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Derek Best has contributed to several publications, including Macleans Magazine Canada, and Omni Magazine, USA. He is has also produced many documentary films for Television. For many years, he has been interested in A Course in Miracles, a metaphysical thought system, and maintains the official website for that organization. "ACIM", he says "is central to my personal way of seeing the world." This site is strictly personal however. Derek has an eclectic range of interests, and writes about them here as the mood strikes him.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Better Living Through Chemistry

if you could take one pill a month to create a state of perfect peace of mind, would you do it?

This is the problem on my mind these days . It is not really a new question – just a different form of an old question. In philosophy there is a hypothetical situation called “the brain in the vat” . It's called a “thought experiment” because clearly a real-life experiment that involves extracting people's brains and keeping them alive and conscious in laboratories is unthinkable and undo-able. But that doesn't prevent us thinking about it. The classic brain in a vat questions are:

• How do we know we are not just brains in a vat, wired to receive virtual sensory experience of a virtual universe?

• If we are just brains in a vat then can we really know anything for certain? Of course we know what we believe to be true, based on our experience, but can we ever know if it is not all an illusion.

This also is not really an original question. It seems like a high-tech re-stating of Descartes question … how do we know that everything we experience is not just the product of an evil demon who systematically contrives to deceive us and control all our experience?

There have been answers to this problem over the years but none really satisfactory. Descartes' famous answer “I think therefore I am” is easily shown to be invalid. The lingering doubt on the issue has inspired a lot of fiction; the “Matrix” series comes to mind of course, and numerous other sci-fi oriented works. In human consciousness there has always been a running undercurrent of doubt about what is “real” and what is just a dream. Consider this Chinese story from the 4th century BC:

Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction!

I had a variation of this problem presented to me in an ethics course. If you could “plug-in” your brain (like in the Matrix ) and experience a completely convincing (but virtual) life of happiness and fulfillment, would you do it?

In all of these problems you have to unclutter yourself of the practical considerations like “What if there was a power failure?” or “Who are the beings that run this experiment?” Only the central core issue is under consideration, and it boils down to this --- Would you be satisfied with perfect happiness? Now I know you are going to say – No, because it's not real. But you have to accept the completeness of the illusion. Your happiness would be complete, which means by definition you could not be aware of any falseness or risk or impermanence. If you were, you would not be happy. Certainly you are aware of the falseness now, in your present state, but after you plugged in, you would not be in your present state. Or perhaps you would be completely aware of your “wired” situation, but perhaps the nature of the perfect peace that awaits you is – it doesn't bother you! Isn't that what peace of mind is? Seek not to change the world but choose to change your mind about the world (A Course In Miracles)

Moving on – the problem resurfaces in Huxley's Brave New World. In this utopian world, war and poverty have been eliminated and everyone is permanently happy, thanks to a government provided medication: Soma,” described in the book as having:

All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects

Admittedly Soma is short-lived, has undesirable side effects, etc. But Huxley was writing social satire and fiction. He had to introduce the notion of the high cost of happiness to satisfy the morals of his readers. Let's not forget that Huxley was himself a great advocate of better living through chemistry in his writings about mescaline.

There is no qualitative difference between wiring our brain with electrodes to stimulate and simulate perfect happiness, and using chemicals to do the same thing. Neither is technologically possible at this time, but both can be interchanged in the thought experiment. So I ask again: if you could take one pill a month to create a state of perfect peace of mind, would you do it?

Let me address some doubts you may have. No the pills have no toxic side-effects. No, no-one will rob your house or rape your daughters while you are under the influence. No, your mortgage won't be foreclosed. No, your life will not be shorter – in fact as long as you keep taking the pills you will live forever. No you won't have to pay for them, ever. No, people won't think you're a junkie, everybody else will be taking them too.

You ask: who will run businesses? Who will fly planes? Who will grow crops? Who will educate our children? Who will pay the mortgage? What about Me ? What happens to me and who I am and my position and privileges in this world? You haven't grasped it yet. Who needs business, because who needs money? Who needs planes? Why fly anywhere when you are perfectly content right here? Who needs crops? Who needs food? You have perfect peace of mind. That must mean that hunger is not an issue. Food is a desire, and peace of mind and desire cannot co-exist. What is the point of education? Why should anyone want to better themselves if they are perfectly at peace. How can you be better than perfect? Mortgages? Houses? These things provide shelter and security don't they? But in a state of perfect peace, what need have you for security? There can be no such thing as insecurity. What is there to shelter from? As for you and your identity, you and your specialness are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Take the pill and feel them dissolve away, and become one with the universe. Perfect everlasting peace and happiness and contentment. Eternal Joy and love and oneness and brotherhood. Just one free pill a month.

If that's too much trouble – would you do it if it was just one pill a year? How about just one pill. Period. Ever. Why not? Too busy writing the mortgage checks? If you are at all like me you will experience a kind of moral disdain about the whole thing. It runs contrary to a deeply ingrained Calvinistic work ethic, it invokes a sense of “too good to be true,” and most of all it is impossible to see it as real . In other words it seems fake, phony, contrived. Even though we may be assured that once immersed in the experience it will be completely real, and all our present doubts or problems will be just a distant dream. We still resist it based on our present mindset. We still wonder if we will be only dreaming we are butterflies, but on some level know we are really still us. Or just the opposite -- that we will dream we are butterflies so convincingly we lose touch with the "real" us.

Think about your answer. Then think about the line from A Course In Miracles that says:

Knowledge is not the goal of this Course, peace is.

Now do you see where I'm going? This is a core concept of the Course. If I accept the pill of Jesus then I'm told all this earth and all my earthly cares melt away and become meaningless, and I will have perfect peace and happiness. But will it be real? Or is it just a pill. I've seen a lot of videos of pentecostal services where the congregation was clearly in a state of rapture. In my arrogance and superiority I have snickered at them, thinking how easily they are deceived, and they will wake up one day with a hangover and find the mortgage unpaid. But why is my Jesus any different? Why is my pill any different? Why is my brain-vat any different? And most importantly who is to say I am not already in that vat?


Anonymous marian said...

Ooooh Derek, you do not disappoint after your long absence! Great question. I have to go to work. I will ponder and respond later.

7:54 AM  
Anonymous marian said...

Now I'm AT work, and I can see that I'll have to deal with this before I let myself do anything else!

First of all, the real vs. not real business. As long as there is perception, there is not reality. Perception implies duality, which means, Yup, we're still asleep and dreaming. So in that sense neither the butterfly nor the human are real.

Within the dream, in which we believe we are these individual bodies with individual minds, there is no difference between my Jesus, the Course Jesus, Pat Robertson's Jesus, or Homer Simpson's Jebus.

They are all symbols, because *we* are all symbols and we are incapable, within the dream, with the minds we have, of understanding anything without the use of a dualistic symbol.

So your question would be the same as asking, "Which coffee is the real coffee?" The answer is they are all appearing within the dream—none of them are real—and the question is an ego-distraction meant to keep you from seeing the real problem.

The Jesus of the Course is a symbol for a mind-state. It's a mind state of which we are very frightened when we are identified with the ego, because it means the *end* of the ego, and the remembrance of a larger, more encompassing Self, in the same way that when you awaken from a dream you remember who you "really" are.

Whether or not that Self is our final permutation is not anything we can know or understand with the minds we have.

Nor is there any necessity for letting go of what we now believe to be real if we are still enjoying it or if we *think* we are enjoying it. Why would we?

It's only when you get to a point where you say to yourself, okay, that's enough pain, that the ego no longer seems to be a friend in any way.

At that point the shift occurs on its own—for some suddenly—for others, like me, gradually, by being vigilant in awareness of the ego, choosing against it, and forgiving the projected dream.

Asking the thinking, judging, discriminating, word-based 'mind of separation' to define a state of inner peace is like asking Dick Cheney to describe what it's like being the Dalai Lama. There are bound to be a few distortions.

9:50 AM  
Blogger Simon said...

Dammit, Derek, you make that smug sense of superiority over others impossible to maintain! And the question you ask is so simple but so loaded. At least from my initial perspective. (Marian prompted me to come here, and since she's the sort of lovely gal who talks about "Homer Simpson's Jebus", who am I that I can refuse her?!)

I want to come back and see if I can say something, but it might be a week or so since this version of me that I'm currently nearly convinced I AM is going on vacation for a spell. In the meantime though, Marian's response certainly seems sort of spot-on, doesn't it?

10:12 AM  
Blogger Derek said...

Thank you for your kind comment, Maid Marian. I feel that after you have reflected on it a bit more you will be dissatisfied with your own answer. (Especially you - because I know you have a sharp mind.) It seems to me that you are doing what I tend to do which is - retreat into dogma as a palliative measure against uncertainty. That's fine, but it's called "faith." The rabbit-hole seems deeper than that... D.

10:16 AM  
Anonymous marian said...

Well, okay, I'll take another look later on, but I don't know, seems to me we're getting into the kind of territory where if there's an intellectual argument that can go further, I may actually not be as smart as you think I am, if you can believe that.

(Here she whines a little and whispers, "but I LIKE faith.")

12:05 PM  
Blogger Derek said...

... but I can say I *like* pills. I think the question is; is one more real than the other?

2:33 PM  
Anonymous marian said...

Okay, I think I see what you are getting at (although I'm still not certain).

To me, accepting the teachings of the Course doesn't require any faith. I don't "believe in" Jesus or the Holy Spirit or feel that it requires me to accept them as figures in any way. That would require a type of faith that I'm not able to muster.

I need at least *some* experiential evidence, and the "way" of the Course jives completely with what I've already experienced in own life and my own mind. So in that sense I'm taking nothing on faith.

To me the Course is about method, in the way Buddhism is about method. It's about a method of decreasing suffering and harmfulness by looking at what is actually happening in my own mind.

Although I have nothing against doing so, at this point I cannot say for a fact that what I experience in relation to the Course is "Jesus," nor do I feel that my work with the Course so far is hampered by the lack of this experience, although it would supposedly be easier for me if the opposite were true.

That said, I would not take the pill OR worship Jesus, even if there were limitless peace in the offing. Obviously both the pill and Jesus, taken in the context you talk about, mean giving power to the projection, rather than the projector, the mind.

My experience has been that if I do that, I do it alone, and I need to defend my position in some way. It is more "one or the other" thinking. I prefer the Course's "together or not at all."

On another level I guess I'd also have to say that given a choice between awareness and peace, I would choose awareness.

If peace is not what I AM, when the layers of ego-tumult are stripped away, then why would I want it? And how would I share it?

Let me know if I'm STILL not understanding what you are getting at.

7:04 AM  
Anonymous K. said...

Derek -- a very interesting question. I get the impression that you are using the word "Jesus" in its iconic sense, so what you are asking is really very perceptive. Another way of phrasing the same question might be: "What constitutes an acceptable modality or methodology for attaining salvation?" If we accept the Course's teaching that there are "many thousands" of versions of the universal curriculum, we might have an inbuilt prejudice against shortcuts. The word "curriculum" tends to imply long hard study, not swallowing pills. But prejudices are dangerous. Certainly some paths we pursue may be false, but others that we resist or ignore due to prejudice may be true. If we pre-judge, and stipulate there must be some kind of correspondence between the path we adopt, and our current ideas about theology and the nature of perfect peace, then the prescription we adopt is always our own wrong-minded prescription. This is why paths that "make sense" or "feel good" often are not necessarily true paths.
The main intellectual objection to swallowing pills is: it is magic. That is true in the strict sense of the word that the body and the world and all the madness are still here; we have not eradicated the problem at source. But that is only to the external observer who is still trapped in the illusion. One could theoretically raise the same objection about re-uniting with God through practicing forgiveness (the basic aim of the Course). To the external observer, the holy saint is still "here." Clearly this moves into a territory of very difficult and wondrous metaphysics. We will presumably never understand this, this side of Heaven.

11:14 PM  
Anonymous marian said...

"But that is only to the external observer who is still trapped in the illusion."

Thanks, K.

9:26 AM  
Blogger Derek said...

Maid Marian,
My own view is that when someone says I don't accept a thought system on faith, or I need evidence before I believe it, or it has to match what I experience --- these are assertions of faith. They are a faith in empiricism (or something similar). Faith usually seems to express itself as comfort-level. I believe we all have a faith in something. As I have said before, even the aetheist has a profound faith in nothing, and that is his "something".
I think in trying to decide about a chemical salvation we are all afraid it would not really work. But that is to change the terms of the hypothetical problem. The problem is not - would it work? The problem is - would we accept it? Would we do it? We must accept the assurance that if we did, we would be every bit as much in an authentic state of peace as if we used any other, more traditional method... That is the nature of the question. It is interesting don't you think, how many reasons, objections, and rationalizations people can come up with for not taking a pill. Is there any real difference between all these objections and all those people constantly raise about practicing the Course, or any other demanding form of spirituality that offers salvation. You know the kind of stuff I mean: "I don't want to become part of God, because I'm due for a raise soon, and anyway who would walk my dog for me?"
And yes, thank you K. for understanding the iconic context of the term Jesus. In a frail fabricated universe of symbols, why should "Jesus" be an exception?

6:45 PM  
Anonymous marian said...

Yes, I have faith in empiricism, so in that sense, following any spiritual path requires that it meet my rather relaxed standards for empirical evidence, eventually.

The way I figure it, if we can't use our own common sense and senses on a basic level to judge pain and harm vs. less pain and harm, then we're well and truly fucked.

But I'm not sure I buy the whole "fear it wouldn't work" thing. I have to think about that...

I did a post about this on my own blog where I think it through a bit more. You are cordially invited to go over there and make trouble for me, darling.

7:12 AM  
Anonymous Jessica said...

Thought you'd like to know a small group of us here in Cambridge study ACIM and we always read your blog, even if it's not about the course. You would probably laugh if you knew how many late night arguments you've started. Keep writing Derek. A lot of Acim stuff is very pedestrian and "how-to." We mostly think that's contrary to the spirit of it. Your ideas often seem a bit outrageous but always luminary. Thanks.
Jessica. Cambridge UK.

1:35 PM  
Anonymous Robin said...

Derek it sounds like you have never read Putnam's refutation of the brain in the vat?

1:48 PM  
Blogger Derek said...

Robin; I've read a great deal about it, including several critiques, but no - I have never actually read the original. If your question is meant as a subtle hint that my logic is deficient, then let me save you the trouble and publicly confess MY LOGIC IS DEFICIENT!!!
From my limited understanding the problem with Putnam's argument is, it is circular and semantic and unsatisfactory. Worse - by extension it seems to impliy that we are incapable of accurately speulating about our true situation WHATEVER IT IS, (brain in vat, spirit in material world, mind-of-God in a mad-dream, etc.) for the same language-based reasons.
I do admit my understanding of Putnam may be incomplete. But what is more important to me is -- none of this changes the basic problem posed, which is - IF instant salvation were offered, would you take it, and why, or why not?
By the way Robin -- are you the Robin I know from Massachusetts?

5:45 PM  
Anonymous Robin said...

Derek. No I'm not in Massachusets I'm in Toronto Canada. I see your point that Putnam etc are beside the point but I was just curious to know if you'd read it. It all reminds me a bit of the old joke about the out of work actor who was starving and sick and homeless etc, and when asked why he didn't take a job, he said "what - and give up show business?" I think on the whole people are most unwilling to give up what they know, however appealing the alternative might sound. People only go for the alternative if it doesn't challenge their current credibility or comfort level, mental or physical, however pitiful.

12:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The course in a pill. I'll take two just to make sure I don't fall back to sleep.

10:50 AM  


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