Thursday, January 15, 2015

Bottom-up v. Top-down

I discovered Carl Gustav Jung just after I had passed my nineteenth year—and Frederic W.H. Myers as I’m approaching my seventy-ninth. Clearly Jung captured the attention of elements of my generation much more effectively than Myers. Jung was the worthy adversary (to use a phrase from Castaneda) of Sigmund Freud. Myers was associated chiefly with parapsychology as a founder of the Society for Psychical Research, an activity in shadows. Yet now I realize that the younger Jung (born 1875 versus Myers’ birth-year of 1843) owed an enormous debt to Myers. One doesn’t have to look hard or very long to discover the grounding ideas in Jung’s psychology fully developed in Myers and already published when Jung was just a little boy. Myers had the subconscious, which he called the subliminal mind; he also maintained the idea that the subliminal mind’s powers were greater and much wider than that of the conscious mind; finally, like Jung later, he also imagined the conscious mind as a subset of total consciousness or, to use Jung’s phrasing, as a small island floating in a sea of superior consciousness.

Myers had formulated this idea to explain anomalous phenomena in human behavior and experience—all those experiences we now label as paranormal. His views were in part shaped by the rise in evolutionary thought. Darwin was 34 years older than Myers and Myers 32 years older than Jung. Myers reached out to evolution in attempts to explain paranormal powers in humans; it seemed sensible to view them, in his time, as emerging by means of an evolutionary process. Evolution was in the air, you might say. Thus Myers’ explanation made use of a bottom-up model. To be sure, Myers was something of a genius; as his knowledge advanced he also came to see that what was bubbling up from beneath the threshold (subliminally) also at times seemed to come down from above the waking consciousness. But, in effect, he set the stage for a not-quite materialistic psychology which had a bottom-up framing. Start of the twentieth century.

At the start of the twenty-first, Myers is once more rising into prominence but, curiously, as a champion of a top-down theory of psychology. That theory is that the mind is irreducible to matter and must therefore in some sense either transcend matter or belong to another radically different order. (See this post on Irreducible Mind here.) Myers’ work supports that thesis because his exhaustive review of the empirical evidence for the veridical character of paranormal phenomena had already effectively undermined materialist monism back at the tail of the nineteenth century. But nobody paid it any mind. Materialism was rising like a gusher based on technological success. By the twenty-first century, despite being ignored, evidence for the paranormal had greatly increased.

It occurs to me that cycles in civilization also tend to be either bottom-up or top-down in orientation. Modernity is bottom up—whether it is in explaining reality by studying matter or ruling collective by democratic means. The age that came before was top-down in looking up towards an invisible Creator. I’ve slowly come to feel that beginning roughly in the 1820s a transition back from bottom-up to top-down began with the decay of Western civilization. Myers occupies a kind of midway point in this transition. It is not surprising, therefore, that his labors are equally useful in the support both modes of thought. He saw the one nearing its end and foresaw the other rising. These processes, needless to say, do not take place on a human time scale. Reading the papers I see a total conviction that we’re only beginning to build the Tower of Siloam. The sky’s really the limit. Poets see only cracks (link).

1 comment:

  1. How very interesting!

    This sheds some light, for me, on a comment you made last night, a suggesting really, about telling myself certain things before I sleep... Thanks, for the suggestion, this post and the introduction to the book Irreducible Mind.

    I look forward to borrowing it.