s foremost writers on the subject of consciousness, asserted in his Introduction to the New Existentialism, the seventh and concluding volume in his seminal ‘Outsider cycle’: ‘Consciousness must not be taken for granted as something too obvious to need further questioning. Consciousness itself must be studied…’
But it was only in the 1990s, probably following the developments in computer technology, that consciousness theory became a widening arena of philosophical interest and of interdisciplinary scientific research in cognitive science, with key contributions from other fields including neuroscience, anthropology and psychology.
The emphasis has been on identifying the neural, psychological and biological relationships of consciousness and its contents. However, there still remains disagreement today about the true nature of consciousness, sometimes referred to (probably prematurely) as ‘the last great mystery of science’.
Although questions about the nature of consciousness and an underlying reality in the universe remain unresolved and a matter of continuing debate in philosophy and science, they do have a direct bearing on the meaning of life and affect every facet of our existence. Our consciousness, after all, is the point of intersection between the cosmic and the human dimensions, between timelessness and time, where we receive the numinous and the ‘life-force’.
So where are Colin Wilson’s ideas leading us now, two decades into the new century? Where might his thinking have taken him if he’d lived on, towards the age of 300 which, he once told Iris Murdoch, was what he wanted out of life, as George Bernard Shaw had said before him. I feel it’s necessary to ask these questions or Wilson is left in isolation from the wider debate going on today when, actually, his work needs to be brought into it.
But attempting to provide answers entails re-evaluating how Wilson conceptualised consciousness. If the reader finds my response difficult to accept as it stands then my hope remains that at least it will be taken as a valid inference from Wilson’s work and as offering a beneficial line of thought that can be developed.
In particular, I consider where Wilson’s pioneering work locates itself in the context of today’s key question in consciousness studies: is consciousness produced by the brain and, if so, how does it manage to arise from inert matter, or does consciousness exist prior to matter, in that it’s what I’d term the fundamental ‘genesis field’ that gives rise to the ‘material’ universe?
I put the word ‘material’ in parenthesis for reasons which will become clear as we proceed. Of course, in the case of human existence, grey ‘matter’ is perceived as the requisite for consciousness to be recognised (by our brains). But what exactly is consciousness? And how do we know it couldn’t exist without human agency?
INTERCONNECTING COSMIC FIELD
Mystics and sages have long spoken of a fundamental, interconnecting cosmic field behind everyday appearances – for example, the Akasha, after the Sanskrit and Vedic term for space – that conserves and conveys information; information being implicitly intelligible, otherwise we would not be able to perceive it as being able to ‘inform’. Mystics state that reality is not two things, ‘God’ and ‘the world’, but one, consciousness, a monistic position, while mainstream science has always operated on a different monistic basis, that of the primacy of matter.
But discoveries in quantum physics urge the abandonment of this scientific bias because, otherwise, the quantum world cannot be understood, its new metaphysics also offering explanations for what, hitherto, has been regarded as anomalous data.
Quantum science has proposed, for example, that we live in a holographic universe, the implication of which is that all information is everywhere at the same time in a state of ‘zero separation’. The new scientific and philosophical approach to this state of non-separation and fundamental oneness is ‘non-dualism’, a crucial move away from the long-standing perception of dualities seen normally in opposites – such as mind and matter, good and evil, conscious and unconscious, and so on – which tends to divert attention from a wider or deeper reality.
Can a universal cosmic field, the ultimate reality no less, be accessed by humans through a ‘higher’ or expanded consciousness? Most of us have no inkling of such a higher cosmic mind, except in moments of what Wilson called ‘breakthrough’ or ‘affirmation’ consciousness, or of fleeting mystical experience, during meditation or while receiving neurosensory information in other altered states of consciousness (ASCs). Such moments of profound insight might lead to an explanation of the divinatory arts, including dowsing and clairvoyance, of creativity and inspiration, where some kind of cosmic information or memory field is accessible to us intermittently.
This is not a new idea, of course, even in the West, it having been subscribed to, for example, by the English mystics Catherine Crowe (1803-76) and Frederick Bligh Bond (1864-1945). Whether inspiration leads to artistic or scientific discovery, my feeling is that we are all connected by a universal substrate and a participatory structure of energy fields, involving both our conscious and unconscious minds.
Although consciousness didn’t become the subject of widespread serious research by science until the 1990s, when ‘consciousness studies’ started to become prevalent, it was, of course, along with the unconscious mind, discussed prior to that during the 20th century – notably in the works of Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), for instance, as well as those of Colin Wilson – but only a few Western thinkers considered that consciousness itself was fundamental to existence.
As long ago as 1975, the Czech transpersonal psychologist Stanislav ‘Stan’ Grof (b1931), in his book Realms of the Human Unconscious, said that mind and consciousness might not be exclusive privileges of the human species but could permeate all of nature, existing in the most elemental up to the most complex forms; the universe and the human psyche have no boundaries or limits, and each of us is connected with, and is an expression of, all existence. Author also of The Holotropic Mind (1992), Grof, a pioneer of research into ASCs since the 1950s, believes consciousness to be an innate characteristic of the universe.
Also in the 1970s, Itzhak Bentov (1923-78), the Czechoslovakia-born Israeli-American scientist and inventor, who became an innovator in the field of bio-medical engineering in the USA, suggested that consciousness is the common uniting element of all creation, and that through this link all things are in permanent contact. His was a holistic model of the universe that encompassed not only physical, observable objects but also the far distant universe and other ‘realities’.
According to Bentov (1978), consciousness evolves to the ‘absolute’ which is the source of all consciousness. Matter, composed of quanta of energy, is the vibrating, changing component of consciousness. The absolute is fixed, manifest and invisible. Striking echoes of Bentov’s ideas have occurred in minority branches of science and philosophy in the decades since his death.
'THE GROUND OF ALL BEING'
In 1995, coinciding with the advent of the new consciousness studies, came publication by Amit Goswami (b1936), a theoretical nuclear physicist (now retired), of The Self-Aware Universe: How consciousness creates the material world which opposed the popular belief that matter is primary and argued instead that consciousness is the true foundation of everything we know and perceive. Goswami maintains that consciousness is the ‘ground of all being’.
In undergoing ASCs, we might just find ourselves alighting on that ‘ground of all being’. Instances of ‘breakthrough’ consciousness or of the ‘peak experience’ – those edifying moments of epiphany, of ‘intensity’ or ‘cosmic’ consciousness, which come suddenly to so many people – are capable of leading to a sustained experience of ‘sheer perception of meaning’, says Wilson in Super Consciousness: The Quest for the Peak Experience (p208, 2009), his study of the phenomenon.
Such an experience for the human race would be ‘the decisive step to becoming something closer to gods’. If the ‘mental mechanics’ of visionary and peak experiences were understood, and we were able to induce these experiences at will, then it could lead even to the extension of the human lifespan (see my 2006 interview with Wilson, ‘Living to be 300’, under the Interviews menu at Colin Wilson World).
Indeed, as Wilson would have agreed, humans are meaning-seeking animals, and to concentrate on the behaviour of nature, at the expense of its meaning, is detrimental to the human spirit.
The ‘gods’, in this context, are the perceived laws, or design parameters, of the universe. Such a view returns us to Jung’s myth of consciousness, and the idea that the meaning of life, of existence, lies in the universal enhancement of consciousness, a gradual process over time, whether or not consciousness is the ‘genesis field’, the ultimate ground of being.
Now the notion that the brain generates consciousness is the physicalist, reductive-materialist position, which is the majority view in science, that of material realism. For a number of years, I have subscribed to the Journal of Consciousness Studies, published by Imprint Academic, and the vast majority of papers published therein, by psychologists, philosophers, cognitive scientists and neuroscientists, take the physicalist, or naturalist, line; this stance is also the most prevalent at the biannual academic international and interdisciplinary ‘Science of Consciousness’ conference, founded in 1994 (originally 'Toward a Science of Consciousness').
The terms materialism and physicalism frequently are used interchangeably, but occasionally are distinguished along the lines of physics describing more than just matter, for example, energy and physical law as well. Physicalism grew out of materialism following advances in the physical sciences in explaining nature.
UNIVERSAL FIELD OF CONSCIOUSNESS
The minority idea opposing physicalism is that the brain is participatory in a universal field of consciousness; this is a post-materialist position. If consciousness is a universal field that creates the material universe, then the so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness – how it can possibly emerge from matter and give rise to experience, to qualia – simply dissolves, because, in this case, consciousness is primary, not matter.
As is well-known, the ‘hard problem’, which has preoccupied consciousness studies for years, was formulated by the Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers (b1966) in both his 1995 paper ‘Facing up to the problem of consciousness’ and his 1996 book The Conscious Mind. He is a professor of philosophy and of neural science, director of the Centre for Consciousness at the Australian National University, and a director of the Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness at New York University.
Chalmers, who has criticised physicalist explanations of mental experience, describes his position as ‘naturalistic dualism’: naturalistic because he believes mental states are caused by physical systems, such as brains, and dualist because he believes mental states are distinct ontologically from, and not reducible to, physical systems.
Acceptance of consciousness as primary also circumvents the other big and equally fundamental problem facing physicalists, that of ‘subject combination’ – how microphysical entities, or subjects (for example, sub-atomic particles), could combine with one another at the microcosmic level to produce consciousness out of matter at the macrocosmic level. Such unification cannot be explained. And yet… all forms of matter are energy events anyway, an energy that could be pervaded by consciousness, and perhaps is consciousness!
It’s far beyond the scope and intention of this essay to go into the various arguments within the ongoing global consciousness debate, but a little more background is necessary, I feel, in order to meet my aim of establishing Wilson’s position within it.
Certainly, the most influential contemporary physical theories of consciousness are based on psychology and neuroscience. Theories proposed by scientists such as the biologist Gerald Edelman (1929-2014) and the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio (b1944), and by philosophers such as Daniel Dennett (b1942), have sought to explain consciousness in terms of neural events occurring within the brain. Controversially, Dennett has gone further to claim consciousness is a ‘user-illusion’, his point seeming to be that consciousness is so insignificant, especially compared to exalted ideas about it, that it might as well not exist. Wilson would surely have abhorred such an opinion.
Meanwhile, the philosophical position proposing that the hard problem of consciousness cannot be solved by humans is known as ‘mysterianism’, and philosopher Thomas Nagel (b1937), who believes consciousness is something beyond the material world, is one who says it is unlikely to yield to conventional scientific analysis. An opponent of Dennett, he asks how consciousness can be an illusion when an illusion is a conscious experience; thus it cannot appear to you that you’re conscious if you’re not!
These are just hints of the convolutions of the often exasperating consciousness controversy. I admit that my bias is to the post-materialist camp, but I expect the reader has already realised as much. There is no way to prove conclusively that matter came before consciousness; rather, I feel the brain is better regarded as a receiver, and perhaps filter, of a non-local, spatially unbound consciousness fundamental to life and existence, the ‘filtering’ or ‘disassociation’ being in place to save us from being inundated with cosmic consciousness, and to enable practical day-to-day living.
EVOLUTIONARY SAFETY MECHANISM
This could be the result of an evolutionary safety mechanism which once gave humans certain survival aptitudes and advantages. Might it not be the case that, as the French philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson (1859-1941) suggested, the function of the brain, nervous system and sense organs has become mainly interdictive and not creative in this sense, saving us from being overwhelmed by an influx of information which would be largely useless or irrelevant, and allowing us instead only a narrow perception spectrum for quotidian survival purposes?
Indeed, Bergson was influential, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, with his view that intuition and immediate experience are more appropriate for an understanding of reality than science and rationalism. If it is the case that we are participants in a great universal movement of consciousness, but that the brain and nervous system act as a kind of reducing valve, then it suggests that the world as seen by visionaries such as William Blake and Vincent Van Gogh is closer to reality, a fascinating though rather paradoxical prospect.
As Wilson remarked on this issue, in The Strength to Dream (p181), first published in 1963: ‘Man may possess the equipment to become a god, but he does not possess the energy to make use of the equipment.’
One factor in this lack of energy would be the continuing domination of our culture by the physicalist outlook through its control of crucial elements of society, including the media and educational systems; it has spread from science to affect adversely other academic areas, even the humanities, including, particularly sadly for me, literature departments and the resulting unfortunate consequences for authorship and literary criticism.
Having followed the consciousness debate closely over the past two decades, I feel there is now a strong case for accepting the primacy of mind in nature – across philosophy, neuroscience, psychology and physics – and that reality unfolds in consciousness. This is the approach of monistic idealism which proposes an ultimate substrate of reality and existence, in this case, consciousness, and the entirely mental nature of reality.
It offers a way out of an impasse which breeds only defeatism and the fallacy of human insignificance – as recognised by Wilson – arising from the prevalent physicalist scientific paradigm which is really no longer tenable. Like Wilson’s envisaged visionary consciousness, it provides a positive and optimistic counteraction to the belittling of human potential and the post-modern pitfall of disenchanting the world, as well as holding out promise of a new spirituality.
If consciousness is thought of as a fundamental property of nature or, indeed, as the very ground of existence, then its participatory nature becomes apparent: human evolution has increasingly participated in it over millennia, rather than it developing gradually but unilaterally in each living organism. Consciousness then ceases to be seen as an epiphenomenon of the brain, as in the latter case, and instead as a gestalt, a uniting human experience rather than one subjective only to the individual.
At the conclusion of his indispensable Colin Wilson: The Man and his Mind (1990), Howard Dossor comments on the sharp division in the critical response to Wilson: those who respond positively have a ‘common mental set’, as do those who respond negatively.
THE ARTIST AND THE SCIENTIST
Dossor suggests this might represent either a right-brain or a left-brain dominance, respectively – referring to the theory of functional laterality which gained ground in the 1960s: this indicated a tendency for some neural functions or cognitive processes to be specialised in one side of the brain or the other. For example, it has been discovered that grammar and vocabulary are localised to the left while understanding the emotional content of language is a function of the right. Wilson alluded to functional laterality often, the right brain, as he saw it, being the abode of the artist and the left, of the scientist.
Dossor went so far as to construe lateralisation as a confrontation between intuition and logic, between ‘Outsiders’ and ‘Insiders’, mutually exclusive modes of thinking about the function of philosophy and the nature of consciousness. Today, against the background of the consciousness debate in philosophy and science, but at the risk of over-simplifying, we might describe the two hemispheres as post-materialist and materialist.
Taking a memorable quote from Wilson’s Religion and the Rebel (p97, 1984): ‘The mark of greatness is always intuition, not logic. Our civilisation has unfortunately made an imaginary distinction between the two, which is called “philosophy”. Existentialism is a revolt against it.’
Admittedly, some interpretations of the science about lateralization have been simplistic, describing the functional differences between hemispheres as more absolute than they actually are. Yet it remains the case, as Wilson himself pointed out, that the two contrasting modes of cognisance still apply to human behaviour whether they are located in different parts of the brain or not.
Now, Wilson was not a materialist, he argued consistently against materialism, and I’m sure he would not have subscribed to the physicalist agenda on consciousness; indeed, I hope to show he was approaching consideration of an idealist ontology – founded on the primacy of consciousness – which I believe his optimistic philosophy of new existentialism could embrace.
After all, the new existentialism, which rejects the old existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) and Albert Camus (1913-60) for its pessimism and emphasis on human contingency, remains revolutionary in its call for the finding of a logical way of investigating mental states beyond everyday consciousness, most people having insight to such states ‘at least once a week’, says Wilson in Introduction to the New Existentialism.
He sought recognition of a standard of values external to everyday consciousness - a standard necessarily orientated away from materialism - which would provide a sense of purpose and an authenticity of living on which human evolution would depend. Emphasis on the issue of what constitutes human values is part and parcel of the new existentialism and its phenomenological examination of consciousness.
As long ago as Religion and the Rebel, first published in 1957, Wilson wrote (p192, 1984): ‘Real education means existentialism, and existentialism means exploring one’s inner world scientifically. This is why materialism and all its incarnations … are so deadly. They make imprisonment in time, consciousness and personality – to which human beings are only to prone – seem quite natural and inevitable.’ Moreover, he believed that civilisations begin to lose control as soon as they begin to think in materialist categories because, ultimately, he said, all power is spiritual power.
And in Eagle & Earwig (p48, 1965), he tells us: ‘All forms of materialism are a slow and deliberate diminution of man’s stature.’
Wilson called for a new scientific paradigm that would recognise the significance and reality of higher states of consciousness – such as the peak experience through which he thought a ‘pure consciousness’ could be attained – and the paranormal in human life (more on the ‘peak experience’ later). It is just this kind of openness to ideas that Wilson displayed throughout his career that’s needed to bring about such change.
In Access to Inner Worlds (1983), Wilson writes (p117) that science got itself a bad name among the religious and artistically inclined because scientists took it upon themselves to ‘dogmatise about reality’ while leaving out the all-important ‘dimension of meaning’.
In his postscript to the 2004 edition of A Criminal History of Mankind (p668-69), he refers to the ‘veil of matter’ which hides a cosmic reality. And in the previous paragraph, he writes: ‘My own conviction is that life was not created – I have always taken the view of Bergson and Shaw, that life was, so to speak, already there, but not in our universe of matter. It has spent fifteen billion years or so somehow “inserting” itself into matter. Shaw expressed it by saying that the universe that began as a “whirlpool of sheer force” aims at becoming a “whirlpool of pure intelligence”.’
Or, to my way of thinking, a whirlpool of that pure consciousness – consciousness as the source of reality, manifesting in living beings in order to evolve.
WITHIN A UNIVERSAL MIND
My belief is that the universe was indeed created as a home for life, even if this evolved through natural, purely algorithmic processes at a bio-molecular level without any ‘outside’ intervention, although this position does still raise the question of the ultimate existential purpose of the process underlying it all: why and how did the genesis field come into being in the first place? But if there is an innate intelligence and wisdom in nature, then consciousness surely is the foundation, suggesting that we are within a universal mind which is greater than the sum of its parts – one of those parts being us.
What Wilson was searching for all his life as a philosopher was the means by which, through an elevated consciousness, we could meet our deep-seated, primeval need for transcendence without the use of drugs or other stimulants or the aid of religious institutions, and how we could assist what he saw as an evolutionary momentum towards this goal. Ever since his first book The Outsider (1956), he was sure that humanity was on the point of an evolutionary leap to a higher phase.
Integral to this was the ultimate question that lay behind the ‘Outsiders’: how can humans extend their range of consciousness? Wilson believed our range of mental states is ‘as narrow as the middle three notes of a piano keyboard’, but that the possible range is ‘as wide as the whole piano keyboard’. The ‘Outsiders’ had one thing in common: ‘an instinctive knowledge that their range could be extended, and a nagging dissatisfaction with the range of their everyday experience’ (Religion and the Rebel, p2, 1984). This was the ‘urge’ that underlay all Wilson’s thinking and writing.
He argued in many of his books that we have been in a period of evolutionary consciousness change since the mid-18th century, nearly 300 years now – in fact, since the advent of the novel (particularly Samuel Richardson’s Pamela published in 1740) which, as Wilson says, represented ‘a new dimension of human freedom’ by opening up the imagination, and especially since the Romantic revolution from around 1800. This is the ‘romantic theory of evolution’.
It might be that this change is happening because it must, so as to safeguard the human race, and the consciousness with which it has been endowed, for the future. Although it might seem that change is happening too slowly and too late, evolution, after all, is cleverer than us; things might be far better taken care of than we can possibly imagine.
Once, in an interview (‘Life after death’, 2003, under the Interviews section at Colin Wilson World), Wilson told me: ‘Our purpose in the world is eventually to enable spirit to conquer matter, to get into matter to such an extent that there is no longer any matter.’
If there was no longer any matter (in the physicalist sense) then, presumably, to Wilson’s way of thinking, there would be only consciousness; could it not be, then, that an increased or elevated consciousness in humans, perhaps achieved by force of will in the Wilsonian sense, would help the universal consciousness to evolve into more and more of this matter, including ourselves, our brains?
All the above explains why, for some time now, I have wondered where Wilson might be placed in relation to the consciousness controversies that have developed in recent decades.
I was prompted finally to write this essay after reading three new books by post-materialist authors: The Idea of the World: A multi-disciplinary argument for the mental nature of reality (2019) by the philosopher-scientist Bernardo Kastrup in whose work I find much that is complementary to Wilson’s; Digital Consciousness: A Transformative Vision (2018) by Jim Elvidge; and An End to Upside-Down Thinking: Dispelling the myth that the brain produces consciousness and the implications for everyday life (2018) by Mark Gober, all of which I would recommend to the reader.
QUEST FOR TRANSCENDENCE
In defiance of mainstream arguments, Kastrup’s position, in addressing the quest for transcendence (as does Wilson, whose philosophy of the new existentialism could also be described as transpersonal existentialism), is that our current theories based on materialism cannot answer fundamental questions about the nature of consciousness, and that the established model of physics must be questioned because there is so much that it finds inexplicable.
Crucially, Kastrup stands for restoration of a metaphysical balance in the world, and suggests that the existential potential is there for this to happen as, again, I believe, does Wilson.
Gober, with regard to apprehending the true nature of reality, and following Kastrup to whom he refers frequently, advocates the approach of monistic idealism, which sees matter as an experience within consciousness, and which Kastrup defines as ‘the notion that all reality is grounded in a transpersonal form of consciousness’.
If consciousness is all that is, Gober deduces, then each of us are part of that consciousness (from which matter arises, remember), and so we are all connected. Therefore, ‘I’ is not just me, but everybody. ‘Your body is made of consciousness,’ he states. ‘Your body exists in your mind.’
This, he says – with particular relevance for Wilson’s investigations – explains and validates paranormal and anomalous experience, including telepathy, precognition, remote viewing, reincarnation, psychokinesis, near-death experiences and communications with the deceased.
Elvidge argues a particular case that, when you get down to the deepest microscopic level of matter we can measure, it appears to be simply information, or data, composed of ‘bits’ – a bit being a unit of information expressed as either a 0 or 1 in binary notation. So, he says, every physical object is ultimately represented by 1s and 0s; existence is essentially a binary system.
Nothing is truly physical – hence my parenthesis of the word ‘material’ above – ‘rather it is virtual data representations of those things’, says Elvidge. There is no such thing as objective reality, as quantum science has shown (Wilson was aware of the implications of quantum physics for science, philosophy and materiality).
Consciousness is separate from the brain, Elvidge also is convinced; it does not emerge from it. Instead, it is fundamental to existence, interpreting digital information and creating reality. It is the ‘stuff’ of which everything is made. However, it must be said, digital consciousness theory has been criticised on the grounds that information is a property of a substrate associated with that substrate’s possible configurations, not an entity in itself.
The most important implication though, of the view of consciousness as fundamental, is that it persists after the body dies, meaning, essentially, that we are not mortal, that we continue to exist even when our physical presence on Earth has ended. General acceptance of this would change everyone’s world-view; surely incentive for (new) existential optimism.
BELIEVED IN AN AFTERLIFE
Wilson, of course, believed in an afterlife and a form of reincarnation. Although in his book Afterlife (1985) he was somewhat sceptical about it, in my 2003 ‘Life after death’ interview with him (he was then 72), he said: ‘… if you ask me now if I believe in life after death I will say, yes, life after death exists. And if you ask me, what is the purpose of human existence, I would say it’s there in that last chapter of Afterlife, where I say something like, I’m pretty sure that human beings are here in this world because they want to be, voluntarily, almost in the way that explorers go to the North Pole, to check it out and to learn something...’
Now we approach the crux of the matter: as far as I’m aware, nowhere in his writings does Wilson discuss whether consciousness gives rise to matter or the other way round; that consciousness might not arise from brain function, that it’s not discrete to the brain and instead could be a pervasive field in which we are immersed, or better put, of which we are part.
Nor, equally, did he discuss that the brain does generate consciousness although, as mentioned above, he did make great play of the right brain/left brain proposition, believing modern man is stuck firmly in a ‘left-brain universe’.
In Alien Dawn (1998), he wrote: ‘It is worth trying to imagine what would have happened to a civilisation that decided to follow the right-brain path as obsessively as we have pursued the left. We have invented atomic power, computers and space travel. What would they have developed over the same period?’
Interestingly enough, in 2006, in the article ‘The Psychology of Optimism’, in the January/February edition of Adbusters: Journal of the Mental Environment, Wilson speculated – in a single sentence – that the brain did not generate consciousness. He refers to the physiologist Roger Sperry, the pioneer of split-brain, or functional laterality, research in the 1960s, who was ‘willing to accept the proposition that consciousness is a product of the brain and cannot exist apart from it’.
But in a paper in 1980, Sperry ‘shocked and upset’ his colleagues by saying consciousness was not passive but active and ‘creative’, operating on the brain as human fingers operated on a computer keyboard. Wilson continues: ‘Clearly there is one more step to take. And I suspect that if Sperry had not died in 1981 he would have taken it: to recognise that consciousness is not a mere product of the brain, but exists in its own right.’
Apparently, Wilson did not follow up this significant insight. He did not include it in Super Consciousness, published three years later in 2009, the last book he wrote and where he had the opportunity to summarise and update his ideas. It’s tempting to think that if he had come to expand on this remark he would have accepted the possibility of the universality and primacy of consciousness in doing so. (The Adbusters article is included in Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism, by Brad Spurgeon, published in 2006 with a second edition in 2017).
Wilson does not discuss where consciousness originates – in the brain or beyond the brain – or what its actual nature might be; he seems to take human consciousness as a ‘given’: that it’s just there. And under monistic idealism, mind is a given, but matter is an inference, an abstraction of mind.
Admittedly, I haven’t read every single word that Wilson wrote, or heard every single word he spoke which was recorded on tape or audio file – who has? – but if he was going to consider these significant matters I feel sure he would have done so in his major medium, his philosophical books, particularly his later ones, as his thinking progressed, and especially in Super Consciousness where he recapitulated his quest to understand the workings of ‘power consciousness’.
In the 2003 interview I’ve referred to above, Wilson also told me: ‘I believe that consciousness can exist without the human body, but it’s not consciousness we’re talking about in itself. We’re talking about what Husserl would have called the transcendental ego, the real you. There is something in us which is real, which is indestructible; you can call it the soul, you can call it all kinds of things, but none of these really helps the situation because they just introduce another undefined word.’
PIVOT OF EXISTENCE
It seems that Wilson regarded the transcendental ego (the term having been used by Kant, Fichte and Husserl) as the pivot of existence, and not consciousness per se; the purpose of human existence, as he stated in his 2004 autobiography, Dreaming to Some Purpose (p386-387), known instinctively in our moments of optimism and enthusiasm, is ‘to colonise this difficult and inhospitable realm of matter and to imbue it with the force of life ... this world of matter is not our home. That lies behind us in another world. But for those with enough strength and imagination it will become our home’. [Wilson’s italics].
In the chapter ‘The Strange Story of Modern Philosophy’ in Beyond the Outsider (p75-76, 1966), Wilson identifies the transcendental ego as the ‘hidden I’ – the ‘I’ behind the ‘I think’ of the Cartesian cogito: the ‘I’ which is conscious of the ‘I’ which is thinking. It is this ‘hidden I’ which should have been recognised as the ‘centre of gravity’ of philosophy, and not the ‘I think’, the ‘questioning intelligence’ that looks out at the universe ‘from its armchair’, and which is only a single aspect of the transcendental ego. The questioning intelligence also needs to direct itself to the universe within.
Ultimately, though, under monistic idealism, there is no distinction between the external and internal worlds, or ‘universes’. Objects of empirical reality (the ‘external world’) are regarded as epiphenomena of consciousness.
Later in the 2003 interview, indicating again that Wilson did not yet think of consciousness as primary, he said: ‘We know consciousness can go out like a light every time you close your eyes and fall asleep; out goes consciousness. So consciousness doesn’t have some special status, any more than a light bulb does, it can flicker out, be thrown away, and a new one is needed.
‘Consciousness is not something, in itself, which is inextinguishable, but you, on the other hand, involves a level of self-consciousness, self-awareness; the essential you does continue to exist. I’m pretty certain of that. Whatever continues to exist is the real you, probably your personality to large extent because so often people are aware of the actual person they knew. How far that personality persists, I don’t know.’
But the theory that consciousness is primary entails belief that consciousness is inherent in all mental processes, including those that we think of as ‘unconscious’. Kastrup points out that different mental processes correspond to different configurations, or contents, of consciousness – the particular qualities that are experienced – but do not determine the absence or presence of consciousness itself.
Episodes of seeming unconsciousness are instead said to be episodes of what is called ‘non-recallable phenomenality’; studies have shown that they are associated with impairment of memory but not necessarily with absence of phenomenality.
Of course, on one level, it doesn’t matter whether Wilson thought consciousness was produced by the brain or not, or whether he thought it was primary and universal or not, for he was mainly and rightly concerned with how our present state of, and knowledge about, human consciousness could be improved, whatever way it had arisen, or evolved.
His new existentialism, essentially, is an exploration of the means by which individual consciousness can be expanded, or heightened, to enhance our lives, to hone our perceptions. Existentialism is not the building of an intellectual system, he says in Religion and the Rebel, but the building of insights into a vision in an attempt to extend consciousness: ‘to extend the sphere of the living being into the unliving’.
In a footnote on the same page (p245) of that book, he adds that when he uses the word ‘consciousness’, he intends to embrace ‘the whole area of living consciousness in any form, ie, the consciousness of an amoeba or the so-called “unconscious mind” of a human being’.
SCHOOL OF PHENOMENOLOGY
He believed there were two aspects to human consciousness, intentionality and relationality: the former being the way we use, or direct, consciousness to focus attention on things, and the latter, the concomitant way in which we connect up areas of mind to increase meaning. Wilson’s assertion that consciousness was intentional followed Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), the German philosopher who founded the school of phenomenology, and Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), the English philosopher and mathematician.
Put simply, phenomenology is the study of the way in which consciousness perceives objects. For Husserl, consciousness of any given thing called for discerning its meaning as an ‘intentional object’. The object does not simply strike the senses, to be interpreted or otherwise; it has already been selected and grasped.
Whitehead’s theory of perception, with his terms ‘presentational immediacy’ and ‘causal effficacy’, also influenced Wilson who interpreted these phrases as ‘immediacy perception’ and ‘meaning perception’. Heightening our intentionality correspondingly meant heightened meaning.
The essence of Wilson’s existentialism is the need for the individual’s phenomenological examination of his or her own consciousness – the detached study of conscious states – as a prerequisite for heightening it, although he believed it was vital at the same time to develop a new language, or terminology, free of preconceptions and fallacies, to describe the response to experience – an extremely tall order, one must admit (as Wilson pointed out, the new existentialism is not all psychology). Yet accepting consciousness as primary would surely, through the addition of this profound dimension, assist and enrich the phenomenological undertaking.
Today, however, I think I am right in saying, Wilson’s intentionality and relationality, although still promising the same outcomes he describes under his new existentialist scenario, would be regarded as metaconscious, or self-reflective, mental activity, and not the actual subjective experience of consciousness itself: of qualia, the properties of sense data, such as the pain of a wound, the taste of wine, or the colour of the sky.
We realise this is the case because the term ‘metaconsciousness’ describes a level of thought which contemplates the state of being conscious; thus, intentionality and relationality are not aspects of consciousness itself, but rather, consciousness is their enabler. Qualia are contrasted with ‘propositional attitudes’, where emphasis is on beliefs about, and concepts to do with, experiences, instead of what it’s like to experience something directly. Nevertheless, I feel Wilson might have welcomed monistic idealism, or at least phenomenal externalism which holds that mind and brain are separate and the brain accesses consciousness, bringing mind into existence.
Neither of these philosophies would conflict with his new existentialism as a phenomenological examination of consciousness, which could still be carried out by the individual in the way he envisaged. Moreover, monistic idealism and phenomenal externalism might well escape his critique of western philosophy of the last three centuries, not least because of the mental effort required to take on board their implications and modify one’s world-view accordingly, necessitating change in individual consciousness.
Wilson believed that attitudinal change in everyday thinking could be brought about by philosophical innovation. He thought that the ideas of Husserl and Whitehead were capable of it and was exasperated when they had no noticeable effect. In Beyond the Outsider (pp 98-99), after stating that Husserl and Whitehead had ‘overturned the foundations of western philosophy, and then laid a new and unshakeable foundation’, he wrote: ‘But the strangest thing of all – or so it may appear to some historian of philosophy in a future age – is that this counter-revolution had no immediate effect on philosophy, which continued exactly as before.’
Of course, philosophical idealism, the claim that our senses ‘create’ the world, as expounded by George Berkeley in the early eighteenth century, was included in Wilson’s severe criticism of the ‘Cartesian fallacy’ (mind and body dualism) within western philosophy over the last 300 years for its general pessimism and passive approach to the contents of consciousness – a position of Wilson’s which acquires major significance when reviewing the current debate about consciousness and what constitutes ‘reality’.
As Wilson repeated in Super Consciousness, ‘there are only two pockets on the billiard table of philosophy: materialism and idealism, and no matter how “original” a philosopher, he is bound to end up in one or the other’. By his own reckoning, and no matter the originality of his new existentialism, we must put Wilson in the idealism pocket (although emphasising at the same time his active approach to the contents of consciousness). Clearly, the new existentialism could not be made to embrace a materialist or physicalist ontology.
In Access to Inner Worlds, Wilson writes (p100-101) that, from a strictly rational point of view, Berkeley could indeed argue that the ‘real world’ can be doubted out of existence; and ‘if the game is played according to the rules of left-brain logic’, Berkeley was irrefutable. However, ‘sceptical logic’, where everything had to be ‘proved’, could be compared merely to ‘the kind of mathematical game where one has to join up a number of dots without lifting the pencil from the paper or retracing any line’. Indeed; the idea that everything must be true or false (the principle of bivalence) is so ingrained in ‘logical thinking’ that science even ‘proves’ things by disproving their opposites!
Wilson continues: ‘Dr Johnson went straight to the point when he tried to refute Berkeley by kicking a stone; he was demonstrating that, where the business of experience is concerned, reason is the least important of our faculties. In effect, we see the world simultaneously through two pairs of eyes, one belonging to reason, the other to intuition.’ [My italics].
Intuition, of course, can defy logic, even if we have shifted the use of a good deal of it to our computer processors these days. As the Brazilian author Paulo Coelho (b1947) wrote, intuition ‘is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, where the histories of all people are connected, and we are able to know everything, because it’s all written there’ (The Alchemist, 1988). What is intuition but the traditional way of perceiving the invisible?
Although most scientists avoid discussing it at all costs, the concept of quantum entanglement undermines the validity of logic being taken for granted, destroying any possible acceptance of consensus reality in the process (although we will continue to use the term for its familiar applicability to our shared everyday experience of the world).
To explain quantum entanglement: if you imagine a sub-atomic particle with zero spin decaying into two other particles which are then separated by great distance, so far apart even that there is no longer any physical force between them, quantum science says they still retain information about one another, whatever the space between them, in a shared state which is indefinite until measured. If one particle moves in a certain way, so will the other.
Verified experimentally, this has given rise to the idea of a form of universal interconnectedness, and that simple rules and localised interactions can generate large-scale co-operative, self-organising and collective behaviours. In other words, the whole universe is in one entangled quantum state.
A key study here is one by a group of Polish and Austrian physicists, announced in a paper published in Nature in April, 2007 (‘An Experimental Test of Non-Local Realism’, by Simon Gröblacher et al). This showed as untenable the materialistic idea that hidden properties in the quantum substrate caused entanglement; the hypothesis that physical properties in the particles themselves caused it had already been ruled out.
The implication is that, as sub-atomic particles are regarded as foundational to nature, entanglement means that the concept of ‘reality’, as we normally understand it in everyday terms, must be abandoned. It helps us to see how human perception and theoretical interpretation become confused with reality. Logic works only on the acceptance of an objective reality, that an external world exists separately from our cognition.
But what if it doesn’t? Our assumptions on which we base ‘logical thinking’ would have to be revised, and we would also have to rethink what we mean by ‘reality’ while at the same time realising that consciousness is inherent to it.
Somewhat confusingly, despite his non-materialist leanings, Wilson did seem to believe in an objective reality; he said as much in Access to Inner Worlds. Referring to Karl Popper’s term ‘World 3’, the world of human knowledge (‘World 1’ being the physical world, and ‘World 2’, the subjective world, the inner life), Wilson writes (p121): ‘World 3, the world of what we have discovered, is an independent entity, like World 1 and 2. It has objective existence, like the physical world.’ [My italics].
I think he took this position because at the time, and subsequently, he did not see consciousness as fundamental and primary in the universe, although I feel he could have been moving towards that position. Despite his strong arguments against materialism, in scientific, social and cultural senses, he stops short of considering where this stance ultimately might be leading him philosophically. In the rest of this essay, using evidence from across the spectrum of his writings, I hope to show this is the case, and also that an idealist ontology reconciles the apparent dichotomy in his thinking.
Actually, idealism has its roots in some of the great wisdom traditions of India and Ancient Greece, asserting that mind or consciousness is primordial, all-pervasive and the source from which everything arises. Western philosophical idealism, of course, has nothing to do with having a particular attitude in life (that of being idealistic), but is a metaphysical theory about the nature of reality.
In opposition to materialism, idealism maintains that what is ‘real’ to us is confined to, or related to, the contents of our minds; it posits the primacy of consciousness as a prerequisite for material phenomena. Thus consciousness exists prior to, and is a pre-condition of, material existence; the origin of the material world lies in consciousness and mind, and it is sought to explain existence in these terms.
In various forms, idealism has been a minority philosophical position for 300 years – materialism having held sway at least since the beginning of the 19th century – but, of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s incorrect. Indeed, as reductionist attempts to explain consciousness are seen to become less credible, idealism must come to be taken more seriously. Paradigm change can always be traced back to a minority view.
ANCIENT WESTERN ESOTERICA
Interestingly, the three main branches of ancient Western esoterica, the Kabbalah, Neoplatonism and Gnosticism, in their respective paths to self-realisation, also support an essentially idealist philosophy maintaining that, fundamentally, reality is mind, or consciousness, and that our true nature is unlimited consciousness. This esoteric tradition is a broadly optimistic body of thought exhibiting a certain practicality and richly creative elements which are potentially, and actually, helpful for inner well-being.
It’s a coherent intellectual stream rooted in metaphysics, cosmology and religion which has attempted to bring together widely disparate aspects of creation ‘within a complex structure of connections, sympathies and affinities’, as David Katz points out in his 2005 book The Occult Tradition – exactly what Wilson achieved in his prolific writing career.
Wilson’s new existentialism, also pragmatic and inspirational in its transformative aspects, similarly aims to improve both what are perceived as one’s inner and outer worlds by seeking to give the spur to human evolutionary potential and development, and raise, or widen, the scope of consciousness.
I say ‘what are perceived as one’s inner and outer worlds’, because Wilson made a distinction between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds. In 'The Human Condition - A Postscript to the Schumacher Lecture, 1984', included in The Essential Colin Wilson (1985), he writes: ‘Once we have grasped this concept of an “inner world”, we can see that we always inhabit it, even when we feel most trapped in external reality. And when I intensely enjoy any experience, it is because I am simultaneously in two worlds at once: the reality around me and the reality inside me. ... The deeper [a man] can retreat into that inner world, the more he can enjoy his experience of the outer world. Conversely, when he feels trapped in the outer world by boredom or tension, all his experience becomes unsatisfying and superficial. ... [W]e need to recognise the independent reality of that inner world, and to grasp the error of the view that we are creatures of the physical world around us.’
I believe that troubles in the world today can be traced to a basic misunderstanding about our reality and the nature and role of consciousness; about how, as proposed above, there actually is no distinction to be made between our ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds. Widespread realisation and acceptance that consciousness is a non-local phenomenon would complement the consciousness-raising element of the new existentialism – by helping us to regain harmony with the universe – and surely would assist, if not cause, that ‘upwards’ shift in consciousness that Wilson so earnestly desired for the human race.
It would change everything: it would establish the actual truth about our existence, begin a reversal of the fundamental premises of society and culture and intensify our sense of meaning, of causal efficacy, as in Whitehead’s use of the phrase, and reshape our view of human potential and the way we treat one another. It could also help us to become conscious agents of our evolution, as Wilson wanted, for, knowing the mindset we were leaving behind, we just might feel ourselves evolving to a new level.
Although, in one way, as stated above, it doesn’t matter whether Wilson thought consciousness was produced by the brain or not – the vital question he asked, of what do we, as individuals, do with the consciousness we have now, remains today – but in another way, the issue of Wilson and the nature of consciousness is extremely important in relation to his oeuvre.
This is because the post-materialist position on consciousness vindicates his investigations of, and conclusions about, the paranormal and the ‘peak experience’ studied by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-70) and which informed so much of Wilson’s thought.
In The Craft of the Novel (p106, 1990), Wilson says: ‘Reality is not what happens to be most real to us at the moment. It is what we perceive in our moments of greatest intensity. And the peculiar power of the imagination enables us to cling on to this vision after the intensity has vanished.’ (Wilson’s italics).
In the moment of the peak experience, a sudden breach occurs in the boundary between individual and universal consciousness (what Kastrup calls the ‘dissociative’ boundary), the brain’s ‘filtering’ function weakens or fails, and intense feelings of joy and often of oneness with the universe flood through.
IMPORTANT POTENTIAL GATEWAY
Wilson came to believe that the scientific paradigm that dismissed psychic powers such as telepathy and remote viewing was false. One understands the peak experience as an important potential gateway to the realisation that consciousness itself is the ultimate underlying reality: Wilson sometimes seemed about to intuit this possibility although he never spelled it out in so many words.
I feel he came closest to doing so in Alien Dawn (1998; quotations hereunder taken from my copy of the 1999 Virgin paperback which Wilson kindly signed for me at his home in Cornwall in 2001). In the first instance, therefore, I’m going to look closely at what he says in Alien Dawn, an engaging and eminently readable investigation of the UFO mystery but which also turns out to be central to his near-idealist speculations on the nature of reality.
The bewildering increase in the perception of a whole variety of anomalous and paranormal phenomena worldwide since the late 1940s, when the modern UFO flaps began, might be an important strand of evidence for human consciousness moving or evolving to, or being guided towards, a more subtle ‘frequency’. Referring to Jung (Alien Dawn, p188), Wilson writes: ‘He knew enough of the world of the paranormal to realise that mankind is being offered a revelation that could amount to a new kind of consciousness.’ (My italics).
Wilson agreed with Professor John Mack, the Harvard psychologist who saw the UFO phenomenon as contributing to the end of the materialist paradigm that had ‘lost its compatibility with life in the world as we know it’ (1999). Prof Mack believed there was no way of making sense of UFO reports ‘within the framework of our existing views of what is real or possible’.
Indeed, in Dreaming to Some Purpose (p372), Wilson refers to The Outsider as being about people who felt there was something ‘deeply wrong’ about consensus reality and, with reference to Prof Mack, that we needed to broaden our views about what is real or possible: the purpose of UFO phenomena, created by ‘unknown energy forms’, Wilson said, seemed to be heuristic – ‘that is, they are designed to teach us something, to change our attitude towards reality’. [Wilson’s italics]. In other words, they are designed to bring about an ‘alien dawn’.
His conclusion was reinforced by an odd series of events that occurred while he was writing Alien Dawn. When he glanced at his bedside digital clock during the night he always found it was in treble figures: 1.11, 2.22, 3.33 and so forth. This persuaded him that Jung was correct, that synchronicity told us something about the nature of reality. ‘In the case of Alien Dawn, it was trying to tell me that I was on the right track.’ (My italics].
Later in Alien Dawn (p348), Wilson, after stating that scientists past and present maintained that mind was a product of matter, continues: ‘The absurd thing is that science itself tells us the opposite. It tells us the universe is not made of matter but of vibrations of energy, and that mind seems to have some incomprehensible role in determining how this energy reveals itself. It seems incredible that no one so far has noticed it … That vision of universal energy, and of the mind’s power to enter into creative interaction with it, is an accurate perception of the underlying reality.’
Here, Wilson comes amazingly close to identifying consciousness as the ultimate underlying reality of existence. I feel he was just a small step away from doing so; that he was ‘on the right track’. Certainly, the universe comprises ‘vibrations of energy’ but mind, or consciousness, can be said to be fundamental to them. Read in this way, retrospectively, the final pages of Alien Dawn are tantalisingly evocative in this respect.
Now, in Super Consciousness (p182), Wilson describes how in 1947, at the age of 16, he discovered the Bhagavad Gita – part of the ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata – and began meditating every morning ‘focusing my mind intently on the identity of Atman with Brahman’.
Naturally, he was aware of the meaning of this phrase: that the individual, immortal soul (atman), the essence of each living thing, and the world, or cosmic, soul (brahman), the eternal essence of the universe and the ground of all being and existence, are of the same reality; that there is no distinction between human life and an ultimate reality, whether or not we consider it divine. They are the same thing (as under monistic idealism), despite Wilson having made a distinction between the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds.
In Beyond the Outsider (pp195-196), Wilson makes a connection between ‘uncovering the atman’ – as in disciples prescribed by saints and church fathers as a means of ‘bringing the “God within” nearer to the surface’ – and a ‘primitive phenomenology’. There is a fundamental similarity of aim, he says, between religious introspection and phenomenology.
The underlying reality, or ground of being, which ‘uncovering the atman’ might well reveal, is, as I have advocated, the universal consciousness. However, on p186 of Alien Dawn, there is further indication that Wilson was not quite abreast of this idea when he states: ‘In fact, consciousness is made of a different kind of substance from the world, and we exist as living beings insofar as we push ourselves away from it.’
LEVELS OF CONSCIOUSNESS
Further evidence that he was not yet taking his thinking that one step further, to regard consciousness as primary, is found in his autobiography (2004). After describing his concept of ‘levels of consciousness’ – that is, ‘normal’ consciousness, from levels zero to seven, excluding the ‘weird and paradoxical’ level eight of mystical consciousness – Wilson writes, on p354: ‘The above, I believe, gives a fairly complete account of my view of human consciousness and its potentialities.’ (My italics).
Yet on p203 of Alien Dawn he writes: ‘It begins to look as if one of our more basic assumptions – that I am “in here”, inside my head, while the world is “out there”, common to all of us – may be false, or at least simplistic.’ Here, it seems, Wilson was wondering if the distinction he had once made between the two worlds was still valid.
And on p211: ‘But there can be no doubt whatever that this “illusion of normality” causes us to waste our lives and fail to grasp our potentialities. If, instead of this vast facade of triviality that surrounds us, we could become aware of the complex realm that lies on the other side of it, we might stop wasting our lives.’
On p213: ‘So what might be called “UFO reality” would seem to be a realm like alchemy and quantum reality, where two apparently incompatible realities come together. In fact, they are far from incompatible; they only appear to be so because we are trapped in our tunnel vision which assures us that this world is physical and that we are inescapably tied to it. Yet we are always catching glimpses of a larger reality that tells us this is untrue.’
Then, on p231: ‘The truth is that there is no “normal reality” that we all share; there is simply a consensus reality…’ (Wilson’s italics). And on p326: ‘…if an important part of the purpose of these [UFO] phenomena is the effect on us, then that purpose would seem to be to decondition us from our unquestioning acceptance of consensus reality’. (Wilson’s italics).
But consensus reality itself (although a compromised term, as we have seen), let alone anomalous phenomena, can be construed as trying to get our intellects to ask the right questions about ‘reality’, to nudge the ‘unconscious’ mind to reveal deep truths capable of creating the conditions for direct experience of a transcendent reality, and perhaps even its mental nature.
If the goal of creation is the evolution of consciousness to higher levels, then opposing dualities, such as the forces of good and evil (as perceived within ‘consensus reality’) might be there to encourage this evolution. Put another way, as Joseph Campbell (1904-87) says (1988): ‘You are always addressing the transcendent mystery through the conditions of your actual world.’
On p346 of Alien Dawn, Wilson says: ‘We now know there is no such thing as matter. Zero-point energy theory tells us that there is no such thing as empty space, only surging tides of energy. But quantum theory tells us that there is one more vital component in the universe, mind, and that mind seems to be able to somehow freeze waves into particles, or energy into matter.’
Again, in that last sentence, Wilson seems to be near to visualising consciousness, or mind, as primary. Under post-materialist consciousness theory, the ‘energy’ to which he refers, that somehow carries information, can be taken as consciousness itself.
But he continues the paragraph in this way: ‘Mind does not seem to be part of the energy system, but somehow separate from it and above it … This energy somehow carries information, which explains how a psychometrist can “sense” the history of an object.’
Do paranormal and anomalous phenomena have a ‘purpose’, he asks, on p354: ‘That is impossible to say; but one thing is very clear: that their effect is to remind human beings that their material world is not the only reality. We are surrounded by mystery that cannot be understood in terms of scientific materialism. If psychic phenomena have a purpose, it is to wake us up from our “dogmatic slumber”, and galvanise us to evolve a higher form of consciousness.’
Once again, Wilson recognises the limitations of the materialist, or physicalist, standpoint. If, as he says, there are only two ‘pockets’ in philosophy, materialism and idealism, then he must be coming down on the side of the latter.
Let’s ‘flash forward’ for a moment to 2001 and the postscripts to the Phoenix edition of The Outsider where, in reference to H G Wells’ comment that humans were like the first amphibians who dragged themselves out of prehistoric seas and on to the land, Wilson says (p312): ‘The evolution of the human mind means that a new kind of man is coming into being, a man for whom mere physical existence, with its endless coarseness and triviality, is deeply unsatisfactory. Yet he can only spend a short time in the world of the mind, then he becomes tired, and has to return to ordinary physical existence. These “mental travellers” have not yet learned to stand upright. Yet their destiny is quite clearly to walk on two legs in the world of mental reality.’ [My italics].
On p361 of Alien Dawn: ‘… we are living in an “information universe”, where information is somehow encoded into energy, and is accessible to the mind.’ Here again, such ‘energy’ could be construed as consciousness, or mind, itself.
And on the following page, p362: ‘Whatever the explanation [for paranormal and anomalous phenomena], the implications remain the same: that the mind – without knowing it consciously – has some sort of control over the material universe.’
Rather, the mind is the ‘material universe’. Wilson does not modify or comment further on these notions in the new introduction he wrote for the 2010 Llewellyn edition of Alien Dawn.
By way of consolidation of the above, let’s look at some other statements, taken here in chronological order from throughout Wilson’s career, which are also indicative of the extent of his thinking about the nature of consciousness.
* From Beyond the Outsider (p150): ‘The first man to learn the secret of the control of consciousness will be the first true man, wholly in possession of the new dimension of freedom The phenomenological analysis of consciousness is a first step in this direction.’ By this, he means control of consciousness in the individual, not in a universal sense.
* From Introduction to the New Existentialism (p143): ‘If anything is an illusion, it is the present content of our consciousness.’ Here he is referring to the content of ordinary day-to-day consciousness.
* In Mysteries (p629): ‘… human consciousness is developing towards a new recognition: that the way ahead lies through more consciousness, not less.’ (Wilson’s italics). Wouldn’t recognising consciousness as primary and fundamental give rise to a situation in which there was indeed ‘more consciousness’ for us, where we were aware of the ‘whole piano keyboard’? Might we now develop towards a ‘new recognition’ of universal mind?
* And crucially, bearing these questions in mind, we can read the concluding words (p630) of Mysteries in a new light: ‘Human beings will one day recognise, beyond all possibility of doubt, that consciousness is freedom. When this happens, consciousness will cease to suffer from mistrust of its own nature. Suddenly, the “profits” will be clear and self-evident. Instead of wasting most of its energies in retreats and uncertainties and excursions into blind alleys, consciousness will recycle its energies into its own evolution. The feedback point will mark a new stage in the history of the planet earth. When that happens, the first fully human being will be born.’ (Wilson’s italics).
* In Super Consciousness: the Quest for the Peak Experience (p46), he states: ‘In moments of great illumination mystics feel that everything in the universe is connected to us by invisible threads.’
My own view is that each and every one of us is a mythic participant in creation as the universe becomes aware of itself. Discoveries in astronomy, physics, biology, palaeontology and geology have shown we are joined in a complex relationship with our planet, solar system, galaxy and the universe, and that the universe is not a cold or hostile void but that instead the Earth is a focal point where intricate forces have come together and woven the web of life with those ‘invisible threads’, and that the universe is cognising itself through the consciousness of which we are part.
* And on p59 of Super Consciousness: ‘It is vitally important to realise that “ordinary consciousness” is incomplete. In fact, to put it more emphatically, everyday consciousness is a liar’. (Wilson’s italics). The phrase ‘everyday consciousness is a liar’ first appeared in Introduction to the New Existentialism.
Certainly, ordinary human consciousness is incomplete, as Wilson says; it does hide the truth about reality which, in our time, has been tarnished by materialism. Wilson’s lasting legacy is that he made so many of us aware of this, not least by writing primarily and laudably for the general reader and not for a sterile academia.
The key issue he raised, of how we can fulfill the potential of our consciousness, remains of paramount importance. He opened up a path to the destination that ‘completes the partial mind’: the realisation that consciousness in humans hides the truth about itself – that it’s universal and fundamental.
Bibliography & references ..................................................................................................................................................................................
Bentov, Itzhak, Stalking the Wild Pendulum: On the mechanics of consciousness (Wildwood House, 1978)
Campbell, Joseph, The Power of Myth (Doubleday, 1988)
Dossor, Howard F, Colin Wilson: The Man and his Mind (Element Books, 1990)
Elvidge, Jim, Digital Consciousness: A Transformative Vision (Iff Books, 2018)
Gober, Mark, An End to Upside-Down Thinking: Dispelling the myth that the brain produces consciousness, and the implications for everyday life (Waterside Publishing, 2018)
Goswami, Amit, The Self-Aware Universe: How consciousness creates the material world (Tarcher Perigee, 1995)
Grof, Stanislav, Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD research (Viking, 1975)
Grof, Stanislav, The Holotropic Mind: The three levels of human consciousness and how they shape our lives (HarperOne, 1992)
Kastrup, Bernardo, Meaning in Absurdity (Iff Books, 2012)
Kastrup, Bernardo, The Idea of the World: A multi-disciplinary argument for the mental nature of reality (Iff Books, 2019)
Katz, David, The Occult Tradition (Jonathan Cape, 2005)
Mack, John E, Passport to the Cosmos: Human transformation and alien encounters (White Crow Books, 1999)
Spurgeon, Brad, Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism (Michael Butterworth, 2017, first published 2006)
Stanley, Colin, The Ultimate Colin Wilson Bibliography 1956-2015 (Paupers’ Press, 2015)
Wilson, Colin, The Outsider (Phoenix, 2001, first published 1956)
Wilson, Colin, Religion and the Rebel (Ashgrove Press, 1984, first published 1957)
Wilson, Colin, The Strength to Dream (Abacus, 1976, first published 1963)
Wilson, Colin, Eagle and Earwig: Essays on Books and Writers (John Baker, 1965)
Wilson, Colin, Beyond the Outsider (Pan Books, 1966, first published 1965)
Wilson, Colin, Introduction to the New Existentialism (Hutchinson, 1966, retitled The New Existentialism, Wildwood House, 1980)
Wilson, Colin, The Craft of the Novel: The evolution of the novel and the nature of creativity (Ashgrove Press, 1990, first published 1975)
Wilson, Colin, Mysteries (Panther, 1979, first published 1978)
Wilson, Colin, Access to Inner Worlds (Rider, 1983)
Wilson, Colin, Afterlife: An investigation of the evidence for life after death (Harrap, 1985)
Wilson, Colin, The Essential Colin Wilson (Harrap, 1985)
Wilson, Colin, Alien Dawn: An investigation into the contact experience (Virgin Publishing, 1999, first published 1998)
Wilson, Colin, Dreaming to Some Purpose (Century, 2004)
Wilson, Colin, Super Consciousness: The quest for the peak experience (Watkins Publishing, 2009)