Toward a Jewish Theology of Consciousness

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Toward a Jewish Theology of Consciousness

by Steven Gotlib

Quote:The mystery of consciousness has long vexed philosophers and scientists alike. Can God be the answer?

Quote:The mystery of consciousness has long vexed philosophers and scientists alike. Attempting to explain the conscious experience has proven to be quite difficult. David Chalmers famously noted that much of the work on the subject confronts “easy” problems (how does our brain work?) but has made little to no progress on the “hard problem of consciousness”—i.e. why is all this internal processing accompanied by an inner experience? This essay will briefly explore the three most popular responses to the hard problem of consciousness—dualism, materialism, and panpsychism[1]—in conversation with the Jewish tradition. 

Quote:This recognition of the illusion of self that overlays a universal consciousness is
actually quite familiar to Judaism. The Tanya (Sefer Shel Beinonim, 33), for example, writes as follows: 

Quote:Yet another means of leading one’s soul to true joy, especially at those specific times when one finds it necessary to purify his soul and illuminate it with a gladness of heart: Let him then think deeply and picture in his intellect and understanding the subject of G‑d’s true unity. Let him consider how He permeates all worlds, both upper and lower. Let him further consider how even this world is filled with His glory—and how everything is of no reality whatsoever in His presence… He is One alone, without any change whatsoever. For in relation to Him, the very existence of all created beings is utterly nullified.

Elsewhere in the Tanya (Shaar Yichud Ve-Emunah, 6), it states that “the Holy One, blessed be He, fills the whole world in the same way as the soul is garbed in the body,” permeating all levels of reality with Divine awareness. Similarly, Rav Chaim of Volozhin writes in Nefesh HaChaim (3:4) that “from [God’s] perspective He is called by the phrase ‘permeates all worlds,’ while from our perspective He is called by the phrase ‘surrounds all worlds’… it is definitely true that from His (may He be blessed) perspective, even now after He created and renewed the worlds with His intention, He permeates all the worlds and places and creations, all absolutely uniformly and with a simple unity.” So too, Rav Dessler wrote (Michtav Me-Eliyahu 3:2:6) that “‘There is nothing besides Him’ is the absolute truth, but it is hidden from us. Even in our intellect it is almost impossible to perceive… We find from this that all our notions are relative to creation, they are only truth within and about creation, according to our concepts that they too are created. We have only relative truth, each and every one according to their level…”

These perspectives all present an idea known in the Jewish mystical tradition as tzimtzum, or the act of “Divine contraction” which allows for anything other than God to exist. Avinoam Fraenkel summarizes this doctrine as “the overall process of the creation of a lower, less subtle, more physical dimension and plane of existence from a higher level and dimension of existence”in which all agree that “everything is interconnected to God.”[4]

Under that assumption, the world does not exist independent of God but within God in some real sense.

Quote:The remaining question, then, is how to get from this mysterious Source of All Consciousness to God as understood by Judaism. After all, such a purely undifferentiated Being is seemingly far more pluralistic and less relatable than what most would imagine.There are at least three paths that can get from this panpsychist starting point to a recognizably Jewish theology: Maimonidean Emanationism, Rav Kook’s Panentheism, and Hasidic Idealism. Perhaps a future article will explore those paths in detail. 
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell


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Quote:In episode 221 of the Parker's Pensées Podcast, I'm joined by Dr. Samuel Lebens to discuss Hassidic Idealism, the view that we are characters in God's dream. He uses this motif to help understand Kabbalistic understandings of sefirot-- and if you have no clue what that means then definitely watch the episode! We also get into the Authorial Analogy for the God-World relation and how that idea compares with theistic idealism.
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell



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