Cosmos Café: Irreducible Mind [2/6]



The notion of “consciousness” has played a long and serious role in many of the threads that have manifested on the Infinite Conversations platform. In addition to exploring the subject from creative and artistic perspectives, a series of café sessions have taken place a backdrop that is more philosophic-scientific in nature. The general consensus seems to be that all these varying views can be integrated into a “whole” that allows for deeper insight into and understanding of this particular phenomenon.

Previous readings and discussions have provided the basis for this particular reading. Jean Gebser’s Ever-present Origin takes a deep look at the unfoldment of consciousness in humans as it appears historically. Arthur Young’s Reflexive Universe examined the physical foundations of consciousness in terms of both Newtonian and quantum physics. Stan Tenen’s The Alphabet that Changed the World seeks to portray a science of consciousness by showing the demonstrable relationship between math/science and the Western spiritual tradition based on the text of the Old Testament. The planned future reading of Sri Aurobindo aims to explore this phenomenon from Eastern-spiritual point-of-view. In the course of these reading and related discussions, alternate ways of knowing and here-to-fore anomalous phenomena, such as lucid dreaming, near-death and out-of-body experiences, psi have also been to focus of attention.

Kelly, et al.'s test, Irreducible Mind is a comprehensive attempt to deal with the topics and themes we have been exploring from a strictly psychological perspective, whereby “psychology” in this context is not mere behaviorism nor should it be conceived in purely neuro-cognitive terms, but rather should be understood from a more expansive science of mind point-of-view.

This session will focus on the Introduction and Chapter 1 of the text.

Seed questions

  • What are Kelly and his team proposing? And how do they propose to go about doing it?

  • What do you think is at stake in this proposal? In what ways is it (the same or) different from your current understanding of what psychology is about?

  • How well do you think they are setting the groundwork for what they want to do?

  • What issues arise in your own mind regarding their proposal and approach? Which questions do you think need to be answered in the remainder of the text?

Inputs and backstory stuff

Café sessions

Discussion threads and readings, etc.



  • Kelly, E.F., et al., (2007) Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century, First paperback edition, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Lanham, MD & Plymouth, UK, 2010.



While I’m fully aware that we agreed to read Chapter 1 for our get-together, I can’t help but recommend that we read the Introduction (Chapter 0, if you will) as it provides some essential background to understanding what the authors are trying to do in the book overall.

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In light of my last post (and this one is experimental), I was wondering precisely what you meant, @Geoffreyjen_Edwards: the first chapter in the book (i.e., the Introduction) or Chapter 1 (the first “actual” chapter)?

(Whereby – in the sense of “experimental” above – I’ve answered my own question as to whether it is possible to “quote across threads” … and, yes, it is.)

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Just thought I’d share that as I lay down to read the Introduction to Irreducible Mind last night, my youngest daughter jumped in bed pleading with me to read a book to her.

It’s about a boy who wakes up to find a small, friendly dragon in his room—but when he tells his mom, she replies, “There’s no such thing as dragons.” Yet there it is, in the kitchen, plainly. It even eats all of Billy’s pancakes!

Thing is, every time Billy’s mom says, 'There’s no such thing as dragons," the dragon grows larger…and larger…until finally it’s the size of whole house! At which point, the dragon goes chasing after a bread truck—carrying the house along with it through the neighborhood—because it’s hungry for lunch.

Finally, when Billy’s mom acknowledges the dragon, it shrinks down to little cute dragon size. And everyone lives happily ever after, presumably. The end.

Moral to the story? Let’s discuss on Tuesday :smile:


So, I bought the book (Irreducible Mind) and read the first chapter. I’m happy to take part in a discussion on this, but I warn you in advance, I don’t “buy” the argument. Perhaps it is my turn to play the “curmudgeon”! I get that some of you are exploring this kind of “transmissive” model for human consciousness - @johnnydavis54, you mentioned it in our discussion on the Human Potential the other day. I am a pretty open guy overall, as you all know, but my own theoretical tendencies are closer to Searle (towards whom Kelly is rather dismissive insofar as his ideas about consciousness as emergent are concerned) than Kelly. I agree that Searle’s stance is incomplete - nobody has a complete theory of consciousness right now - but I do not reject the “productive” argument in favour of a different model.

That does not mean, however, that I reject the numinous, out of body experiences, telepathy or other so-called psi phenomena. I don’t have an explanation for these, but I don’t think that they are inconsistent, as Kelly claims, with what I would call the productive-emergent model. For me, the “transmission” model takes us right back into the heart of cartesian mind-body duality, that I personally believe is one of the root causes of much that is wrong with the world today, at least in its popular manifestation (as embedded in western religious thinking, but not so much in what we tend to call eastern religious practices - Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, in particular., but also embedded in much of contemporary ideas about the world). I am open to the idea that I have misread Kelly, but I am not particularly inclined to adopt a cartesian framework any time soon… I find the discussion of the Integral interesting because I believe it might offer an alternative to cartesian approaches, although there are elements of the discussion around the Integral that do worry me (the insistence on the Absolute, for example). But that is maybe a discussion for another time.

I suppose I am worried that our theoretical stances might get in the way of the open discussions we have been having. And maybe I am simply projecting my own fears in saying that. I have so much respect for everyone here. It certainly isn’t necessary that I be involved in every discussion either - I am rather too busy to do so anyway.


Hear! Hear! Love live the Curmudgeon! Why not, dear sir? I’m always glad when there’s someone around that raises objections that can be dealt with (not mere that’s-rubbish-and-we-need-not-discuss-it types that are all to common these days.)

As a kind of “spoiler alert” not everything in Kelley is all that it appears to be. I’m reading the last 10 pages of the tome and, to my small mind, the book depicts a rather interesting and fascinating journey. For example, Henry Stapp (mentioned in the thread on Sri Aurobindo) whom Mohrhoff engaged head-on makes a substantial appearance near the end. So, for those of us who injest the whole tome (or relevant chunks of it), there will definitely have to be a “discussion [at] another time.” Like you, Geoffrey, I was haunted by a number of doubts in the first two chapters, but now, having traversed the scope of the work, I’m in a much better position to start formulating questions, which, in my experience, is a much more productive way forward. (One of the issues that I have with Sloterdijk is that I’ve never been able to get to that question phase.)

As you will recall – being the die-hard hermeneuticist that I am – we cannot approach anything without bringing our theoretical stances with us. They are there whether we like it or not and whether we acknowledge them or not. This is my on-going questioning of fundamental assumptions and presuppositions. What I find most enjoyable about the discussions here is that these become clear over time because, regardless of what they may be or how firmly we may hold them, we actually talk to (not at) and listen to (not just hear) each other. That is what constitutes, for me at least, what I call human interaction, as opposed to personal interaction, whereby “human” in this context means “the person in his humanness (or as the Germans would say, his Menschsein)”, and “personal” is indicative of a kind of “individual personality” (which most often manifests as “someone I agree with”). Or, to put it no anything but Gebserian terms, it’s a whole 'nother level.


I read both, Ed.

I totally agree, Ed. And maybe I’m on a bit of a journey here. That is, from one time to the next, my ideas shift somewhat. One of the alternative scenarios than the two (roughly two) proposed by Kelly as I understand him is the one proposed by Teilhard de Chardin. I know there are problems with the details of his approach, after all it was written almost a full century ago, but he posits the existence of a kind of micro consciousness in all matter at the atomic level, and so emergence arises as these micro consciousnesses come together in more complex ways. I see that stance as intermediate between Kelly and Searle if you like. I’ve always liked his vision of things. It is not, strictly speaking, cartesian, either, although that point might be argued. I am refering to “The Phenomenon of Man”, of course.


I should have more faith in you all, that was a great conversation! I don’t know why I was worried, now! Although maybe acknowledging one’s fears is an important part of the process.

I had a couple of additional comments I wanted to make, but I didn’t want to take “air time” for them. One, the issue of feeling, well, some form of “inadequate” in relation to the discussions about topics such as AI or quantum physics, compared to the “experts”. The thing is, I am not a specialist of either of these topics (although I have done work in both areas), but I do know my way about many of the formalisms (equations, algorithms, etc.) involved. Even for the experts, there are complex issues of interpretation that are distinct from the formalisms themselves. Understanding and being able to manipulate the equations/algorithms when addressing experimental problems is one thing, but situating these things within the broader discourse is another thing altogether. Most scientists don’t do the latter in any kind of systematic way. Usually, those that do are teachers or “vulgarisers” in some sense - trying to present the work to the public. There are discussions on interpretation between scientists, but these are pretty rare actually. So everyone feels “inadequate” to some extent, even the experts! And for quantum physics, the interpretative side is a bit of a mess. Even for AI, there are interpretative issues, e.g. in machine learning. So it is perfectly legitimate to speculate based on the knowledge you do have, it is the only way the discussion can move forward. The same is true about philosophy, of course - the number of people who have read sufficiently in philosophy to be “expert” is not huge to begin with, and even these people will have areas they don’t know so well. I’m sure you know what I am saying, but it bears repeating, I think. In multidisciplinary contexts, it is impossible to know the litterature perfectly. You make do with what you know, you remain humble towards those who might have thought a little bit deeper about a topic than you (these are not necessarily the academics!) and you contribute to moving the conversation forward.

Also, regarding Dennett, Dawkins, et al. I like reading Dennett, even though I strongly disagree with much of what he says. I always like reading people who make strong statements, but you can either agree, or agree to disagree. It’s hard to know how to react to wishy washy statements. Dawkins, too, I like his … pattern thinking, and I find his skepticism refreshing (that problem of separating the worthwhile from the bad), but I disagree with his radical atheism. But you know where he stands on these issues. Concerning the brain, the “embodied cognition” people (that is, not Dennett nor Dawkins, but people like Andy Clarke or Anthony Chemero, Tony Damasio, etc.) refuse to accept that mind corresponds to brain, but view it as corresponding to brain-body-environment, that is, to the entire interaction between self and environment (including other people). This is hardly the “common view” among cognitive scientists, in my opinion. It is a radical perspective, and one closer to the kind of understanding I believe we are struggling to find. Furthermore, in the dualistic paradigm, the only way you can develop a coherent “system” to act within the world is to set up a set of internal “representations” that incorporate information about the world and that are activated during engagement. If you reject the dualistic paradigm, you do not need to assume there are representations “in the head”. Without representations, our understanding of human interaction with the world undergoes a radical restructuring. The idea that the brain includes “representations” has been canon for the past 60 years of cognitive science - the rejection of this mode of understanding is radical and new.

Concerning the set of polarities that are intertwined. Here is a “short” list :

  • mind-body duality (the progenitor duality)
  • body-environment duality,
  • ability-disability duality,
  • representation-interaction duality,
  • objective-subjective duality,
  • brain-body duality,
  • body-self duality,
  • reason-emotion duality,
  • internal-external duality,
  • male-female duality,
  • good-evil duality,
  • body-prosthetic duality,
  • object-field duality,
  • thought-movement duality,
  • category-continuum duality,
  • individual-social duality,
  • human-animal duality ,
  • building-living duality,
  • science-art duality,
  • sign-symbol duality,

It can be argued that all of these are related and are associated with the cartesian mind-body duality. (Regarding Ed’s @achronon comments concerning Descartes, he actually modified his position in his later writings concerning the supposed mind-body duality that we attribute to him. So, indeed, “cartesian duality” is not actually cartesian in the sense of Descartes, but rather a kind of caricature of Descartes!). Given how much these different dualities (or polarities if you prefer) influence our thinking on things, it is hardly surprising that it is difficult to correct this influence. You get better at noticing its presence in one area, but you continue to maintain the dualities in other areas. It is pernicious.


Interesting list, to be sure, and I agree with you there are many, many more.

One of the insights I gained from Gebser was that these polarities are just that … poles along a spectrum. There is, in my mind, no duality involved. They are more like temperature (it can be high or low, but it’s still just temperature) and recognizing they are of one nature but different manifestations of that nature is difficult for many moderns to comprehend. The Mythical structure of consciousness is grounded in the polarity aspect of them.

The Mental structure, or more specifically, it’s deficient form, the Rational structure of consciousness cleaves them apart. It says this is this and that is that and ne’er the twain shall meet. This is what I understand as “duality”. Where there was one, there has now been made to be more than one (artificially … and this can be physical, conceptual, etc.). To then insist on the exclusivity of this separation is, to me, foolish, but we all know people who think that way. They “forget” that they are observing, say, two but they are of the same nature. This is precisely how I understand the Cartesian dualism. When one stops thinking of, say, body and mind as two different entities (of sorts) but instead try to grasp that these are simply different manifestations of the same “something” (I don’t want to get into the essence/substance debate), the world starts looking a bit different than we have been told – especially we, today, by means of our schooling in particular.

It can be helpful, of course, to analytically separate them to exam each aspect in more detail, but at the end of the analyses, it is wise to rejoin them, so to speak, for that’s their natural state of being, if you will. Too many well-known and acknowledged experts in various fields are cleavers-but-not-rejoiners. Fortunately, over the past 20 years or so (to a noticeable extent) there has been a visible shift away from this absolutistic approach, a shift that I certainly welcome, for the simple, selfish reason that it makes my life easier.

You see, I would like to know how things really are, and sometimes, on good days, I actually think I’m getting closer. But, I hasten to add, that this is due in large part to interactions such as our CCafés, but not so much dogmatic pronouncements from people who claim to know.

All of this is not to say that everything’s the same. There are differences, to be sure. Inside is not outside, apples are not oranges, and animals are not vegetables. These kinds of things cannot be thought of as a continuum in the same way the polarities you listed above can be. This is where the notions of analog vs. digital may be helpful (or they may just get in the way). The notion of distinction, however, is helpful in both cases but in different ways.

In the end, very much depends on assumptions we make and what we take for granted at any given point in our lives. These can change (and should) over time, but I can’t help but emphasize that we pay too little attention to them. Some “seekers” try very hard to make theirs explicit up front (Gebser, Young, Tenen, Collingwood, fall into this category), others make them clearer after the fact (e.g. Kelly), still others think theirs are obvious (and I’d put Dawkins, Dennett, the earlier Harris here), and some folks give me the impression that they’d rather hide theirs (e.g., Sloterdijk). For me – and it’s, again, merely a personal preference – I like to know as soon as possible.


A few more comments about the Myers model. Myers felt that there was an upsurge from the Subliminal, through the membrane, to the Supraliminal. It should be remembered he was studying persons who were borderlanders ( not to be confused with borderlines) who were able to hold multiple perspectives and move through different dimensions without amnesia.

There is no unconscious-conscious split in Myer’s model, as with Freud’s model, who used a hydraulics metaphor of super ego looking down upon ego and id and suppressing (displacing) contents from below, in a fragile and hostile top down dynamic, the poor ego caught in the middle.

James and Myers did not assume such hostile forces but a possibility of cooperation. Although not totally benign they did not see the unconscious as a foe that needed to be mastered. The unconscious is not unconscious, but exists along a different bandwidth of the spectrum, which may be invisible for some people, hidden, hence the fluid nature of the Subliminal Self. Both James and Myers saw the Subliminal Self as capable of moving out into the Cosmic range, transparent to the “continuum of Cosmic Consciousness, all minds plunge into a Mother-Sea,” -( James). Freud denied Cosmic Consciousness, calling those that made such reports as suffering from infantile regressions. He was not a transcendent type and he splashed around in the shallow end of the pool.

I am not sure that Andy Clark and AI models are working with borderlanders. I am, however, very drawn to the hand-eye-mind dynamic that many are exploring and that kind of phenomenological first person dynamic is of great interest to me. I do not get the feeling that they are suppressing first person but exploring and blending first person with third person accounts. Dennett and the Churchlands deny that there is a first person perspective, all is illusion. I have heard some scientists claim that there is only third person perspectives! This is too lunatic to be believed and is a hang over from an eliminative materialism that is still treating mind as a an impenetrable black box.

I think Cognitive Psychology, for all of its promises, has stalled. These early AI models are still stuck in a dualistic modeling that is heavily weighted to what the cognition has access to, which it turns out is very little. I think mind as computer is very cliche and needs to be dumped. We are much more like a weather system or a river than we are like software and hardware.

Other metaphors for mind that are on the horizon-a vibrating membrane, a knot, a whirlpool,an ocean of quicksilver, a live theater event with a backstage and an onstage drama.

Thanks again for the stimulating conversational space! I imagine Goethe and Schiller and William James would be pleased. They were doing the same kind of thing that we are. They were experts who didnt trust the experts!


This strikes me as great advice, @Geoffreyjen_Edwards. I confess that I constantly feel inadequate in these conversations—even when I’ve done the reading, I often haven’t done the reading that the reading depends on! This makes me feel that my understanding is humble indeed. Yet I try to make do with what I have. After all, I have my own purposes—and there is no Law of the Universe that says one has to have read everything ever written worth reading to have a good conversation (although it would be nice). As John’s example pointed out, even people who don’t speak the same language can make practical meaning (and develop affection) in true P2P fashion, with their gestures and grunts. The body communicates; the spirit becomes sign, symbol, and meaning through whatever media it can.

(Yet perhaps I carry within me the absurdly unattainable ideal of an inner Borges—to be an eternal custodian of an infinite library who magically knows the whole thing by heart and can refer across the ages, suss the lost voices and revisit the forgotten places, like a London cab driver in a cosmic labyrinth. But that may not be my character to play. If anything, I am taking the cab on a joyride. Or I am plotting an escape from the maze. Or quite likely, I am just very confused and winging it in the Cosmos—another refugee from the City of God, waiting for his Uber-mensch to arrive. :oncoming_taxi: :boom:)

Regarding minds and :brain: :brain: :brain:, I really think Kelly is making a radical claim, which is not just a refinement upon the ‘biological naturalism’ of Searle that he goes along with to a point, but analogous to Augustine’s argument for the spiritual body versus the animal one. There is a whole theology of difference, obviously; Kelly is a scientist, not a church father—but I suspect that Kelly’s claim for the “irreducibility of mind” is equivalent to a fundamental ontological openness on the order of the “spiritual body”—which could be called a priori, but not un-empirical. I would argue that the ‘world’ of this spiritual body includes but also transcends that described any of the particular sciences. This is why the trans-disciplinary movement is important. We need a dialogical universe which is not a priori circumscribed by object-oriented methodology to make the necessary grunts and gestures needed on a human level at this time.

I recognize that’s a big jump theoretically—but it’s really a jump out of time. Searle still sees the ‘brain’ preceding the ‘mind’ in time. A brain has to exist before a mind can. The mystical perspective (of Augustine, Gebser, Kelly, even Sloterdijk I would argue, divergent as these thinkers are otherwise) is not operating within the same temporal (object-oriented, mental/rational) framework. It has a completely different conscious orientation, namely, to the whole. Yet exactly what the whole IS, is a mystery—it’s not that we can’t know it scientifically, but that its incoherent to try. The whole has more to do with concealing/revealing through its parts. Science can happen in a revelatory universe, and flourish here—but it has a different purpose. Time is treated differently. And it’s keen to cultivate “alternate ways of knowing,” naturally, because there is so much to be known. And “knowing” is more like a dance than it is like hammering the final nail into the coffin of a theory.

Will our quantum computers be inherently capable of modeling paradox? That would be good. We’ll need Tetralema processors if we are to compute the Divine. The superliminal self might have a better sense of what’s at stake in these debates. My growing sense is that if the Spiritual is really real, then we have nothing to fear from the machines.


Agreed. I don’t fear the machines … my trepidation is toward the people who are programming them.


Good comment but I disagree with this statement. Everything depends on the scale of the “whole” within which apparently separate items exist. Apples and oranges in some frames are not opposites ore completely unrelated at all. There are beings who are not easily classified into either animal or plant, and are either both or…? Life forms are on a spectrum and all are related. Who came up with the categories? Pole-perceiving human beings made them up and find it hard to see beyond them to underlying connections. Distinction is useful and addictive. Now is the time to go deeper into the spectrum metaphor, nested wholes, and the like, don’t you think?


Yes, I do think so, deep down, but at this point in my answer I merely wanted to highlight where distinction can be useful, and perhaps (at least temporarily) necessary. I agree it can be addictive, for precisely the reason you give: it depends on the scale of the “whole”. I appreciate you highlighting this.

What’s perhaps nagging me (for the paragraph you comment on almost didn’t make the final cut of my answer, but the answer as it was seemed to me incomplete), in the back of my mind, is what can simply be called for now “discontinuity”, though I sense that is more process that structure related. Things like Planck’s quantum of energy or death. It doesn’t seem to me that they can be scaled.


Video and audio are up!

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Love those metaphors! Maybe add a musical metaphor to that list? I was just writing about improv as an aspect of a sort of grand spiritual- Meta-metaphor …
Thanks for the rich reply.

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The great battle between Freud and Jung around the paranormal. This is verbatim from Jung’s memoir.


Yes! The four of you (the new four horsemen? Maybe Headless horsemen, as you will see below :point_down:) went on the same journey in this conversation, as do I, daily. One moment I am meeting @johnnydavis54 in my dreams, ready to save the world…the next, I am slicing brain matter for the answer. This is a difficult topic and I have nothing to add. If pursuing further, a tour guide would be necessary for this blown mind.

So…guess I do have a couple additions to (mostly) irrelevant connections:

@madrush mentioned his satori moment. This reminded me of Harding’s On Having No Head, the “whats happening all around” …maybe it ties into this conversation.

Excerpt from Harding's book

Somehow or other I had vaguely thought of myself as inhabiting this house which is my body, and looking out through its two little round windows at the world. Now I find it isn’t like that at all. As I gaze into the distance, what is there at this moment to tell me how many eyes I have here - two, or three, or hundreds, or none? In fact, only one window appears on this side of my facade, and that one is wide open and frameless and immense, with nobody looking out of it. It is always the other fellow who has eyes and a face to frame them; never this one.

There exist, then, two sorts - two widely different species - of human being. The first, of which I note countless specimens, evidently carries a head on its shoulders (and by “head” I mean an opaque and coloured and hairy eight-inch ball with various holes in it) while the second, of which I note only one specimen, evidently carries no such thing on its shoulders. And until now I had overlooked this considerable difference! Victim of a prolonged fit of madness, of a lifelong hallucination (and by “hallucination” I mean what my dictionary says: apparent perception of an object not actually present), I had invariably seen myself as pretty much like other people, and certainly never as a decapitated but still living biped. I had been blind to the one thing that is always present, and without which I am blind indeed - to this marvelous substitute-for-a-head, this unbounded clarity, this luminous and absolutely pure void, which nevertheless is - rather than contains - all that’s on offer. For, however carefully I attend, I fail to find here even so much as a blank screen on which these mountains and sun and sky are projected, or a clear mirror in which they are reflected, or a transparent lens or aperture through which they are viewed - still less a person to whom they are presented, or a viewer (however shadowy) who is distinguishable from the view. Nothing whatever intervenes, not even that baffling and elusive obstacle called “distance”: the visibly boundless blue sky, the pink-edged whiteness of the snows, the sparkling green of the grass - how can these be remote, when there’s nothing to be remote from? The headless void here refuses all definition and location: it is not round, or small, or big, or even here as distinct from there. (And even if there were a head here to measure outwards from, the measuring-rod stretching from it to that mountain peak would, when read end-on - and there’s no other way for me to read it - reduce to a point, to nothing.) In fact, these coloured shapes present themselves in all simplicity, without any such complications as near or far, this or that, mine or not-mine, seen-by-me or merely given. All twoness - all duality of subject and object - has vanished: it is no longer read into a situation which has no room for it.

Opening quote in @achronon’s referenced Merlin Donald book Origins of the Modern Mind (wouldn’t mind hearing more about this one):

Dylan Thomas, "In the Beginning," 1934

In the beginning was the mounting fire
That set alight the weathers from a spark,
A three-eyed, red-eyed spark, blunt as a flower;
Life rose and spouted from the rolling seas,
Burst in the roots, pumped from the earth and rock
The secret oils that drive the grass.

In the beginning was the word, the word
That from the solid bases of the light
Abstracted all the letters from the void;
And from the cloudy bases of the breath
The word flowed up, translating to the heart
First characters of birth and death.

…looks like we’re back at the beginning, again.

And, since @madrush didn’t explain the moral to the dragon story here’s this guy’s version (originally I wanted to post it last week but didn’t want to ruin the vibe)


When I started watching this, I thought that Jordan Peterson was channelling @johnnydavis54, but then he turned it into a psychology lesson and I was less impressed. Not that I don’t think the psychology is important, I just think that the story is not “merely” an allegory, as Peterson would have us believe, but that it is also magical in other ways (more akin to Tolkien’s fairy stories - Tolkien who disliked allegories).


Donald’s book or Thomas’ poem? (The colon is confusing me, but perhaps it’s just a typo. :face_with_raised_eyebrow:)

As for Donald’s Origins of the Modern Mind, I found it a well-thought through attempt to somehow explain the difference, psychologically (mentally, cognitively) between the great apes and humans. Unlike some in this area who are willing to ignore the difference, Donald fully acknowledges that the 2%-DNA-difference between our nearest simian cousins and human beings can’t be explained merely in biological-evolutionary terms. Darwin can be very helpful in a lot of long-arc developmental areas (bipedal locomotion, increase in cranial capacity, anatomical structure of the larynx are significant but not necessarily causal in the way Darwinians would have us believe) , but this isn’t one of them. As a result, he takes a closer look – tying it in where possible to archaelogical, anthropological and biological data – at the how we got cognitively where we are today.

He posits three great shifts based on a common starting point; that is, something we share with the apes, namely episodic culture. This is the ability to form species-wide patterns of behavior due to the ability to perceive and remember events; that is, memory representation is at the level of event representation. He spends most of the rest of the book describing three transitions which describe our evolutionary separation from the apes and our individual species’ development since then.

These three transitions are from Episodic to Mimetic culture, from Mimetic to Mythic culture, and from Mythic to External Symbolic Storage and Theoretic Culture. The first of these is based on the developed ability to mimic and to pass on to others. Living in the present moment is one way he describes this. Things like pointing and gesturing, which are unique to humans, play a significant role, especially in light of the fact that at that time the physiology of our hominoid ancestors would most likely have prohibited the development of fully functional speech (sound formation to a degree that phonemes (meaning-bearing sound) could appear. Over time and in conjunction with, but not necessarily driven by, physiological changes (cranial capacity, larynx, etc.) human beings begin to narratize their memories; they develop spoken language and stories (in the widest sense of the word) become the repository of their mental representations. This culminates in myths. The final transition (though it may not be the last, Donald is more interested in how we got to where we are than in where we are going) is Theoretic culture. We develop writing (and he spends a lot of time talking about writing systems and their development) and externalizing our memories. This is accompanied by an increasing degree of abstraction. Myth is more or less past oriented, whereas theory is moving toward future-orientation. This last transition, he notes, took place without commensurate biological-evolutionary changes.

It is a challenging read, but clearly presented and well-argued. He is very careful with his speculations and he is continually looking for “hard” data to correlate his description of “soft” developments (i.e. the overlap between brain and cognition). His description of the shift from Episodic to Mimetic culture is even more interesting when compared to Tallis’s deriving of humanness from the physiological structure of the hand (in his The Hand: A Philosophical Inquiry into Human Being). They come to very similar conclusions from different paths. The transition to Mythic culture is an interesting addition to what we have heard about gesturing from Tenen and the Meru work. Donald’s description of the shift to Mythic and Theoretic culture are a thought-provoking addendum to Gebser’s model of consciousness unfoldment as well.

What Donald provides here, I think, is an argument that expands the background to a lot of the topics and themes that we have been describing here over the course of the past year or so. So, if you’re interested in more background, this is a worthy read.

And now, as to Thomas: ever since I’ve been exposed to the Meru work, that poem has taken on a whole new character. What did Thomas tap into?