Consciousness from Zombies to Angels: The Shadow and the Light of Knowing Who You Are

Consciousness from Zombies to Angels: The Shadow and the Light of Knowing Who You Are

Christian de Quincey
Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press, 2009. 304 pp., paper, $18.95.

The quest to understand human consciousness might be compared to a treasure hunt, but I like to think of it more as a butterfly chase. The problem, of course, is that it's a case of human consciousness chasing itself, and so we are immediately faced with a quandary the poet Lew Welch described as groping around in the dark looking for a flashlight when all you need the flashlight for is to find your flashlight. And so if you plan to go after the darkling prize of human consciousness, you better have a good net. To that end, Christian de Quincey recommends we turn to philosophy. His latest book presents a compelling, albeit quirky, case for using it to outfit consciousness in order to catch itself.

De Quincey, a professor of philosophy and consciousness studies at John F. Kennedy University, has written what he calls a "step-by-step 'owner's guide'" for the mind. In the opening pages, he offers a caveat: "Reading this book is likely to challenge some of your basic assumptions about who you are, about the world you live in, and how it all fits together." Indeed, this book could very well unsettle some of its readers, but all of them are in for a bracing ride as de Quincey navigates the foaming waters at the confluence of science, philosophy, and spirituality. In response to the central question”"what is consciousness and how does it work in the world?"”he offers "seven steps to transforming your life." This smacks a bit too much of self-help gimmickry, but, thanks to the author's depth of knowledge and intellectual rigor, the book manages to succeed nevertheless.

The volume is divided into three main sections, each focused on a different mode that human beings use to know themselves and the world. De Quincey refers to these ways of knowing as "gifts," three distinct epistemological styles that he gathers under the headings of philosophical, scientific, and mystical. The first two sections lay the groundwork. Part one"The Philosopher's Gift"provides a succinct review of some key philosophical problems that confront anybody who delves into the nature of consciousness, not the least of which is the problem of language. De Quincey also touches on the problems of "other minds" (i.e., it's not "all about me"), the mind-body connection, and free will versus determinism. The considerably lengthier part two, titled "The Scientist's Gift," examines what contemporary science has to say about that marvelous "three-pound universe," the human brain. Following in the footsteps of Carl Jung, de Quincey uses "the physical sciences not to explain the psyche but as a potentially rich source of metaphors."

This is exactly what happens in the heart of the book, part three"The Mystic's Gift"wherein chaos theory supplies de Quincey with analogies to convey his central purpose: to encourage as many people as he can to embark on the journey of spiritual transformation, which he says leads ultimately to "a realm beyond all language, beyond all concepts and ideas, and even beyond distinction between knower and known." An ample body of spiritual literature from both East and West suggests he is on to something here. The book is most engaging when pondering the role of "attractors," a term used in chaos theory to refer to the tendency of a system to fall spontaneously into a pattern. In de Quincey's hands, the attractor becomes a metaphor of wide applicability, suggesting how we are able to distill meaning from apparent meaninglessness. Consider the unavailing routine of everyday life. Unavailing? Not in de Quincey's view. "Our lives follow these swirling paths carved out by our own sets of strange attractors, swirling around a multiplicity of basinsfor example, family, friends, work, church, club, hobby, pets, stores, politics, education, entertainment, media, and on and on. And with every strange attractor, we usually have nested systems of other strange attractors, many competing at cross-purposes. Think of all the goals, desires, wishes, and fears that drive us and orient our lives in different ways. Together, they all couple and merge to form the all-encompassing strange attractor that is our life." It would be difficult to find a clearer and more pertinent description of the mysterious causes and conditions that give rise to the extraordinary ordinariness of our daily lives.

Though nowhere does de Quincey mention the venerable William James, his book is very much indebted to James's tradition of generous-hearted, pragmatic spirituality. At one point, he echoes James's famous image of the stream of consciousness: "Let me be clear: When I use the word thought I mean an idea abstracted from the ongoing flow of experience." Other times he reminds me of Gary Zukav, and every once in a while of Alan Watts. Unfortunately, de Quincey is occasionally less than felicitous in his expression, as when we encounter passages that in their breeziness border on platitude: "We are active, voting shareholders in the cosmic corporation, cocreating the very next moment. Let's make it a good one." "You are not who you think you are." "Everything is connected to everything elsealways." Sentences such as these fall short of the lofty goal de Quincey sets for himself and his readers: to get beyond "the narrow prism of the ego." Shopworn expressions won't do it. Nevertheless, a good deal of common-sense counsel and indeed wisdom run throughout the book.

Despite the maladroit moments, De Quincey serves as a companionable guide through some dense philosophical thickets, and he seems aware of his own limitations as a writer. "In places, my tone and style have been ironic, even irreverent. But my intentions have been serious throughout. I wanted to engage you, to appeal to your mind and your heart; for you to realize and appreciate with me the stupendously simple and profound gift of being that we are and have. What a privilege just to be alive, just to existand to be able to know and enjoy it!" In the end, this book catches no butterflies, but that was never its author's intention. He sets you up to do it for yourself.

John P. O'Grady

John P. O'Grady's latest contribution to Quest was "Shadow Gazing: On Photography and Imagination" in the Fall 2009 issue.