Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Reflections on Ken Wilber's “The Religion of Tomorrow”
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
Andrew P. Smith, who has a background in molecular biology, neuroscience and pharmacology, is author of e-books Worlds within Worlds and the novel Noosphere II, which are both available online. He has recently self-published "The Dimensions of Experience: A Natural History of Consciousness" (Xlibris, 2008).
THE UNVERIFIABLE TRUTH
The Dimensons of Experience, Chapter Ten
Andrew P. Smith
I have now traced the evolution of consciousness from the most primitive organisms—indeed, even earlier, from the first molecules on earth, if we can speak of their having consciousness—to our own species. We have seen how life, at multiple levels of existence, evolves in stages. The first of these stages, composed of fundamental or individual holons, exhibits no awareness of a self distinct from an other. Everything that it is aware of is experienced as self. Indeed, there is really no self, just a largely undifferentiated experience.
From this primordial sense of unity, higher stages evolved, each enjoying a new dimension of experience. The first dimension is characterized by a simple distinction between self and other. Organisms at this stage can make intensity discriminations, allowing them to judge the presence and linear distance from themselves of other organisms and objects in their environment. With the emergence of the second dimension was added a distinction between different classes of others. These organisms can discriminate between kin and non-kin, between different kinds of kin, and between different kinds of stimuli. The third dimension, emerging with the highest invertebrates and lower vertebrates, created still more sensitive experience, allowing organisms to distinguish between different individuals of their own species. The fourth dimension added for the first time in evolutionary history an extended sense of time, allowing these vertebrates to distinguish not simply between different individuals, but between different behavioral states of individuals. The fifth dimension, finally, beginning with the highest vertebrates but not fully realized until our own species, was associated with a greatly enhanced sense of time and an understanding that objects and other organisms have a permanent existence.
In conventional evolutionary histories, the story ends here. We, Homo sapiens, are the most evolved species on earth—possibly in the entire universe--the most intelligent and aware. Our brain, the product of these billions of years of evolution, is often said to be the most complex thing in existence.
Yet this story is incomplete. Human beings are not the highest possible form of existence; indeed, they are not even the highest form of actual existence on earth. I make this claim on the basis of two observations. First, reports by many individuals of a higher state of consciousness or existence, one that is claimed to transcend our ordinary consciousness. These reports have a history of several thousand years, and come from a wide variety of cultures, including but by not means limited to ones associated with all the major religions (Ouspensky 1961; Underhill 1961; Bucke 1961; O'Brien 1964; deRopp 1968; Ch'en 1968; Shah 1970; Conze 1971; Tart 1972; Kapleau 1980; Wei 1982; Fox 1983; Aurobindo 1985; Watts 1989; Peers 1989; Huxley 1990; Corlett and Moore 1991; Borchert 1994; Ernst 1997; Powell 2006)
Second, as we have seen throughout this book, social holons, formed from the holarchical combination of individual organisms, have emergent properties, higher than though to some extent shared by their individual members. Human societies represent the highest stage of the highest level of existence yet to emerge on earth, and are clearly far more complex than any of their individual members. Moreover, they are continuing to evolve, becoming even more complex as we speak of them.
In this chapter, I will discuss both of these higher forms of life. We will examine some of the evidence—scientific and otherwise—bearing on the existence and characteristics of a higher state of consciousness. We will also consider the dynamic organization of human societies, in particular, their analogies to the structure of the brain. But the most important point I will be making is that these two higher forms of life are intimately related. Both the realization of higher consciousness in some individuals, and the emergence of highly complex, small-world human societies are potentially harbingers of an emerging new level of existence. In my view, this level, which we might call the spiritual or planetary, transcends the mental or behavioral level we live on, just as that level in turn transcends the biological level that evolved before it, and the physical level that emerged still earlier.
Let's begin by asking, what is this higher state of consciousness? It's often said to be beyond words, beyond description, but that has never stopped people from trying to describe it. These descriptions commonly include an experience of unity or oneness with the world, the absence of all thought and desires, transcendence of space and time, an extraordinary clarity of perception, compassion for all other forms of existence, and a deep sense of peace. I believe that most educated people now have some familiarity with such descriptions, and since in any case words do fail us to a considerable extent, here I will try to describe the state of higher consciousness in another sense. I want to discuss its relationship to our ordinary state of consciousness, and more specifically, to place it in the context of the evolutionary story I have been telling up to now.
Any scientist or philosopher will agree that human beings can experience altered states of consciousness, significantly different from our ordinary one. What many of them object to, however, is the claim of a higher state. Higher in what sense? The word has a fairly understandable meaning when applied to evolution. We have seen in previous chapters that as evolution proceeds, successive stages of existence exhibit new features that allow them to experience and interact with the environment in new and more complex ways. On this basis, most (though perhaps not all) scientists are willing to rank species to some degree, and certainly to regard our own species as the highest. I don't think I'm ruffling too many feathers when I say that human beings are higher than non-human primates, which are higher than birds and most other mammals, which are in turn higher than most invertebrates, and so on. Higher in this sense is mostly synonymous with intelligence, in a fairly loose sense of the term, and is strongly correlated, as we saw in the previous chapter, with greater complexity in the structure and organization of the brain.
Accordingly, some researchers have attempted to demonstrate that individuals experiencing or claiming to experience higher consciousness are at a still higher developmental or evolutionary stage than the rest of humanity. Studies of such individuals have reported that they exhibit, for example, greater attentional capacity (Aftanas and Golocheikine 2001; Cahn and Polich 2006; Sarang and Telles 2007; Tang et al. 2007; Pagnoni and Cecic 2007; Slagter et al. 2007), more sensitive perception of environmental stimuli (Clements and Milstein 1977; Brown et al. 1984; Carter et al. 2005; Srinivasan and Baijal 2007; Tloczynski et al. 2007), better control of emotions and stress (Lee et al. 1997; Brown and Gerbarg 2005; Khalsa and Cope 2006; Neilsen and Kazniak 2006; Lane et al. 2007); and enhancement or improvement in some other cognitive parameters (Wenk-Sormaz 2005; Hankey 2006; Sharma et al. 2006; Doraiswamy and Xiong 2007).
I will get into specific criticisms of some of these studies later. What I want to emphasize here is that while such findings may provide important insights into brain correlates of higher consciousness, I believe they somewhat miss the point. While higher consciousness may indeed make possible greater physical, emotional and mental abilities, this is not the traditional goal of those who seek it. Indeed, any focus or preoccupation with such development tends to interfere with the goal; the idea is not to gain new powers, but to give them up. One progresses precisely to the extent that one separates oneself from all manifestations of mind.
The process by which one realizes higher consciousness is meditation. I will offer a more detailed description of meditation in the following section, but the traditional definition is stilling the mind. The point of meditation is not to think more clearly or to feel more sensitively, but to transcend all thought and emotion. Not to experience enhanced sensory perception, but to experience the world in a way that is beyond the senses.
This suggests a very different kind of evolutionary development from that which produced our species. A major lesson of evolution of the nervous system is that old structures are not discarded; they are simply overgrown, subject to higher controls. When the earliest vertebrates developed a spinal cord and a relatively large brain, these structures did not replace the collections of ganglia that control invertebrate behavior; they were simply added on. Likewise, when higher vertebrates evolved the limbic system and related structures elaborating fixed action patterns, they did not discard the older reptilian brain structures. And when the highest vertebrates evolved the neocortex, they did not discard the limbic system. In our highly advanced brains can be found all the basic structures of our invertebrate as well as vertebrate ancestors.
And structure underlies function. Beneath the veneer of civilized, neocortical behavior, we all know, lie much more primitive forms of behavior and impulses. Though we have learned to control this behavior to a greater or lesser extent, it is still there. And while sometimes it emerges suddenly and inappropriately, it plays a vital and necessary role in our existence. Every time our heartbeat increases in response to intense physical activity, we eat in response to hunger, jump to avoid being hit by a car, or react protectively towards our children, we are making proper use of these older structures.
Furthermore, as I have emphasized throughout this book, every evolutionary stage is first and foremost the development of a holarchically higher form of social organization. Every advance in complexity of the brain and nervous system has been associated with more complex social relationships, from the simple colonies of primitive invertebrates to our own highly complex societies. As with the nervous systems of individual organisms, older social forms of organization are not discarded, but built upon. We still have acquaintances, families, communities, all functioning within much larger and more complex forms of social organization. The result, as I discussed in the previous chapter, is that we are all members of a vast intersubjective web that contextualizes virtually every aspect of our experience, inner as well as outer.
Higher consciousness is not about adding another layer, another higher shell in the holarchy, to this social organization. On the contrary, the goal of meditation is to break these bonds, to extricate oneself from the intersubjective web. It is our thoughts—particularly our so-called “inner speech”, which has long been recognized to play a critical role in the formation of our ordinary level of awareness (Vygotsky 1962; Sokolov 1972; Jaynes 1976; Miller 1991; Carruthers 1996; Stamenov 2003; Morin 2006)--that firmly enmesh us in this intersubjectivity, and to the extent that we stop them, we are no longer members of this web.
Meditation, therefore, represents a total rupture with the direction taken by millions of years of evolution. The higher state of consciousness, I claim, is not a simple extension or continuation of the process that has created ever more complex and intelligent species. It is not the product of a higher brain. Most fundamentally, it is not simply a higher stage, the emergence of a superhuman, who bears the same kind of relationship to ordinary humans as they do to, say, non-human primates. Higher consciousness represents a higher level of existence, one in which humanity, indeed all life on earth, is transcended.
As we will see in the rest of this chapter, this understanding of higher consciousness has many important implications. Some of them, as I alluded to above, relate to the appropriate design and interpretation of scientific studies of meditation, and I will begin to identify them in the following section. Still other implications are for the relationship of meditators to human societies. I will take up this issue at the end of this chapter.
A Meditation on Meditation
Any discussion of higher consciousness should begin with some attempt to describe meditation, the practice by which higher consciousness is realized. How we understand this practice has critical implications for not only how scientists attempt to study it, but also how they interpret their findings. In this section, I will be discussing these implications, as a prelude to a later discussion in this chapter of actual research findings.
My discussion of meditation, throughout this chapter but especially in this section, will rely extensively on my own experiences as a meditator, based on nearly four decades of practice. I don't expect anyone to accept these experiences uncritically, and I will try whenever possible to support my personal claims with the experience of others, or with other kinds of evidence. But a critical point to understand, one I will be returning to in the section following this, is that research on higher consciousness requires reliance on such personal reports of individuals, to an extent not found in any other area of science. Readers who want a more detailed discussion of my experiences are referred to my online book, Illusions of Reality (Smith 2000c).
What meditation is and is not.
Almost everyone interested in higher consciousness recognizes that meditation is the key to realizing it. But what exactly is meditation? Ask people who claim to practice it, and you may receive many different answers. Here are some of them:
So which one is meditation? All of them. They are all different ways of describing the same process, and in my experience, an advanced meditator does not distinguish among them. This is the first point I want to make.
1. Meditation is one process. It is my very strong claim, in contradiction to what a great many other individuals interested in meditation apparently believe, that there are not different kinds of meditation. To be sure, a beginner may be advised to focus on one aspect or another, but this is just as a convenient means of entry. For example, the point of concentrating on an object or image is as an aid to stopping thought. Period. There is no other rationale for doing this. Stopping thought is also achieved to the extent that one observes one's thoughts, or observes oneself, or becomes aware of one's surroundings, or enters a state of deep relaxation. Conversely, by stopping thoughts, which preoccupy us with the past and future, we experience the present. All of these things occur simultaneously during meditation; all are facets of the defining feature of meditation, which is simply an increase in awareness. In focusing on any one of these practices, a beginner may believe that she is practicing one kind rather than another, but it is only a reflection of the relational, fragmented human mind that there appear to be different kinds. It is precisely this relational view of existence that meditation attempts to transcend.
One important implication of this view is that any attempt to reconcile different research findings—say, of studies that find different parts of the brain active in different meditators--in terms of different meditative practices is only getting at part of the truth. A group of individuals recruited to one study may indeed be engaged in a different kind of practice from subjects in another study, and these different practices may be correlated with activity in different parts of the brain. But the defining characteristic of meditation—to reiterate, an increase in awareness—should be common to all genuine meditators, whatever their practice. To the extent that this increase in awareness is correlated with activity in some part of the brain, all studies of meditators should find such activity.
However, there is a second, much further-reaching implication of this view of meditation. Meditation is not a skill, in the usual sense of the word. As I discussed in the previous section, it should not be confused with an enhancement of such abilities as attention or perception. Since such enhanced abilities or skills are not the goal but in fact an obstacle to the goal, it is problematic to use them as a measure of higher consciousness. Yet, as we will see later, some of the most highly regarded studies of brain correlates of meditation appear to be measuring such enhanced functions, or skills, rather than a higher level of consciousness per se. As far as I can see, very few scientists working in this area grasp this distinction and its importance.
But the problem is not just that researchers might be measuring the wrong activity; it's that the “right activity” might not be measurable. Meditation, since it simply reflects an increase in awareness, is qualitatively different from any other human activity. One of its distinguishing features is that it can be done simultaneously with anything else. One can meditate while walking, reading, talking, eating, gardening, cooking, driving a car, writing, and so on and so on.
This is not true for any ordinary human activity. Some activities are clearly incompatible with each other. Sometimes this is just because they compete for different uses of common parts of the body; we can't sit in a chair and walk at the same time, nor can we swallow food and talk at the same time. But often the incompatibility is due to limits not of the body, but of the brain. For example, it's very difficult to think at a highly abstract level while engaging in intense physical activity, or while doing mathematical calculations in one's head, or while attending to some demanding perceptual task, or while having a conversation with someone about an entirely different subject. According to many local ordinances in the U.S., it's also difficult to talk on a cell phone while driving. The brain has limited resources, and sometimes a choice has to be made as to how they will be put to use.
These incompatibilities can and probably ultimately will be explained by studies showing just what parts of the brain are required for any particular activity. But the fact that meditation is compatible with any human activity ought to make researchers wonder what kind of change in the brain it could involve. It can't require activation of large neuronal networks that are to a significant extent also employed by other activities, for then it would interfere with those activities. Yet many if not all of the changes in brain activity that to my knowledge have so far been ascribed to meditation do in fact involve such large neuronal networks.
2. The second point I want to make is that meditation is not an exclusively inner process. This is perhaps the single commonest misconception of it. The image of the lonely recluse, totally withdrawn from the world, is still very strong among spiritual practitioners today. Meditation is directed to both the inner contents of the mind and the external world, and again, the experienced meditator does not distinguish between them. The process of stopping or observing thoughts is exactly the same as the process of being more aware of our surroundings. There is no distinction whatsoever. A meditator, to be sure, may be focused more on one than the other, but this is a matter of attention, not awareness. When one is genuinely stopping thoughts, awareness will gradually increase, and this awareness is just as much of events in the external world as it is of those thoughts.
Some cognitive researchers have argued that a useful way of understanding consciousness is as a theater or stage (Baars 1997a,b). In this view, unconscious processes are those that occur behind the scenes, and also in the audience, while conscious processes are limited to those that are in the spotlight on the stage (which these theorists refer to as a global workspace). At any given time, the light may be focused on different people, objects or processes occurring on stage, and where it is focused is a matter of attention. Meditation, however, unique among all human activities, increases the intensity or amount of the light, independent of where it is focused. In this sense, it is not what we see or aware of, but our power to see or be aware.
According to global workspace theory, as this view is known, the purpose or evolutionary role of consciousness is to bring together many different previously unconscious processes in novel combinations, thus greatly enhancing the range of ways in which we can perceive and respond to situations (Stewart 2006). A central tenet of this theory is that while these many different unconscious processes may occur simultaneously, generally only one conscious message combining these processes can emerge at a time. This is basically consistent with our familiar experience of being able to do many things automatically and unconsciously at the same time—breathing, walking, talking, avoiding objects in the environment, and holding certain goals in mind, for example—while it is much more difficult for us to carry out at the same time even two such processes attentively and consciously.
This again reflects the fact that awareness is quite limited; it has to be parceled out parsimoniously. As one reviewer of global workspace theory comments, “Few realise that the breadth of their awareness of their environment and of their own behaviour is as limited as if they were looking through a straw.” It is this limitation that meditation transcends.
This view of meditation, again, suggests that one has to be careful about correlating it with particular skills. As I noted earlier, some studies of meditators have reported enhanced attention processing or perception. These findings could reflect a greater increase in awareness. But they could also result from simply an enhanced ability to focus on something. That is, the subjects may have increased not their level of awareness per se, but their ability to focus what limited awareness they have on one particular process to the exclusion of other processes. Evidence for the latter would include, for example, reports by the subjects that they were able to “tune out” surrounding sights or sounds, or get into a “zone” in which they were exceptionally aware of one particular task. As we will see later, in one well-cited recent study of meditators, the subjects did not allow the experimenter to perform certain physiological measurements on them, because they claimed it disrupted their practice. This kind of claim is prima facie evidence of a process that involves greater focus, rather than greater awareness. Being perturbed in this way would reduce the ability of the subjects to focus on some other event or process, but it should not in any way affect their ability to increase their level of awareness.4
The ability to behave in this highly focused way is in fact one of the defining features of highly successful people in all walks of life. The secret to success in this sense is not a greater level of awareness, but the ability to place that awareness single-mindedly on one particular goal, all or virtually all of the time. Meditation, I cannot emphasize strongly enough, is not like this. Because it involves increasing the level of awareness, it is possible, for a meditator at a high level, to put enormous focus on a particular task. Thus a meditator could potentially use his higher level of awareness to be very successful at some particular activity. But this is not the goal of meditation; done properly, it involves becoming simultaneously more aware of many processes, not just any particular one. This is part of what I meant earlier when I said that meditation involves giving up skills, not acquiring them.
3. A third very common misconception is that meditation can only be practiced when one is sitting still. As I mentioned earlier, meditation can be practiced in conjunction with any activity, and I now add that for it to be effective, it must be. Meditation must go on all the time, during every waking moment of the meditator's life.
I realize that many meditators believe otherwise, and I will have more to say about this later. For now, I want to point out a major implication of this view. Many studies of the brain correlates of meditation are designed so that brain activity in the subjects is compared during a premeditative, baseline period, when the subjects supposedly are not meditating, to that in the meditative period. Differences in activity between the two periods are supposed to reflect specific effects of meditation. In my view, this is a false distinction. Meditation cannot simply be turned on and off. The level of awareness, in a meditator or anyone else for that matter, is quite stable, and is generally not subject to rapid increases or decreases. The belief that it can be is related to the belief that meditation is just another skill, as I discussed earlier. I will discuss this problem at greater length when we examine some specific studies of meditators.
4. I just claimed that the level of awareness of a meditator at any given time is quite stable. It does not change very much in a typical sitting period of a few hours. The level is not absolutely stable, however; it does fluctuate. Some of this fluctuation occurs according to internal rhythms, and is relatively small. For example, there is commonly a diurnal rhythm in awareness, with a low point in the early morning, and a peak in the late afternoon or early evening. This is undoubtedly related to physiological processes in the body. There are many other cycles of awareness, indeed, cycles within cycles. Even within a few seconds, such fluctuations can be observed. Thus if one meditates in still, quiet conditions, awareness rises and falls, each rise a little higher than the previous rise, and each fall likewise a little higher than the previous fall.
Such changes are quite small, and it would likely be very difficult to detect changes in the brain associated with them, at least at the level of our current technology. But there is another very important way in which the level of awareness can change, and in this case, the changes can be much greater. This is in relationship to activity, and particularly physical activity. I have found that awareness rises most rapidly when still and quiet; the rise is slower during any activity, and moreover, the rate of increase is inversely correlated with the energetic demands of the activity. Thus awareness rises most slowly during intense physical activity, such as running or walking, somewhat faster during moderate physical activities, and still faster during activities that are carried out basically at rest, such as writing, reading and conversing.
This relationship is most easily observable after a long period of sitting meditation, when awareness reaches a peak. If one then engages in some activity, awareness immediately decreases, and if this activity is an energetically highly demanding one, the decrease in awareness may be precipitous, what I call a crash. During this period, awareness drops very fast, and there is actually the experience, going down, of levels that were previously experienced, much more slowly, while ascending. This relationship of awareness to activity is so good that one can estimate, with a fairly high level of precision, the calories consumed by various activities (as confirmed by widely available data), by the rate at which awareness decreases when engaged in these activities.
Upon return to physical inactivity, conversely awareness will rise relatively rapidly, what I call rebound. The rise is not as fast as the fall was. It is, in fact, asymptotic, that is, the rate is related to the log of the distance between the former maximum level of awareness and the current level. So the rate of rise is maximal upon return to rest, and gradually slows down as sitting continues.
Because of this very predictable relationship between level of awareness and the energetic demands of the body, there is a range of awareness within which a meditator exists during any one period of time. Awareness will rise and fall according to what the individual is doing. In my experience, this effect of activity on awareness has far more impact on the level of ongoing awareness than what is gained by meditation, which, again, is very small. In other words, while over a long period of time meditation results in a steady increase in level of awareness, from day to day changes in that level are far more influenced by what the individual is doing than by the gains made during that day.
The relevance of this relationship between energy and level of awareness to the discussion of this chapter, of course, is that it generates some potentially testable predictions. I say potentially, because neuro-imaging, which as I will discuss later is now the most commonly used technology for studying meditation, cannot be carried out on mobile subjects. However, EEG recording can be, as well as other approaches that measure energy fluxes in the brain, and given the rapid pace of technological advances, eventually imaging methods will be developed to study physical activity.
5. In the previous chapter, I made the claim that in the ordinary state of consciousness, individuals are not aware of their awareness. We know about it indirectly, through its effects on our thoughts, feelings and behavior. As evidence for this, I pointed out that when this level of awareness changes—as in drifting off to sleep, on drugs like alcohol, or simply through aging—we aren't cognizant of the change, except to the extent that we are cued by accompanying changes in our behavior.
One might think that meditation would bring us greater awareness of our level of awareness, but this is not what I have found. On the contrary, in my experience it is extremely difficult to assess the level of awareness, no matter how high it is. In my view, this is a major reason why meditators frequently are deluded about their level of awareness. It is extremely easy to misjudge it.
How then, is the meditator to judge it accurately? One way is through experience of rapid changes in level of awareness, as I discussed in the previous section. While the absolute level of awareness is very difficult to detect, a change in this level, if it occurs fairly rapidly, is impossible to miss. The rate at which awareness decreases, as much as the mere fact that it does, provides information about the ongoing level.
In addition, just as with ordinary consciousness, there are behavioral cues. For example, at higher levels of awareness, the meditator is able to perform many activities at a significantly higher level of skill. As I emphasized earlier, such skill is not the goal of meditation, but it often is a side effect. To be at a higher level of awareness means to have fewer thoughts interfering with ones ability concentrate on a task, and this effect can significantly improve one's ability to perform the task. When awareness decreases significantly, even if it is not sudden and abrupt, the level of some skill frequently does as well. This provides the meditator with important cues to level of awareness.
Any meditator with many years of experience will in fact have encountered, many times, a wide range of levels. Through such experience, he becomes extremely familiar with his levels of a variety of skills through this range. Thus from behavior alone, he can judge with a high degree of precision his level of awareness.
I noted at the beginning of this chapter that the main source of evidence for the existence of a higher state of consciousness is the reports of those who have claimed to have realized it. But for any scientist who wants to study the phenomenon, this is problematic. Should we believe everyone who claims to have experienced higher consciousness? I certainly don't, and I'm not at all offended when others don't believe everything, or even much of anything, that I say. But then who do we believe? This, in my view, is the single most difficult problem facing the scientific study of the phenomenon.
From the point of view of anyone who has not experienced higher consciousness, there are in fact two very thorny issues here. First, how can we establish that the higher state is real, indeed, what do we mean by saying it is or is not real? This is a criticism that is made by many philosophers, especially, though not limited to, those of the postmodern school. Second, even if one accepts the reality and significance of this higher state, as meditators obviously do, there is still the question of how we establish whether any particular individual is experiencing it. This is the more immediate problem that any scientist wishing to study the phenomenon confronts.
I think both of these criticisms need to be addressed before we even consider scientific studies of higher consciousness. Therefore, in this section, I will consider the first, philosophical objection. In the following section, I will consider the second criticism, more relevant to scientific studies.
Not real, not known, not there.
As noted earlier, it's commonly said that the higher state of consciousness is ineffable, or beyond words. To many philosophers, this raises an immediate warning flag. If a phenomenon can't be described in words, it can't be communicated from one observer to another. Such communication is essential to establishing the reality of a phenomenon. We ordinarily say something is real not simply because we experience it, but because others say that they do, too. This being the case, if higher consciousness can't be communicated, on what grounds can we claim it is real? That is, if one individual claims to have an experience that is beyond words, how can another individual possibly confirm that she has had an identical, or even similar, experience?
The philosopher Steven Katz put it this way:
it is not being argued either that mystical experiences do not happen, or that what they claim may not be true, only that there can be no grounds for deciding this question, i.e. of showing that they are true even if they are, in fact true.6
Derridan scholar Greg Desilet agrees, but makes a still stronger claim:
rom a deconstructive slant, the limitations of human communication and understanding disclosed by the conditions of life and imposed by the constraints not only of signification but also of Being and time suggest that enlightenment as a transcendent, totalized awareness of the Kosmos (at any given point in time) is not possible. And, even if such enlightenment were somehow possible, there could be no way of verifying with certainty (either for others or for oneself) that it had been achieved. And even assuming it had been achieved, there could be no reliable way of communicating to others how precisely to go about achieving it themselves.
Desilet is actually making three claims here. First, like Katz, he is arguing that the only way we have of establishing the reality of something is through language. I have some experience, and communicate this to you. If you have a similar experience, you communicate that to me. Regardless of the nature of the experience—an event that an eyewitness reports in a court of law, a scientific observation made in a controlled experiment, or a higher state of consciousness—the only way it can be communicated is through language, But if, as meditators themselves claim, the higher state is beyond language, it is not possible to have the communication necessary to prove its existence. There is “no reliable way of communicating to others how precisely to go about achieving it themselves.”
Desilet's second, stronger claim, which Katz would probably agree with but does not make explicit, is that the meditator can't even verify for herself that she has experienced a higher state of consciousness: “there could be no way of verifying with certainty…for oneself…” Desilet is now saying that not only can she not convince others of the reality of this state, but she can't even convince herself. The reason why she can't, in Desilet's view, is because the same shared language that we use to convince others of reality we also use to convince ourselves. We are so embedded in language that all our experience of the world involves it. This is the essence of the postmodern view.
Desilet's third and strongest claim is that consciousness is so closely related to language that if some phenomenon can't be expressed in language, then it can't be experienced. Indeed, it can't even be real:
Both language and consciousness...are always and everywhere woven together such that one never occurs without the other and both open upon and reflect the structure of the real. Language and ordinary consciousness cannot be essentially separated from the real.
Let's consider the third, strongest, claim first. The notion that language and consciousness are inseparable, it seems to me, is not only debatable, but dubious. If true, it implies that only forms of life that have language could be conscious. But one doesn't have to be a panpsychist to challenge this. Most people, I think, would accept that a dog has conscious experience, yet it does not comprehend language, certainly not the kind of language postmodernists are concerned with. Prelinguistic humans, babies up to at least one year of age, provide another example. Babies are generally assumed to have some conscious experience from the moment they emerge from the womb, if not in the womb itself, yet they have no language. Are we to deny the reality of their experience?
Another reason for believing language and consciousness are separable is the simple fact that our own ordinary adult consciousness is ineffable. Indeed, this is just what David Chalmers' hard problem is all about; phenomenal consciousness is a hard problem—to Chalmers and many others--just because it is not relational, because it is beyond words. Yet we all accept the reality of this immediate experience.
To give them the benefit of the doubt, postmodernists such as Katz and Desilet, along with some other philosophers not of this school, might disagree. They could argue that there is nothing in our immediate or phenomenal experience of the world that can't be expressed in some manner through language. And indeed, the fact that all of us assume unproblematically that other people have the same kind of immediate experience that we have surely must have a lot to do with language. If each of us asks himself why we are certain we are not the only conscious form of existence—why we are sure others are not zombies--the answer must be in large part because of the verbal behavior of others.
Moreover, all of these examples I have provided in which there is arguably experience in the absence of language differ from the case of a higher consciousness in one very important respect: they are universal. Phenomenal experience is not a claim made only by some of us. Everyone testifies to it. Likewise, the experience all of us are certain that babies have is universal; whatever the behavior of babies that allows us to infer they are conscious, we see this behavior in all of them.
This universality is not exhibited by higher consciousness. Only a small minority of individuals claim to have experienced it. Given this situation, one might invoke the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” rule. That is, we are willing to believe others have phenomenal awareness because we ourselves our familiar with it. Those who have not experienced higher consciousness may reasonably be unwilling to grant a similar reality to this state.
So at least the weaker arguments postmodernists make against higher consciousness can't be easily dismissed. Most meditators, to be sure, probably don't care about such arguments. If philosophers want to think themselves out of the possibility of realizing higher consciousness, that is their problem, not the meditator's. Since Godel's incompleteness theorem, we have recognized the possibility of there being truths that can't be proven. But even Desilet's weakest claim has implications not just for the ontological status we give to higher consciousness—whether or not we can establish it as real in the same sense that we regard other phenomenon as real--but also for the prospects of realizing it. Most people who seek higher consciousness do so through the guidance of one or more teachers. This teaching process necessarily depends to a large extent on language, as of course do many other forces and factors that stimulate interest in a potential seeker, such as books, lectures and word of mouth. This is what Desilet is referring to when he says there is no reliable way to communicate the means for realizing this state. Jorge Ferrer, a meditator who has written extensively about the higher state, echoes the same problem:
the esotericist idea that mystics of all ages and places converge about metaphysical matters is a myth that must be laid to rest.
Spiritual teachers are of course the first to emphasize the uselessness of words. A very common saying among teachers is that words are simply a way of pointing to a higher state of being. But pointing is what words always do, even when they refer to our familiar world. The postmodern criticism is precisely that words can't point to a higher state of consciousness, that they can't point to anything that is completely beyond them. The act of pointing implies a direction, which in turn implies some kind of relationship between the linguistic pointer and the thing pointed to. Postmodern critics deny that such a relationship exists, and they do it on the basis of the meditator's very own descriptions of this state. How can we challenge them?
Is God out of the loop?
At the heart of the postmodernist critique of higher consciousness is the problem of the transcendental signified. Ferdinand de Saussure, who is often considered the father of modern linguistics, distinguished between signifiers, which are words (spoken or written); signifieds, which are the meanings the words have to people using them; and referents, which are the objects, events, ideas, and so on actually referred to by the words (de Saussure 1998). For example, “tree” is a signifier; the image, concept or mental representation we have when we use this word is the signified; and an actual tree is the referent.
A key element of postmodernism, as I discussed earlier, is that all language is relational or contextual. De Saussure himself, though predating thinkers most strongly associated with postmodernism, emphasized this to some extent. Thus words, or signifiers, are defined in terms of other words. If we look in the dictionary, we will find “tree' defined in terms of other words, and moreover, to understand this definition—to link it to a signified—we must perform mental manipulations that involve other signifieds. Indeed, as Deacon (1998) has emphasized, it is just this interdependence of meanings that makes it so devilishly difficult to understand how language evolved in the first place. A language cannot be learned one word at a time, but requires a major conceptual leap in which an entire network of words and their interrelationships is grasped.
A key addition to this notion, though, made initially by Derrida, is the claim that signifieds can also function as signifiers. That is, the thoughts or mental representations we form in association with certain words can themselves refer to other thoughts and mental representations. So the context of language consists of what Derrida called a chain, but what is really a network, formed by both signifiers and signifieds. Each signifier and signified in this network is related to others, so intimately, in Derrida's view, that. the difference between signifier and signified dissolves. There are just concepts or meanings, each related to others:
If one erases the radical difference between signifier and signified, it is the word "signifier" itself which must be abandoned as a metaphysical concept.
In this linguistic system, a transcendental signified would be some concept or mental representation which existed completely outside of the relational network of words. It would have a fixed meaning, not related to any other signifieds, and thus could serve, in effect, as an external reference. Instead of words and concepts deriving their meaning through their interrelationships with each other, they could perhaps all do so by direct comparison to the transcendental signified.
In traditional religious terms, God would function as a transcendental signified. Understood in this way, the word God would have a meaning completely independent of the meanings of all other words. And this is just what Derrida denies is possible. If a transcendental signified is beyond all thought and language, there is no way to refer to it. There is no word we can use to point to it. Of course, we can invent any old word we want, but if it is a word, if it is part of our language, it can't actually refer to something beyond that language. For the same reason, a transcendental signified, if such existed, could not in turn refer to other signifieds. There is a unbreachable barrier between it and all other, ordinary signifieds. This being the case, it could not be used to define them:
a 'transcendental signified,' . . . in its essence, would refer to [more correctly, I think, would be referred to by] no signifier, would exceed the chain of signs, and would no longer itself function as a signifier.
Postmodernists like Katz and Desilet, in developing their critique against the reality of a higher state of consciousness, assume that it is transcendental in much the same sense that the traditional religious conception of God is. This is a key premise of their argument that I believe needs to be challenged. The term “transcendental” can in fact have several if not many meanings. As used by Derrida, the transcendental seems to have a dualistic relation to language. As I suggested earlier, there is a barrier between the two that can't be breached; this is why there is no word or signifier that can refer to it. Derrida is thus interpreting the transcendental state as something completely divorced and independent of language. This is consistent with the traditional religious concept of God. God is a transcendent being that is conventionally understood to have a dualistic relationship with humanity.
But this is not how transcendental is defined in my holarchical model, nor in other holarchical models, such as Wilber's. To say that one level or holon transcends another is not to say it is completely independent of it. On the contrary, higher levels are strongly dependent on lower levels. If there were no atoms and molecules, there could be no cells, and if there were no cells, there could be no organisms. Wilber even uses this criterion to define higher/lower relationships.
In the same way, I believe we must regard a higher state of consciousness as dependent on the physical, biological and mental—including linguistic—worlds. To be sure, not all mystics understand it in this way. Many, perhaps most, understand it as not simply a higher level of existence, but an absolute or ultimate level, one that is the source of all other levels. In this sense, it is not even a level of existence, and higher/lower relationships are probably meaningless. This view of existence is implicit in the advaita, or nondual doctrine found in many teachings derived from Hinduism and perhaps Buddhism (see Box 3 in Chapter 2), and explicit, for example in Aurobindo's teachings (Kazlev 2006). Even Wilber, while describing higher levels of consciousness that transcend lower levels in the same manner that the lower transcend each other, very explicitly distinguishes an ultimate ground of all existence, as he puts it, which has a very different relationship to the rest. Moreover, he tries to use this ultimate form of existence as a transcendental signified in just the way Derrida says is not possible.
I don't deny the possibility of an ultimate ground or source of all existence, vague though the notion clearly is. I'm willing to keep an open mind on that issue. What I do deny is that this ultimate state is what meditators commonly realize, what is usually referred to as a higher state of consciousness. Many mystics have claimed that there is more than one higher state of consciousness (Bucke 1961; Ouspensky 1961; deRopp 1968; Aurobindo 1985), in other words, that beyond what I have been calling the higher state of consciousness there is yet another level which is even higher. If so, this may be the ultimate state; that is, having realized a higher state of consciousness, the meditator, then and only then, may be in a position to realize the ultimate.
But I regard all such talk as speculative in the extreme, fine if people want to fantasize about it, but of no practical concern to meditators. Moreover, if such an ultimate state does exist, it seems to me that it would indeed by vulnerable to at least some of the postmodernist critique I have been discussing. But what I want to examine here is the implications of this critique for a higher level that is transcendent in the same sense that the biological and mental levels are transcendent to levels below them. This level, in my view, is the one that virtually all meditators are seeking, and the only one that need concern us here.
How we relate to the non-relative.
Can this transcendental level be referred to by language? I don't see why not. I have been referring to it throughout this discussion as “higher consciousness”. Each of these terms clearly is defined relationally. We understand the word “higher” in opposition to the word “lower”, as well as in relation to a whole slew of other words and mental representations. Consciousness is also defined relationally, though in this case the relations are a little more subtle. Conventionally, we distinguish between what is conscious, like human beings, and what is not, such as a rock. However, if, as the panpsychist view holds, consciousness is a property of all things, including “inanimate” matter, then there is nothing so obvious to contrast it with. But we can still contrast it with other properties of matter that are not conscious. In this respect, consciousness is relational just as mass, another fundamental property of matter, is.
Notice that this argument that higher consciousness can be defined relationally is critically dependent on the view of transcendence that is implied or expressed by holarchy. We can use the word higher because it has been previously defined in terms of relationships between certain phenomena we are all familiar with. The holarchical model specifically claims that relationships something like this also exist between our ordinary state of consciousness and a higher state. Likewise, the use of the word consciousness depends on the premise, again deriving from the holarchical view, that the higher state involves some kind of experience.
If transcendence were defined in more dualistic terms, such as the traditional view of God, or the mystical view of the ultimate, both of these terms would be problematic. As I noted earlier, the ultimate level is not necessarily higher than other levels. Certainly what makes it ultimate is not just that it is higher. Similarly, the word consciousness, as it is defined relationally, does not do justice to what the ultimate level is supposed to be or represent.
I want to emphasize that I am not claiming that just because higher consciousness can be defined relationally, referring to it, particularly in the teacher-student relationship, is straightforward or unproblematic. In Chapter 9 I emphasized that the relation of higher consciousness to ordinary consciousness, like the relation of any higher level to a lower level, is quite unlike the relationship of phenomena within any level. Even transcendence as holarchically defined is very different from any other kind of relationship that human beings are familiar with. The fact that it may be possible to refer to it does not mean that there is not a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding over what is being referred to. As I noted in the previous chapter, illusions are commonplace among seekers, even very advanced ones.
Nor am I claiming that people who have not experienced the higher state should accept it uncritically, as having now been proven. Surely Katz and Desilet are correct in the sense that the reality of higher consciousness can't be established in the same way that the reality of our familiar world is. This warning by Meyerhoff, while directed towards a mystical view of an absolute or ultimate state, I think has much relevance even applied to the different view of transcendence I have been discussing here:
While it would seem to be a good idea to legitimate the profound insights of mysticism to Western intellectuals, ultimately, I think it a losing battle. It requires that mystics and their defenders use intellectual weapons which, according to the mystics themselves, cause the delusion that mystical practice dispels. Additionally, by their nature, rational arguments can never provide the justification that mysticism needs to prevail.
But if we understand higher consciousness in terms of a holarchical transcendence of one level by another level, it does become possible to refer to it using relational language. A community of seekers might, by using language, establish its reality in this manner. I'm not saying that this is easy, or that it in fact has ever been done, but only that it is possible. If philosophers want to object to this, I remind them that this is the same way in which we establish the reality of the phenomenal aspects of our ordinary consciousness. The fact that zombies might be possible or conceivable, as discussed in Chapter 9, simply underscores that the only way we have of believing in the reality of our phenomenal consciousness is that everyone reports it. We take these reports on faith. If the universal nature of these reports is sufficient to convince everyone that this phenomenal consciousness exists, that it is not the case that everyone except me is a zombie, then logically it should be the same for a higher state of consciousness.
Indeed, it could be argued that if the postmodernist critique is correct, it provides further support for the holarchical view of transcendence. That is, the very fact that the experience of higher consciousness can be reported to those who are not experiencing it presupposes that the relationship of this higher level to our ordinary consciousness is not dualistic. They do interact. If it were truly an absolute, it would be difficult to understand how it could have an effect on the meditator's thoughts and words, as it clearly does.
Who Do We Believe?
In the previous section I have addressed a common philosophical objection to the very notion of a higher state of consciousness. However, this is only one issue confronting those who want to study this state with the methods of science. There remains the problem of verifying it, of establishing that someone who claims to be experiencing higher consciousness in fact is. Indeed, the preceding discussion, by emphasizing the difficulty of describing higher consciousness in words, should have made it obvious how difficult it will be to verify it for any particular individual.
All conventional science, of course, is intimately dependent upon language, on communication among individuals. The key aspect of scientific investigation, in this regard, is the hypothesis. A scientific hypothesis is basically a series of instructions. It describes what an investigator must do, what procedures must be followed, in order to make a particular observation. The key to verification in traditional scientific research lies in reproducing the results of others. Scientific observations only become facts when they are repeated many times, not by a single scientist or laboratory, but by many. This verification process is designed to weed out claims that result from fraud, incompetence, or most probably in the great majority of cases, simple human error or bias.
Ken Wilber (1983, 1995, 2006) has argued that a similar approach can be—and in fact, is--used to verify claims of higher consciousness. A master or teacher claims that if a student follows a certain practice, she will have certain experiences. The teacher's claim or set of instructions, in this view, is like a scientific hypothesis, which through confirmation by others becomes part of a common reality. We have just seen how difficult this is likely to be to achieve even within a close-knit spiritual community. But it is far more difficult in the laboratory. Many if not most scientists conducting studies of meditators have little or no experience in meditation, and are not attempting to follow some teacher's instructions. They are simply taking on faith that their subjects are meditating properly, and really are experiencing a higher level of consciousness. How can they possibly be certain of this?
One might argue that while the level of consciousness of meditators can't be directly confirmed by those who are not part of their school or discipline, we can nevertheless take their word for it. While meditators, as Wilber himself acknowledges, form an elite, claiming to have access to knowledge that not everyone else has, much the same could be said of science. Very few people can understand the details of modern scientific research. Indeed, this research has become so specialized that even highly competent scientists in one area are generally not qualified to judge the validity of research findings in a somewhat different area. Yet we are accustomed to taking the pronouncements of scientists seriously, if they are validated by other members of their profession. Why can't we do the same for meditators?
But there is a crucial difference between the practice of science and those who attempt to realize a higher state of consciousness. The results of science generally are validated not simply by complex experiments performed by other scientists, but often eventually also through common applications that anyone can appreciate. One doesn't have to have a detailed understanding of physics to know that airplanes can fly—or that some projectiles can even be guided very precisely to other parts of the solar system. One doesn't have to have a degree in biochemistry or pharmacology to verify that certain drugs have certain effects. One doesn't have to be a chemist to appreciate the suitability of certain materials for certain purposes. These and a seemingly endless number of other examples serve to place the edifice of science on a firm foundation, and ensure that the elite who discover these principles can be trusted—very often, with our lives.
Spiritual practice does not produce results that can be publicly confirmed in this sense (but see Box 16). To be sure, such real-world applications aren't essential to the practice of science. If they were, brain research would be very severely limited. We would not be able to study subjective states, which depend on the reports of individuals of what they think, feel or see, and which can't be verified independently. In landmark studies conducted more than half a century ago, the neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield (Penfield and Rasmussen 1950) mapped areas of the brain involved in various forms of perception, sensation and memory, by stimulating them with electrodes in conscious patients, who then reported to the experimenter what they were experiencing. Penfield's research helped make studies of subjective phenomena scientifically acceptable, and they are quite common today. For example, state-of-the-art imaging technology has been used to identify physiological correlates of such forms of behavior as language comprehension, emotion, and face recognition (Posamentier and Abdi 2003; Basar et al. 2006; Coricelli et al. 2007; Smits et al. 2006; Jackson and Crosson 2006; Gobbini and Haxby 2007). In many studies of this kind, there is inevitably some reliance on what the subject reports experiencing. As we will see later, several recent studies of meditators have employed the same kind of technology.
HIGHER CONSCIOUSNESS AND THE PARANORMAL
Are paranormal phenomena real? And if they are, do they constitute evidence for a higher state of consciousness?
The evidence for paranormal phenomena is based on a large body of anecdotal evidence, as well as on controlled studies in the laboratory (Stokes 2007). Scientific investigations have concentrated on a few well publicized phenomena, including: mind reading or mental telepathy; clairvoyance, or remote viewing; precognition, predicting future events; and psychokinesis, affecting the physical disposition of objects or processes—including living ones, such as are involved in healing. Many though by no means all of these studies have reported significant effects, and in some case the effects were very highly significant statistically (Rhine and Pratt 1954; Schmidt 1969; Targ et al. 1979). The conclusion of statistical significance has been greatly strengthened in recent years by meta-analyses, in which the results of dozens or even hundreds of different studies of these phenomena are compared against what would be expected by chance (Dunne and Jahn 1989, 2003; Bem and Honorton 1994; Utts 1995; Milton 1997; Radin 1997; Schmidt et al. 2004; Radin 2006; Radin et al. 2006).
Most scientists, however, remain unconvinced. Research on the paranormal has been heavily criticized on several grounds, including flaws in the methodology, inability to reproduce results, lack of an underlying theory of how the effects could occur, and that overall or meta-analyses have in some cases ignored negative results or data (Hansel 1980, 1989; Akers 1984; Hyman 1989, 1995; McCrone 1994; Randi and Clarke 1997; Alcock 1998, 2003; Milton and Wiseman 1989; Jahn et al. 2000; Jeffers 2003; Lobach and Bierman 2004; Hansen et al. 2006; Odling-Smee 2007). There have also been many documented cases of fraud (Scott and Haskell 1973; Rhine 1974; Randi 1983), and probably many more undiscovered instances, though it's clear that fraud can't account for all the significant results.
The most devastating criticism against psi, however, remains the inability to produce such effects on demand, in a way that would compel public acceptance. Confronted with this long-standing reality, some psi advocates argue that scientific studies of these phenomena, just because they must rely on large numbers of subjects to demonstrate such small changes, may have difficulty identifying relatively rare individuals who may be exceptionally endowed in such skills (Millar 1978). If psi phenomena are associated with higher consciousness, and few individuals have realized higher consciousness, we would certainly expect demonstrations of these phenomena to be rare, until we can more reliably identify individuals with higher consciousness.
In some respects, the connection between higher consciousness and psi is a natural one to make. I have described the higher state as one in which there is identification not with a single individual, but with a much larger and more complex form of life, the entire planet. Would not such a being, having transcended individuality, indeed be able to access the thoughts of other individuals? Shouldn't it be able to have direct information about any location on earth, which is just itself? Could it not likewise influence the outcome of processes all over the earth?
There are in fact numerous references to psychic powers in many of the major Eastern spiritual traditions (Evans-Wentz 1958; Govinda 1960; Ouspensky 1961; Eliade 1975; Shah 1964; David-Neel 1972), most often as phenomena that are encountered in the transition to higher consciousness. Several paranormal researchers have presented specific models showing how certain psi phenomena might result from some kind of interaction of an individual's consciousness with a much larger group consciousness (Price 1959; LeShan 1969; Jung 1973; Rao 1978; Bender 1980). And one major class of phenomena frequently encountered in discussions of the paranormal, near death experiences or NDEs, seem to some to beg for an explanation in terms of a larger consciousness that survives death of the physical body (Moody 1975; Grof and Halifax 1977; Ring 1980).
On the other hand, higher consciousness, having transcended the individual, is an impersonal experience; it is beyond the kinds of personal distinctions between individuals and processes that characterize most paranormal phenomena, Just as an individual cannot access the language or experience of his individual cells19, we might question whether a higher state of consciousness could access the language or experience of any particular individual. The notion that realization of higher consciousness brings psychic powers also seems inconsistent with the evidence that these powers, if they do indeed exist, are frequently associated with lower forms of consciousness. Thus studies have reported psychic effects through dreams (Ullman et al. 1973), and other unconscious processes (McDonough et al. 2002; Radin 2004), and there have even been claims that some other animals can exhibit paranormal powers (Schmidt 1970; Peoc'h 1995).
As with other issues raised by their findings, psi researchers themselves are highly divided on this question. While some, as noted above, have argued that paranormal phenomena may be related to a higher state of consciousness, others have formulated models around more scientifically acceptable concepts, such as quantum effects (Villars, 1983; Nash 1984; Giroldini 1986; Walker 2000), and the existence of additional dimensions of space or time (Dunne 1938; Hart 1965; Broad 1978; Rauscher and Targ 2002; Smythies 2003). While further investigations of psi phenomena may be justified, they do not yet provide any evidence for any particular understanding of reality.
However, there is a very big difference between attempting to locate physiological correlates of universal experiences, sensations and perceptions that we are all very familiar with, and using the same approach to explore higher consciousness. We all understand what someone is experiencing, say, when he reports seeing the image of a particular face, or matching two related words. While we still have to make the assumption that the subject is being honest, at least there is no question that any subject is capable of having experiences like these, and of recognizing them and communicating them to others. In contrast, very few people have this kind of familiarity with higher states of consciousness, and even those who do cannot begin to do justice to the experience with verbal descriptions.
The difference is further and very greatly magnified by the need, as I discussed earlier, to demonstrate not an enhancement of some basic mental or emotional skill, but an enhanced level of consciousness. The higher state of consciousness is just that—a higher state of consciousness. It is not the experience of a particular thought or feeling or image. Consider again those studies of subjects in the ordinary state of consciousness. Do any of these studies prove, or even attempt to prove, that these subjects are simply conscious, or if they are, how conscious? Of course not. Consciousness is an a priori assumption; what is being studied in all such cases is the contents of consciousness.20
But the study of higher consciousness cannot be of contents, because contents are not what define the higher state. It is defined simply by a greater degree or level of consciousness. Period.
A great deal more could be said about this, but I don't think it would change the basic conclusion: we can't verify experiences of a higher state of consciousness in the same way that we can verify most phenomena that science regards as real. Certainly not now, nor in the foreseeable future. I think this point needs to be better understood by scientists, philosophers and other academics, whatever their personal views. Those who are highly skeptical of the existence or at any rate significance of a higher state of consciousness need to accept that somewhat looser criteria are necessary if we are to make any progress in bringing these experiences into the domain of public knowledge. After all, many important and valuable scientific claims have yet to be verified empirically—string theory, for example (Smolin 2006). Science is, or ought to be, in the business of investigating any claims that are as far-reaching, and held by as many people, as higher consciousness is.
But those who do believe in the existence of higher consciousness, who may have personally experienced it, should not expect too much of science. They should not assume that just because they are certain that higher consciousness is real—as indeed I am—that it can be scientifically proven. As we will now see, some of the leading researchers in this emerging new area seem to believe this already. I believe that at the very least, the jury is out on this question.
With this background on meditation, and review of some of the problems potentially facing scientists who want to study it, let's now turn to a examination of these studies. Though there is a very large literature on this subject, I will confine the discussion to studies that attempt to identify brain correlates of higher consciousness.
Are there Brain Correlates of Higher Consciousness?
In the view of mainstream science, any change in consciousness that an individual experiences must be associated with certain changes in activity in the brain. We have identified such changes in the case of other states of consciousness, such as sleep and dreaming, and some drug-induced states (Austin 1998; Hobson 2000,2002). So the natural question that arises to scientists interested in higher consciousness is, what changes in the brain is it associated with? Is there a unique and characteristic signature of activity in the brain that it can be identified with?
In the past several decades, considerable research has been directed towards answering that question. Up until the turn of the century or so, most of these studies examined the electroencephalogram (EEG) of meditators. Many of these studies reported increases in the alpha rhythm, with this rhythm synchronized in different parts of the brain; this phenomenon, known as EEG coherence, was particularly prominent in frontal regions of the brain (Dillbeck and Bronson 1981; Orme-Johnson and Haynes 1981; Dillbeck and Vesely 1986; Levine et al. 1997; Travis and Wallace 1999; Khare and Nigam 2000). Some of these studies also reported increases in theta rhythms (Aftanas and Golocheikine 2001; Arambula et al. 2001; Aftanas and Golosheykin 2005), while recent studies have pointed to the importance of the higher frequency gamma waves (Lehmann et al. 2001; Lutz et al. 2004; Stuckey et al. 2005).
More recently, investigators have used imaging techniques, such as fluorescent magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and single positron emission computed tomography (SPECT), which can identify brain regions in which neural activity is particularly active (Lazar et al. 2000, 2005; Newberg et al. 2001; Kakigi et al. 2005; Cahn and Polich 2006; Orme-Johnson et al. 2006; Neumann and Frasch 2006; Liou et al. 2005; Holzel et al. 2007; Brefczynski-Lewis et al. 2007). Increased activation has been reported in frontal, prefrontal and cingulate areas, among others, correlating roughly with the results of many of the EEG studies.
Neuroimaging is generally considered a more advanced and sensitive technology than EEG, and there has in just the past few years been somewhat of a rush by many laboratories to embrace it. However, the EEG is still quite useful. While neuroimaging provides a much more detailed picture of activity in the brain than EEG, the latter provides dynamic information, that is, not simply which areas of the brain are active, but what kind of activity—e.g., the frequency of impulses traveling in some neuronal network. This is reflected in the various rhythms that may be detected, from the very slow theta and alpha rhythms to the much faster gamma waves. For all human cognitive parameters, not just meditation, it is still very much an open question to what extent the specific location of activity correlates with the specific function, and to what extent the dynamic characteristics of this activity are critical. So these very different techniques to a significant extent complement each other.
In discussing such a large and rapidly growing body of research, the first point I want to emphasize is that meditation is poorly defined. Because, as I discussed earlier, meditation is a very difficult process that is subject to many misconceptions, there is no guarantee that people claiming to meditate are actually doing so.. The problem is particularly acute in evaluating the earlier EEG studies, beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, because most of them were conducted by the Maharishi Institute in Fairfield, Iowa, which vigorously promotes the practice of what it calls transcendental meditation, or TM. Whatever TM is, it is not meditation, and whatever it does, it does not bring higher consciousness. Two brief passages from a recent review of some of the physiological effects of TM, by a devout practitioner of this technique, should make this very clear:
Transcendental Meditation is an effortless mental technique using purely phonetic qualities of a meaningless sound, or 'mantra', to 'turn the mind inwards towards its source', and requires no mental effort, concentration or particular mental ability
the unbounded awareness of 'samadhi', or transcendental consciousness, to which the mind is naturally and automatically drawn
As anyone who has ever meditated should know, the practice is not effortless. On the contrary, it is the most difficult activity that a human being can engage in. The classical literature on meditation is full of references to suffering. Were it not so, all human beings would have realized enlightenment long ago. As I noted earlier, the reference to turning the mind inwards also betrays a common misconception about meditation; it's just as much an outer practice as an inner one.
With regard to the second passage, there is nothing natural about meditation. It is the most unnatural activity a human being can engage in. Meditation, as the Buddha taught, is about struggle with desires, and desires are literally millions of years old. As we saw in Chapter 7, they evolved with the lower vertebrates. Every living thing since has been a slave to its desires, and our species is no exception.
The preceding comments are based largely on my personal experience, and readers may well ask why they should believe me and not someone else, That is a fair question, which I will return to later, but in the meantime I suggest that those readers who want to give TM the benefit of the doubt consider some of the other beliefs its devotees hold. These include the Maharishi effect, which claims that if 1% of the population in any locality meditates, crime will go down (Andrews 2005); and yogic flying—actually the subject of several scientific papers by the Institute (Orme-Johnson and Gelderloos 1988; Travis and Orme-Johnson 1990)—in which meditators, hopping around on a mat while sitting in the lotus position, claim to be levitating.
Advocates of TM may protest that if TM is not a valid method of meditation, why have so many studies demonstrated significant physiological changes in its practitioners? These include not only EEG changes, but beneficial effects on health, particularly hypertension (Orme-Johnson 1987; Eisenberg et al. 1993; Barnes et al. 1999; Herron and Hillis 2000); superior performance on tests of attention and perception (Clements and Milstein 1977; Ferguson 1993; Lyubimov 1998; Hankey 2006); and anti-aging effects (Clements and Clements 1980; Wallace et al. 1982; Glaser et al. 1987; Barnes et al. 2004). Don't all these findings suggest they are on to something?
One reason to be skeptical is that many TM studies, particularly the earlier ones, have as noted earlier been carried out at the Maharishi Institute, and have neither been replicated nor subject to peer-review. Critics have pointed out a number of flaws in some of these studies (Fenwick et al. 1977; Frumkin and Pagano 1979; Blackmore 1991; Canter and Ernst 2004; Andrews 2005; St. Louis and Lansky 2006; Jaseja 2007). In the context of this discussion, however, it's not necessary to establish that all TM studies are flawed, and that the practice has no value. I am quite willing to believe that it may indeed have value. What I want to emphasize is that the fact that TM may have certain benefits does not establish that it is a valid form of meditation, or that it will bring a higher form of consciousness. This is a point that should be carefully considered when evaluating any studies of the physiological or psychological effects of meditation, not just those employing TM.
The main effect of TM and similar practices is to remove an individual temporarily from the flow of life. In our busy Western world, this is fairly uncommon. Even when we are not working, we are typically doing something—reading, watching television, talking on the phone, working out, engaged in some hobby, and so on. It should not be surprising that this has distinct correlates in the brain, and that it may provide health benefits.
In any case, in the past few years, an increasing number of studies of meditation have been reported in which the subjects practiced some form of meditation other than TM (Benson et al. 1990; Newberg et al. 2001; Arumbula et al. 2001; Litscher et al 2001; Kjaer et al. 2002; Lo et al. 2003; Lutz et al. 2004; Carter et al. 2005; Lazar et al. 2005; Sarang and Telles 2006; Chaya et al. 2006; Holzel et al. 2007; Slagter et al. 2007; Streeter et al. 2007; Brefczynski-Lewis et al. 2007). Discussion of all this research is beyond the scope of this chapter. What I will do is focus on just two of these studies. I have chosen these two because both a) employed subjects—Buddhists--who had many years of experience in a long established school; b) were carried out in by established, experienced investigators who entered the field after maturing as researchers in other areas; and c) were published in refereed journals. These criteria, which are also met by some other studies I will not discuss here, by no means should convince us that the conclusions of these studies are sound, but they do suggest that they represent the kind of research worthy of more attention.
Why the critics won't go away.
The first study I will discuss was reported by Andrew Newberg and his colleagues (Newberg et al. 2001). This was one of the very first studies to apply neuroimaging techniques to meditators. As I mentioned in the previous chapter, neuroimaging is now routinely used to explore a wide variety of human brain functions, including language processing, facial recognition, object classification, and emotion. Newberg et al. used a procedure called single positron emission computerized tomography (SPECT). A radioactive isotope is injected into the subject, after which scanning allows measurement of cerebral blood flow (CBF) in different regions of the brain.
The subjects in this study were eight experienced Tibetan Buddhist meditators. They came to Newberg's laboratory, where following injection of isotope, they were subject to two scans, one prior to meditation, which served as a baseline, and one following meditation, which was assumed to measure the effect of meditation. The results of these studies, the implications of which are discussed in detail in the book Why God Won't Go Away (Newberg et al. 2002), indicated that activity increased in parts of the frontal, prefrontal and cingulate cortex, as well as the thalamus.
I pointed out earlier that a central problem of all scientific studies of higher consciousness is validating that the subjects are in fact actually experiencing this higher state. While the use of experienced Buddhists by Newberg et al. was intended to maximize investigator confidence that the phenomenon was in fact higher consciousness, from a purely scientific point of view, nothing has changed. The investigators are reduced to taking the word of their subjects. There is no way they can independently validate their word.
Newberg and his colleagues might argue that since there is no way we can obtain independent validation, for now at least, the next best thing is to study a group of individuals who are known to have had many years of experience in a long-established school devoted to meditative practice. Even a flawed study may be more valuable than no study at all, if we are cognizant of the flaws. I have no problem with this, as long as this validation problem is clearly acknowledged upfront. But in Newberg's studies, and in most of the other studies I have seen, it is not. There is an assumption, totally unwarranted in science, that the subjects are experiencing a higher state of consciousness. This is an unverified assumption, and should be acknowledged as such.
Water faucet fallacy.
In the case of Newberg's studies, moreover, there is a second serious flaw, one that in fact gives one reason to doubt that, even if the subjects were experiencing higher consciousness, this was what was being measured. The evidence that these changes occurred was obtained by comparing the Tibetans before and after they began meditating. As I noted earlier, their brains were subjected to a SPECT scan before meditating, which produced what was considered a baseline or control profile of activity. This baseline was in effect subtracted from the SPECT scan obtained during meditation, to provide a difference profile that was specifically correlated with the process of meditation.
This is a standard procedure in many scientific experiments, where some parameter of the subject is compared before and after the procedure that is to be examined. It has the advantage of providing what is called an internal control. The same subject is compared under two different conditions, rather than comparing one subject, in this case a meditator, with another subject, a non-meditator. While the latter type of comparison is also used in many such studies, it does have the problem that any differences observed may be related in part to individual variability, rather than to the fact that one individual was an experienced meditator and the other was not. By using an internal control, any differences in individual subjects can be ruled out as contributing to differences in results.
However, an obvious but critical assumption underlies this approach: that detectable changes in the brain could be found within a relatively short time after the Buddhists began meditating. In adopting this assumption, both the scientists as well as their subjects were subscribing to what I sometimes call the “water faucet” fallacy (Smith 2006a). This is the presumption that meditation can simply be turned on and off like a faucet—that an advanced meditator goes through his everyday life in more or less the same consciousness as everyone else, until she sits down and concentrates. Then, bang! In the space of a few minutes she rapidly ascends to satori or wherever.
It seems that an astonishingly large number of people, including some who present themselves as long experienced experts in the process of meditation, subscribe to this view. I can understand why someone not very familiar with meditation would understand it in this manner. Most if not all ordinary human activities are like this. We are not constantly engaged in them, but rather shift into and out of them. For example, a gifted athlete does not spend all his waking hours hitting a 90 mph fastball, but only a few seconds or minutes during the day. An artist may spend considerably more time creating a painting or sculpture, but at some point she desists and does other things with her life. A writer does not always write, and so on. So we can, in theory, identify the brain correlates of any of these activities, simply by comparing activity when the person is engaged in them with activity when he is not so engaged.
However, meditation, as I discussed earlier, is not about acquiring some new skill, or experiencing some new content of consciousness. It's about realizing a higher level of consciousness. Skills or experiences can come and go very rapidly. Levels change only very slowly.
Viewing meditation like a skill actually involves two assumptions, both of which in my experience are false. First, there is the misconception, very widely held, that meditation need be practiced only part of the time, for a few hours or even less daily. If one holds this view, then one can divide periods of time, as Newberg et al. did, into meditation and non-meditation, presuming that there will be a major difference in brain activity between them. But if, as indicated by my experience and that of many others (Ouspensky 1961; deRopp 1968), meditation is something that must be practiced all the time, there can be no such distinction.
The second false assumption is that during meditation, very large changes in the level of awareness can occur. If this is the case, then any changes in brain activity may also be fairly large, and detectable by scanning, EEG changes or other neurological measurement. In my experience, however—and again, this is a widely held though by no means universally held view--the increase in level of awareness that takes place during meditation is extremely slow and gradual. Only a tiny amount accumulates from day to day. After a very long period of dedicated practice, the sum total of this accumulation may be very substantial; the meditator may realize a very advanced level of awareness, relative to a non-meditator or relative to herself before she began the practice. But beyond some relatively small fluctuations, that level does not and cannot change very much over a period of a few minutes or hours. It is quite stable.25
Readers who have not confirmed these claims themselves will naturally ask why they should believe me, in preference to a group of Tibetan Buddhists, not to mention a fairly large number of published authors on the subject of meditation. Fair enough, so let me present another argument that does not depend so heavily on someone's claims of personal experience. This argument is based on the fundamental premise, discussed earlier, that meditation represents a developmental/evolutionary process. While the meditative process, as we have seen, is very different in some respects from that by which our ordinary consciousness evolved, they do share one important feature: they are both examples of vertical change. A higher form of existence evolves from a lower.
So let's ask, how does development through these lower stages of consciousness proceed? Consider child development, where we have an enormous amount of data available. This is a very slow, gradual process that occurs at a more or less fixed rate, and each stage is reached more or less irreversibly. Imagine having your child, 6, 8, 12 or whatever years old, tested on some developmental scale. Does she normally behave as a newborn infant, then suddenly, through some kind of concentration, realize a higher level of development? Of course not. Whatever level she has reached, she is at that level all the time. She carries it around with her wherever she goes.
To be sure, in the process of being tested, the child exhibits particular skills, such as reading comprehension, mathematical ability, conceptual understanding, and so on. We normally understand human development as being defined by the acquisition of such skills, and this is an important difference between this development, which is a transformational process, and meditative or spiritual development, which I claim is a transcendental process. But even in the developmental process, the level of these skills is stable; it does not change in the course of a few minutes or a few hours. While it may take some time to assess these skills, this is a limitation of the testing process, not of the child being tested. Whatever skill level she has is manifested virtually instantaneously, as soon as it is probed by the test, and it does not change over the course of minutes or hours.
My claim is that this is a key feature of all developmental processes, including meditation. Whatever the meditator's level of awareness, he is at that level constantly. He does not and cannot turn it off and on at will.
So not only did Newberg et al. have no independent way of validating that the Buddhist meditators were experiencing a higher state of consciousness, but even if they in fact were, it is unlikely that very large changes in brain activity would have occurred. There could have been large changes in their brains relative to activity in non-meditators, but not relative to the state they were in when the experiment began, and when a baseline activity was determined. The fact that such changes were observed makes me strongly suspicious that whatever was being measured, it was not higher consciousness.26
What were Newberg et al. (2001) measuring, then? The brain regions found to be active in this study, and also in other more recent neuroimaging studies of meditators (Lazar et al. 2005; Brefczynski-Lewis et al. 2007; Holzel et al. 2007), are generally well correlated with regions known to be involved in attention. As I discussed earlier, several behavioral studies of meditators have also reported greater attentional processing capacity. But attention is a skill; it is not the same thing as an increased level of awareness. While attention is often associated with awareness, the two can be distinguished; recent studies suggest, in fact, that attention can facilitate processing of information that occurs below the level of awareness (Kentridge et al. 2008). As a skill, it can be turned on and off, and thus one would expect brain regions mediating it to become more active in a relatively short period of time. Indeed, neuroimaging is generally considered applicable only to activities that can be turned on and off quickly (Lorberbaum et al. 1998).
This second flaw in the Newberg study is at least easily remediable. One can compare brain activity of meditators with non-meditators. If a meditator is in a high state of awareness, his brain may exhibit stable differences, not ones that simply emerge during a period of meditation. These differences would become apparent in a comparison of non-meditators. I will now turn to a second study that claimed differences of this sort.
A high frequency high.
Like Newberg et al. (2001), Lutz et al. (2004) studied Buddhists claiming long experience (15-40 years) in meditation. However, Lutz et al. made EEG measurements, and in addition to comparing these measurements during meditation with a pre-meditation baseline period, they also performed a comparison with control subjects who had never practiced meditation, except for a one-week introductory period prior to beginning the study.
As with many of the EEG studies of meditators I mentioned earlier, Lutz et al. reported increases in synchrony, particularly over the frontal and parietal regions of the cortex. Unlike most previous studies, however, which generally found the largest increases in the relatively low frequency alpha and theta rhythms, Lutz et al reported changes chiefly in higher frequency rhythms, particularly gamma waves, in the range of 25-42 Mherz. Moreover, these changes were much larger than the changes found in earlier studies, indeed, according to the investigators, “the highest reported in the literature in a nonpathological context.” They concluded that their results “suggest that massive distributed neural assemblies are synchronized with a high temporal precision in the fast frequencies during this state.” 
These changes in gamma synchrony were found in both types of comparison made during this study, namely, between the pre-meditative or baseline period and the meditative period of the Buddhists, but also between the baseline period of the Buddhists and the baseline period of the controls. With regard to this latter finding, the authors comment that “It is not unexpected that such differences would be detected during a resting baseline, because the goal of meditation practice is to transform the baseline state and to diminish the distinction between formal meditation practice and everyday life.” I agree very much with this view, and for the reason I just discussed in relation to the study by Newberg et al. (2001), I find the latter finding critical. While one can probably not definitively rule out effects of individual differences in this study, which employed a relatively small pool of subjects (there were just eight Buddhists), the size of the differences between Buddhists and controls, and the fact that the differences were generally correlated with length of training (the greatest differences were found in Buddhists with the longest reported experience), gives one a fairly high degree of confidence that these stable changes in the brain are real.
So is this a “breakthrough” study, as one commentator suggested (Hameroff 2005)? The results are encouraging, but I wouldn't go that far. In particular, I don't believe this study has entirely resolved the problem of changes in some skill such as attention vs. level of awareness. The changes occurring in the Buddhists during meditation, as compared to baseline, were fairly substantial. The authors also reported statements by the Buddhists themselves, saying a period of 5-15 seconds was necessary to enter into the meditative state. This suggests to me that while they may have been in a higher state of awareness, what they are calling the meditative state, and perhaps much of the changes measured in this study, nevertheless involved attention, rather than being specific to the higher level.
Indeed, a still more recent study by this same group (Brefczynski-Lewis et al. 2007) quite openly claimed to be looking for correlates of attention, as if that is what meditation is all about. This latter study also used pupil dilation as an indicator that meditation was occurring, when in fact it has nothing to do with meditation, and the investigators did not measure performance on any tasks only “because practitioners reported that a task would disrupt their ongoing meditation.” I would be highly suspicious of the meditative ability of anyone who finds that performing a task interferes with meditation. Many spiritual schools make heavy use of tasks, generally referred to as karma yoga, during meditation. As I discussed earlier, any activity will slow the rate of awareness rise, but it should not be an obstacle to any experienced meditator, and indeed, anyone living and working in the West must deal with this situation routinely.
Finally, in a very recent and in many respects excellent review of meditation and its scientific study, this group makes it very clear that they regard the process as a skill that is in principle no different from other human skills:
Emotions, attention and introspection are ongoing and labile processes that need to be understood and studied as skills that can be trained, similar to other human skills like music, mathematics or sports…the methods employed by Buddhist contemplative processes resonate with widely accepted developmental models of basic cognitive processes; according to these models, cognitive functions are skills that critically depend upon learning from environmental input30
They go on to note that
the brain of an expert, such as a chess player, a taxi driver or a musician, is functionally and structurally different from that of a non-expert31
the implication being that a meditator is an expert in a similar way.
As noted earlier, some enhancement of skills may indeed take place as a result of meditation, but these are not the purpose of the process, and they will not necessarily accompany it. So identifying structural and functional changes in the brain associated with these skills does not establish that these changes are also correlates of higher consciousness. As a scientist, I can understand focusing on such changes, because they are measurable. But as a meditator, I believe that focus on such skills runs a great risk of not identifying what is truly different about this process. It's quite possible to focus on emotions, or thoughts, or objects, or images, without meditating. This is what introspection is. But meditation is not introspection, paradoxically, it's just as much about not focusing, about not attending, as attending. Lutz et al (2008) in fact come close to making this point when they say
The practitioner…must somehow avoid attending to the particularities of object and subject and grant access to the fact of knowing itself.32
So much is contained in that word “somehow”! It is this “knowing itself” that hints at what meditation is or does, and this is not a skill.
In concluding this discussion, I want to reiterate that most previous EEG studies of meditators had observed changes in alpha and theta activity. Generally, it wasn't that there were no changes in gamma activity, but that changes in this part of the EEG spectrum were not studied. However, the increase in gamma activity observed by Lutz et al. (2004) actually corroborated the results of a previous study of Buddhists (Lehmann et al. 2001), and interestingly, also a study of individuals using psychedelic drugs (Stuckey et al. 2005). Moreover, the brain regions exhibiting greatest gamma synchrony in the study by Lutz et al (2004) generally agree with the regions found most active in imaging studies. However, there are some differences among the latter. Berczynski-Lewis et al. (2007) reported that non-meditators actually had higher activity than meditators in the anterior cingulate, whereas Newberg et al. (2001), Lazar et al. (2000), and Holzel et al. (2007) reported stronger activity in those regions in imaging studies of meditators. The studies by Berczynski-Lewis et al. and Lazar et al. reported greater activity in parietal cortex, as did the EEG study by Lutz et al. (2004), whereas Newberg et al. found less.
Future studies with larger subject pools may resolve some of these differences. But the most important task ahead for these investigators remains providing more evidence that they are indeed studies changes in level of awareness, and not simply some skill such as attention.
Taking it to the Next Level
I have emphasized throughout this book the close association between the evolution of individuals and the evolution of social groups. Nowhere is this association more apparent than in the evolution of our own species, where the emergence of our much larger and more complex brain was accompanied by increasingly more complex social relationships. As I have taken pains to make clear, I believe that all the unique properties of our species are social ones, first and foremost belonging to our societies, which we as individuals participate in to some extent.
In light of this correlation, it's natural to ask what the relationship might be between higher consciousness as realized by individuals and some still newer and more complex form of human social organization. Though meditation has traditionally been considered a highly personal affair, which must be practiced by self-reliant, independent individuals, there has always been a communal aspect to it. Most of the ancient spiritual disciplines evolved in schools, organized around a teacher who transmitted his knowledge to his students. Further social bonds were formed through literature, some of which of course has spread far beyond the established members of any particular school.
Traditional spiritual communities, even in the extended sense in which they include readers of some of the classic texts, are still relatively small and simple in their organization, compared to modern secular societies. Recently, however, this has begun to change. A much larger number of people have expressed some interest in meditation and higher consciousness, and along with this increase in numbers, there have been growing changes, or discussion of changes, in the organizations and relationships of such individuals.
One might trace the beginning of such change to the 1960s and 1970s, when there was a surge in interest among people in the West in Eastern philosophies and spiritual practices. Coming as Westerners do from traditions of democracy and egalitarianism, there was a strong reaction against the more authoritarian ways in which many Eastern schools are run, with the guru in a position of central if not absolute power. When these schools were transported to America and other Western countries, there was considerable interest in transforming them into more democratic models, in which students would have some say in the way the schools were run.
In the past several years, however, much greater changes have begun to emerge. associated with a movement that is often called participatory spirituality (Edwards 1999; Ferrer 2002; de Quincey 2005; Heron 2007; Bauwens 2008). The ideas or practices associated with this movement include:
Defining spirituality in terms of relationships with others (deQuincey 2005). This includes not only service to others, which has long been associated with major Western religions, but much less so with Eastern spiritual communities, but also a new notion of intersubjectivity meant to be applied not simply to ordinary human consciousness, but to higher consciousness
Is participatory spirituality the social organization within which individual human beings develop a higher state of consciousness, just as earlier forms of societies were associated with lower states of consciousness? I believe there is an important relationship here, but it is not the same kind of relationship that we have seen for earlier stages of consciousness. In the first place, the emerging new social organization is not confined to those who have an interest in meditation and higher consciousness. It encompasses the entire planet. As I discussed in Chapter 8, small-world organization is found throughout modern human societies, and peer-to-peer organization, which appears to have a small-world character33, is also spreading far beyond spiritual communities (Bauwens 2005, 2006). To understand the emergence of higher consciousness, we have to take into account this planetary social organization.
In this regard, it's instructive to compare some key features of lower level small world networks with those of human societies (Table 7). Some of the estimates in Table 7 are very crude, not only because of the difficulty in obtaining more precise values, but more fundamentally, in knowing what constitutes a value. For example, how do we define a link between one person and another? Must the two individuals regard themselves as friends or acquaintances? Must they have face-to-face interaction, and if so, how often? Nevertheless, it's clear that in both number of nodes or holons and in the extent of linkage of these nodes, the organization of humanity on earth (quite apart from the far greater complexity of what is being organized) is approaching in complexity that of the brain, and exceeds that of metabolic networks in cells.
COMPARISON OF SMALL WORLD ORGANIZATION AT THREE LEVELS OF EXISTENCE
For metabolic networks, the number of holons is estimated by assuming that a) all proteins are members of metabolic networks; b) the total protein mass of the cell is 16% of the total cell mass; and c) the average molecular weight of a protein is 100,000 Daltons. The average number of connections in metabolic networks is from Wagner and Fell (2001), Ma and Zeng (2003) and Almaas (2007). For brain, the number of holons is the number of cells, ranging from the nematode to the human brain. The average connection of synaptic connections of a cell is from Changizi (2008). For human societies, the number of holons is the population of the earth. The average number of links per person is from Amaral et al. (2000).
For metabolic networks, the number of holons is estimated by assuming that a) all proteins are members of metabolic networks; b) the total protein mass of the cell is 16% of the total cell mass; and c) the average molecular weight of a protein is 100,000 Daltons. The average number of connections in metabolic networks is from Wagner and Fell (2001), Ma and Zeng (2003) and Almaas (2007). For brain, the number of holons is the number of cells, ranging from the nematode to the human brain. The average connection of synaptic connections of a cell is from Changizi (2008). For human societies, the number of holons is the population of the earth. The average number of links per person is from Amaral et al. (2000).
Second, and most critically, the relationship of the higher state of consciousness to social organization is radically different from the social relationship of lower states of consciousness. As I discussed earlier in this chapter, higher consciousness is best viewed as not simply a higher developmental/evolutionary stage, but a higher level, one that completely transcends the mental level on which humans and their societies, as well as all other organisms and their societies, exist. To fully grasp how different this relationship is, we have to return to the lessons of Chapter 2, where we examined the experience of the earliest, most primitive multicellular organisms. We saw that such forms of life make very little distinction between self and other, a type of experience I refer to as zero-dimensional. I furthermore argued that this is typical of any emerging new level, and was also characteristic of the earliest cells.
My claim, therefore, is that higher consciousness, also representing the emergence of a new level of existence, is likewise zero-dimensional. It does not distinguish between self and other; indeed, as mentioned earlier, this is one of its defining characteristics. Unlike higher developmental stages on any level of existence, therefore, it does not simply participate in the properties of some society. It is the society. Or more exactly, there is no distinction between individual and society; both individual and society are subsumed in a higher form of life that is really neither individual nor social. This idea has been anticipated by many others, most notably Teilhard de Chardin (1959),who envisioned a higher form of consciousness emerging as the increasing density of human populations on earth brought their individual consciousnesses into close interaction.
An individual who has completely and permanently realized higher consciousness, therefore, is immortal. He now identifies not with a single human individual, but with the entire planet. Whether there is such a truly planetary consciousness right now—that is, whether any individual human has actually realized complete, permanent consciousness—I regard as an open question. Certainly there is no shortage of individuals who claim to have done so, but as the earlier discussion of this chapter should have made clear, there is no way of demonstrating this to ordinary humanity.
Computers and Higher Consciousness
No discussion of the possible future of our species would be complete or credible without some mention of the role that computers will play in this future. They have become an enormous factor in all of our lives, and the extent of our interaction with them will continue to grow. But this interaction is not likely to be confined to a simple extension, however much more sophisticated, of the basic tool use paradigm that began with some of our primate ancestors. Computers of the future will not be just very complex machines that we manipulate in various ways. They promise—or threaten, depending on one's point of view—to invade our biological integrity, profoundly changing the nature of our species.
Anything you can do, I can do better.
This, at least, is the vision of Ray Kurzweil, a prominent futurist who is not some idle theorist but has decades of personal experience in the development of computers and related electronic devices. By the end of this century, Kurzweil predicts in his book The Age of Spiritual Machines (2000), “organic human beings” will be an endangered species. The most intelligent forms of existence will be software programs, capable of moving not only from computer to computer, but into highly mobile robots as well. There will also be computer-human hybrids, composed of humans with electronic implants that enhance or replace many of the traditional functions of the brain. This latter aspect of the future has in fact already arrived (Boahen 2007).
Should we take Kurzweil's vision seriously? The future has of course always been notoriously difficult to predict, and how much more so when technology is developing so rapidly. While computer technology will certainly advance with increasing speed, some worry that the these advances could make human beings superfluous, and eventually lead to the extinction of our species (Joy 2000). Rather than seeing computers as our allies, such scenarios suggest they could become our mortal enemies. From this point of view, Kurzweil is actually being far too optimistic.
Still, I think the future he suggests is worth considering. In the first place, he has a fairly impressive track record as a futurist. In his earlier book, The Age of Intelligent Machines (1992) he accurately predicted, almost to the year, when the first computer program would beat a grandmaster at chess as well as many important details about the nature as well as the growth of the internet. The Age of Spiritual Machines has correctly foreseen many of the educational and commercial uses that computers are now used for, as well as the explosive growth of handheld devices.
To be sure, these predictions are not as difficult to make as one might think. Most major advances in computer technology depend heavily on increasing the trend towards miniaturization—putting more computing power, in the form of transistors, on a standard-sized chip. According to a well known relationship known as Moore's Law, this number doubles approximately every two years, and is expected to continue to do so in the near future. So it is fairly easy to predict the kinds of devices that will be able to perform particular operations some years in advance.
Kurzweil's longer term predictions, on the other hand, extending over the entire coming century, are obviously more speculative. Computers will certainly become faster and more powerful, but will they develop other aspects of human intelligence? Will they feel emotions? Will they be genuinely creative? Will they appreciate art and music?
The first point to observe is that Kurzweil's vision is based on a materialist view of the brain—indeed, even more than that, on a functionalist view. As we saw in the preceding chapter, functionalism holds that consciousness emerges from any set of interacting units or processes that have the appropriate organization. To the extent that this view is correct, it seems that computers will inevitably become conscious. Kurzweil envisions that within the next several decades it will be possible to create, in effect, an exact electronic copy of a human brain, one that has all the trillions of connections in precisely the same organization that our brain does. While I am not so certain that this will be possible, in the sense of duplicating exactly a particular individual brain, it may be possible to create in this way a generic brain that is similar in many essential details to real human brains. It may also be possible to duplicate more or less exactly the brains of simpler organisms.
Functionalism predicts that such a computer would not only be conscious, but conscious in the same way that the individual or organisms with that brain is. It would experience emotions as well as thoughts, for example. Indeed, as Kurzweil understands, computers of the future will provide the acid test of functionalism. If they are conscious, and can convince us that they are, the functionalist view would be vindicated.
As we saw earlier, however, functionalism in this highly strict sense is quite controversial. Though almost all scientists and probably a large majority of philosophers are materialists, believing that consciousness somehow emerges from the organization of the brain, the functionalist view is much less popular. As I suggested in the previous chapter, there are reasons to believe that the kinds of units that are assembled in a particular organization do matter. If this is so, then computers of silicon chips, no matter how many trillions of operations they may perform per second, will not be conscious to nearly the degree that humans are.
This is a fairly obvious point, I think, and has been raised by critics of Kurzweil (Dembski 2002). However, it is not a very good reason for dismissing his predictions. In the first place, even if computers are not conscious, they might, like the zombies so beloved by philosophers of mind, function so much like human beings that it would be difficult for us to tell the difference. If a computer can not only think, but claim to have feelings, are we organics going to assume that it is mistaken? And even if we are certain that computers are not conscious, if they can vastly outperform us cognitively, their lack of consciousness will not hold them back from taking over more and more of the activities now performed by humans. If there is one thing the immense philosophical literature on zombies has established it is that if they really can exist, there is very little if anything that we can do that they can't do.
In the second place, we must take very seriously the possibility of artificial forms of intelligence that are partly or completely organic. The same nanotechnology that promises to revolutionize medicine some day might also be applied to the creation of living cells, and their assembly into brains. Research has already demonstrated the possibility of connecting brains to computers in such a way that the activity of neurons controls the computer. For example, the electrical activity in the brain of a moth (Higgins 2001), and more recently a monkey (Boahen 2007) and even cultured neurons, has been used to guide a robot to move. Computers also exist that use reproducing DNA molecules to perform calculations (Baum and Boneh 2002).
Indeed, given the discussion of the evolution of the human brain in Chapter 8, in which I pointed out that many of the trillions of detailed connections might be assembled according to a few simple rules, such self-assembly processes would probably be the easiest way to create brain-like machines. Computers in which the components are DNA molecules could also be self-assembled. The most complex computers of the future are most likely to be self-assembled from components that at least bear some resemblance to living cells. It would be much harder to make the case that such computers are not conscious.
In this scenario, artificial forms of intelligence would not be so artificial, and they would have the potential not simply to match ordinary human consciousness, but to exceed it. As I have discussed earlier, a key step in the evolution of experience has been the creation of higher order connections in the nervous system. These higher order connections remove the organism progressively further from direct, immediate experience, by combining it with past experience to form structures, then an extended present, and eventually object permanence. Computers could extend this process of holarchical combination further. In fact, virtual reality, which promises to allow experience of any event or phenomenon at any time, can be viewed as the ultimate outcome of this process. Experience has now completely freed itself from the immediate present, and is able to move into a temporal and spatial arena of virtually infinite possibilities.
Nor would the development of computers be restricted to the domain of thought. Functionalism implies not simply an identity of thought but of emotion. As Kurzweil notes, if computers are conscious, they would feel emotions, much as we do. Indeed, probably more so. While we humans share the same basic emotions as lower vertebrates, we can experience many more that result from various subtle combinations of these basic emotions with themselves and with various thought processes (Plutchik 1989; Ekman 1999; Minsky 2006). The development of more complex thought processes in computers strongly suggests that they would also be capable of feeling new emotions as well.
So are there any limits to what computers of the future might think, feel or do? Perhaps not, but certainly there are limits to what they might experience. However vast their potential for experience, they still represent a higher stage, not a higher level, of existence. A higher level, as we have seen, requires complete transcendence of the current level. The earlier discussion in this chapter should have made it clear that no matter how fast, complex and sophisticated the thought processes of computers of the future may be, these processes will not bring them to a higher level of consciousness. Nor will the most rarified emotions. On the contrary, a higher level requires going beyond thought and emotion.
Would computers be capable of doing this? Is this question even meaningful? I think it is if computers of the future are a) organic based, and experience emotions as well as thoughts; and b) still maintain some sense of individuality. Kurzweil believes that individual distinctions may dissolve, as software programs jump from one computer to the next, mixing in an endless variety of hybrid forms. However, this can be viewed as the logical extension of a process that is already fairly advanced with current humans. Compared to our ancestors, our minds, too, have fused. Language, now greatly amplified by mass media, has filled our heads with a large set of shared symbols. To a very large extent, we are all more alike, thinking the same thoughts together, than we ever were before. Yet in some ways, we are much more individual, much more distinct, each of us, than our ancestors were. We have seen that this is a trend that began when the first organisms experienced self vs. other. I am guessing that computers of the future would extend this trend, but not break with it.
Given these two conditions, I assume the possibility of realizing a higher state would be open to computers. The question is whether the motivation would be there. The future that Kurzweil paints is one in which there is little incentive to seek transcendence. If one is immortal, and can access a seemingly limitless variety of experiences through virtual reality, why would want to give up all this for a higher state? Immortality in particular has always been the driving force behind spirituality. With that taken care of, why seek a higher level?
This would not be the first time such a devil's bargain has been struck. When early organisms evolved from cells, they promised not only a higher level of consciousness than could be realized by any individual cell, but also a lifetime so vastly greater than the days or weeks that cells typically live that it would seem to be immortality in comparison. But through further evolution, some cells discovered they could obtain immortality on their own. By becoming part of the organism they achieved the ability to live just as long as it did.
What are these cells that live as long as we do, that can perform cognitive feats far beyond those of other kinds of cells, which are so interconnected that they are in touch with tens of thousands of other cells like themselves? Yet which, for all their super-cell qualities, can't conceive of the experiences that even a simple organism has? They're called neurons.
So far from fearing the development of more powerful computers, I think meditators should embrace them. They have the potential to ensure that the new planetary organism that is gradually awakening will be around for a very long time.
1. Many observers have claimed that there is more than one higher state of consciousness (Bucke 1961; Ouspensky 1961; deRopp 1968; Aurobindo 1985; Wilber 1980). I believe this is quite likely, but I will not discuss this possibility. Individuals attempting to realize the next higher state, as well as scientists trying to illuminate its relationship to their brain, have a very long and hard road ahead of them, without worrying about what might come after that.
There is also an important distinction to be made between state of consciousness and level of consciousness. A state of consciousness may be experienced temporarily by an individual, whereas a level implies something permanent. Wilber (2002, 2006), along with Allan Combs (2002) has argued that states and levels can be dissociated, so that an individual at any level of consciousness can access a wide variety of different states. By level they mean what I would call some human developmental or evolutionary stage within the mental or behavioral level as I define it. I have criticized this notion (Smith 2000a, 2002a, 2006a), arguing that there is a strict one-to-one relationship between states and levels. In my view, if an individual at some stage experiences a higher state of consciousness, she is also experiencing a higher level, even if only fleetingly and partially. I will not discuss this further here.
2. A further problem is that even to the extent that higher consciousness is associated with enhancement of physical, emotional and mental functions, they may emerge very unevenly in different meditators. Ken Wilber, who unlike me does believe that development of higher consciousness can be assessed by measurement of such functions, concedes that it develops in many separate lines or streams, each of which may proceed at a different rate (Wilber 2003a). Thus one might be very advanced in the traditional sense of meditation—stilling the mind—but nevertheless poorly developed emotionally or socially. I would say this just reflects the fact that meditators are, after all, humans, and everyone comes to the quest with a different personal makeup, different strengths and weaknesses. As the technology for probing the brains of individuals becomes more powerful and discriminatory, we will have to take increasing care in distinguishing individual differences from universal aspects of the experience.
3. Stewart (2006), p. 5.
4. Strictly speaking, this is not quite true. The presence of any incoming sensory stimuli will slightly retard the rate at which the level of awareness increases during meditation, as will any activity on the part of the meditator (see below for further discussion of the latter point). However, the effect is relatively slight, and the point is that while the rate of increase of awareness may be slightly reduced, the process itself is not prevented. It will continue to occur at the lower rate.
5. This is an ideal case. Meditators are human, and fallible just like any other humans. The increased awareness that prolonged practice at meditation brings makes possible the attainment of a high level of skill at some particular activity, and this may tempt the meditator to pursue the activity for some reward. If this becomes an obsession, it can interfere with the overall development of the meditator.
6. Katz (1978), p. 22.
7. Desilet (2007b).
8. One way of making this point is through Wittgenstein's private language argument (Wittgenstein 1958) . Wittgenstein claimed that there can be no such thing as a private language, one that is meaningful only to a single individual. Language of any kind, in this view, can only emerge from interactions with others. If one accepts this argument, it follows that any experiences that are beyond the kinds of descriptions that one would use to communicate them to others also are beyond descriptions one might make of them for oneself. This argument by Wittgenstein, however, does not address the possibility that one might confirm for oneself certain experiences in a way not involving language.
9. Desilet (2007b).
10. Still another relevant argument here is based on the relationship of thought to language. As discussed in the previous chapter, many linguists argue that the two are not entirely identical, that, for example, we can think thoughts that we have no words to express. Such thoughts would count as another kind of experience that is beyond language.
11. Ferrer (2000), p. 20.
12. Derrida (1978a), p. 281.
13. Derrida (1981), p. 20.
14. Of course, there is a major problem with dualism. As discussed in Chapter 1, it doesn't seem to allow for interactions between the two levels. If there is really a dualistic relationship between humans and God, then God should be powerless to affect human lives, and conversely, there is no way that humans can communicate to God, as through prayer, for example. But these problems are typical of all dualistic relationships. Despite these problems, the traditional religious view of God is in just these terms, more or less, and as I go on to discuss, this view is different from the holarchical relationship of levels.
15. Wilber (1995, p. 61) says: “Destroy any type of holon, and you will destroy all of the holons above it and none of the holons below it.” He is being sloppy here, falsely implying that holons are the same as levels. It would be more accurate to say, “Destroy any level of existence, and you will destroy all of the levels above it, and none of the levels below it.” I agree with this, but as I have discussed before, Wilber applies this criterion inconsistently, leading to many problems in his view of higher/lower relationships (Smith 2000a,b).
16. Both Meyerhoff (2001, Chapter 7) and Desilet (2007a) have pointed out that Wilber claims support from Derrida in this respect, based on a misreading of what Derrida actually said.
17. Meyerhoff (2001), Chapter 4.
18. This is the conventional scientific rationalization for replication of results. But to the postmodern philosopher it has a deeper implication. As we saw in the previous chapter, all of us have highly personal, subjective experience of the world that we can never fully share with others. This raw experience is not false or delusional, but because it can't be shared, it can never be part of science. So what science calls facts or reality is by definition only what can be shared among different observers. This is the crux of why postmodern philosophy is deeply skeptical about higher states of awareness. I will discuss this criticism in Chapter 11.
19. Biofeedback studies, as I mentioned in Chapter 5, have shown that an individual can control or alter the activity of single cells in the brain (Buckwald 1974). In this manner, we might imagine an individual neuron, by becoming conscious of the whole organism, exerting what would be manifested as, on the level of individual neurons, a form of psychokinesis. But to exert this kind of control, the person must have access to electrical recordings of this neuron. The person does not experience the individual neuron being affected, and has no way of knowing or locating the neuron except indirectly through the electrical recordings. Likewise, while some paranormal researchers have claimed that human subjects can also alter neuronal activity in other organisms (Baumann et al. 1986) as well as in other people (Dolin et al. 1993), these studies, even if true, do not demonstrate that these subjects can in this manner access specific behavioral states of other individuals or animals.
20. Indeed, if zombies really existed, they could just as well be used in such fMRI studies.
21. As I discussed in Chapter 9, the meditative experience suggests consciousness can exist without any object or contents. Until there is complete, permanent awareness, there will always be some contents, but correlating any particular contents with increased awareness is problematic. This is one reason, though not the only, one, why I'm skeptical of claims that even members of spiritual communities can recognize and communicate their level of awareness to each other. All that can be communicated is contents. Wilber and a great many other authors claim that there are recognizable stages on the path to higher consciousness, that individuals can communicate to each other. This has not been my experience at all, and given what a higher level of awareness must mean, I don't see how there could be.
22. Hankey (2006), p. 514.
23. Ibid., p. 517.
24. Today, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is more commonly used in studies of meditators (as well as of other subjects), because of several advantages, including not requiring radioactive isotope injection and shorter scan times.
25. As I noted earlier, fairly large changes in the level of awareness are possible when major changes in activity take place. But even these changes, in an advanced meditator, are relatively small compared to the ongoing level of awareness. Moreover, in Newberg's study, as in most other studies of this kind, the baseline period preceded the meditation period. If the meditators were experiencing a rise in awareness level as a result of ceasing activity, the rate of this rise should have been greater during the baseline period.
26. I don't wish to impugn the reputations of these good Buddhists, whom I have never met. It's quite possible they could have been experiencing higher consciousness, even though that was not in fact what was being measured. On the other hand, if they believe that large changes in the level of consciousness can be realized in a few hours, then I have to conclude that they are deluding themselves.
27. Lutz et al. (2004), p. 16372.
28. Ibid., p. 16373.
29. Berczynski-Lewis et al. (2007), p. 11486.
30. Lutz et al. (2008), p. 56. (page nos. based on the PDF file available at: http://brainimaging.wasiman.wisc.edu/
31. Ibid., p. 57.
32. Ibid., p. 36.
33. Bauwens (personal communication) believes there are important differences between peer-to-peer and scale-free organization, particularly noting that the presence of a few highly connected hubs in the latter is not consistent with participatory, democratic organization. However, there are other forms of small world organization where the degree of connectivity is much more egalitarian (Amaral et al. 2001). I also note that even in the most egalitarian communities, many if not most activities are not shared equally. In other words, each of us may play a central or local role in different situations.
34. Immortal is a relative term. If a higher state of consciousness identifies with the entire planet, then one's existence is extended to that of the planet. This is obviously a far greater period of time than that of an individual, but is not infinite; the planet will eventually die. Gurdjieff expressed this point in the phrase, “immortal within the limits of the solar system” (Ouspensky, 1961). Similarly, if there are still higher states of consciousness, beyond the planet, they might have still longer, yet still not infinite, lifetimes.
35. The Turing test determines whether a computer can simply imitate human behavior under certain conditions (Turing 1950). This is already possible to a limited extent. Computers can provide answers to some fairly typical questions that human observes cannot distinguish from those made by humans. But this ability would have to be extended much further.
36. See http://www.bioresearchonline.com/article.mvc/
37. This type of computer was described in my science fiction novel The Moment of Truth (Smith 1997).
38. Another important criticism of Kurzweil's future concerns its availability. We should expect that technology of the future, like that of the past and present, will not be accessible to everyone, but only to those who can afford it (Mann 2006). Even if it becomes possible to download a mind into a computer, or simply enhance it with electronic implants, thousands of years of human history suggests that these possibilities will exist only for an elite.
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