INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
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On Religious and
Reply to David Lane
Andrew P. Smith
This is the latest in a dialogue I have started with David Lane. I will be replying to some specific points he made in Consciousness, Meditation and a Higher State to my article, Are Physicists Conscious? First, though, I want to make some general remarks.
SOME GENERAL REMARKS
The original article by David and Andrea Lane that my article was a response to was a discussion of the scientific study of consciousness. I have no problem with most of this work, though I do feel it has some important limitations, which I will discuss later. My article was directed largely to the scientific study of higher consciousness, which is a very small fraction of consciousness studies in general, and which many scientists probably think is a waste of time, anyway. David, as far as I can tell, is keeping an open mind about this.
Because of the very nature of higher consciousness—beyond words, as it is often said to be—it is very hard to discuss, and as I maintain, study in a scientific sense. Merely by writing about it, and debating it with others, one has to enter the arena of ordinary consciousness, where we are limited by words. Rather like fighting with both hands and feet bound—none of the essential allies can be used. David says:
Let's keep in mind a couple of caveats: One, we never do study the experience “as is” but rather as we interpret such to ourselves and/or to others. Second, to say something is a pure experience is oxymoronic from the very start.
I agree with this statement as applied to the ordinary state of consciousness, which is the state in which all scientific studies take place. I don't necessarily agree with it as it applies to the experience of higher consciousness. This is really the heart of the problem, and why it is so difficult to have any kind of dialogue, where we very definitely are embedded in the world of interpretation.
Yet David himself seems to be cognizant of this. At one point he takes me to task for claiming that no researchers or philosophers take the notion of consciousness without an object seriously. I will discuss this issue later. Here I just ask: what's the difference between consciousness without an object and pure experience? If there is no object, what exactly is impure about the experience? Perhaps there is a self, whereas one could argue that pure experience does not even involve a self. But in any case, simply by conceding the possibility of consciousness without an object, David, it seems to me, is backtracking a little from the quote above. I will leave him to explain how he distinguishes these two.
David at several points accuses me of having a “spiritual agenda”. As Edward O. Wilson once said, in response to a perceived agenda or bias of his own (albeit very different from mine), “guilty, guilty, guilty”. Yes, I have my own views, which have served me very well for many, many years (indeed, my life has depended on this knowledge), and I am not shy about expressing them. I do understand that not all others share all these views, and as I point out in Chapter 10 of my book The Dimensions of Experience (from which my original critique of David and Andrea was drawn, and which is now posted on this site as The Unverifiable Truth), I try whenever possible to support my views with other kinds of evidence or arguments that do not depend on personal experience of meditation. Several examples are provided in that chapter.
But the very fact there is not a monolithic agreement about what higher consciousness is, or how it is realized, is part of my point. How can one study a phenomenon if it is not well established what it is, where it is, or who is manifesting it? David says there are many different schools of thought. How does one decide which one to follow, or study, or test? Suppose we find certain brain changes in practitioners of one school, but not in those of another. Does this mean that only those of the first school are having a genuine experience, or simply that the changes have nothing to do with the genuine experience?
Still more problematically, the very notion that there are different schools—that there are different ways to meditate, for example--is itself a view, a bias or a perspective, and the burden is just as much on David or any scientist to defend that view as it is on me to defend my view that, for example, meditation is a single process—that all the so-called different ways to meditate, if done properly, amount to the same thing. Many people may disagree with me, but on what basis exactly do scientists decide they are going to ignore what I say and instead believe what someone else says?
So, yes, I have an agenda, and I find nothing wrong with that as long as I'm honest about it. In this sense, any mystic who speaks out has an agenda, and we need such agendas. As I mentioned above, David insists that some scientists do recognize the possibility of consciousness without an object. How does he think they became aware of that idea? From hearing about the spiritual experiences of others—David even gives an example involving Dr. Ramachandran. Don't those mystics have an agenda? Aren't they saying, this particular experience I have is the way it is, and people ought to know about it? And hasn't that begun to make an impact on scientific and philosophical thinking?
Moreover, David has an agenda, too. He would like the reader to believe that everything he says, all the criticisms he makes of me or of others he mentions in his articles, are based on a well established scientific consensus. But several major points he makes, while reasonable and worthy of debate, are not nearly as agreed upon by mainstream scientists and philosophers as he implies. Some examples later.
David concludes that whatever the validity of my experiences, they are irrelevant to the scientific study of consciousness:
We shouldn't confuse our religious agendas or leanings with a priori assumptions about what science can and cannot do.
Rather, let science explore consciousness both subjectively and objectively, using whatever methods it can to best explain what has hitherto been defined as a mystery.
I find this advice nonsensical. It's rather like telling an explorer who has been in some unknown land that his experiences are irrelevant to a project to map this territory. If, for example, as I maintain, higher consciousness is not about enhanced attention, then studies that focus specifically on attention, and find correlates in brain regions known to be involved in attention, are almost certainly barking up the wrong tree.
Another example. Many studies of higher consciousness begin by making measurements on meditators in a so-called control or non-meditative period, followed by a period of meditation. The assumption is that changes in the brain that occur in the meditative period but not the control period are correlates of meditation. But what if, as I claim, level of awareness changes very slowly, so that any brain correlates of a higher level of awareness will be quite stable in a meditator? That over the course of a few hours, awareness increases so slightly as to most likely not significantly affect any brain correlates that it might have?
Sure, some meditators may disagree with me on these and other points. But as I said before, how can scientists simply ignore the controversy, and say, we will believe so and so, and not believe someone else, then go on to design their studies on that basis? These are foundational issues I'm talking about, there is no possibility of having confidence in the results of any scientific studies until they are resolved.
These points are directed to the scientific study of higher consciousness. But the experiences of higher consciousness are also relevant to the study of ordinary consciousness. One example of this relevance is the possibility of consciousness without an object. As I said before, to the extent that it is accepted now among investigators, it is largely because people have come forward with their spiritual experiences—their agendas—and insisted that it belongs in the discussion. I will provide another example of the relevance of higher consciousness to ordinary consciousness later. I provide still more in The Dimensions of Experience.
Now I will turn to specific points made by David (DL).
SPECIFIC POINTS OF CRITICISM
DL: While I can readily acknowledge that one aspect of mysticism is (to quote Mr. Smith), “to awaken,” I don't think we can categorically then end that statement as he does with a singular punctuation mark such as a period.
Mysticism has a long history and many different schools of thought, so we might be more accurate to simply state which area we wish to compare and contrast with science and its methods.
AS: (Note to DL: If you insist on addressing me formally, you might as well call me Dr. Smith. However, “Andy” will do fine).
I stand by my original statement. If we can agree that there is a higher state of consciousness, or at least agree that the possibility of such is what we are discussing, then “awaken” is the appropriate word. I think most people would regard our ordinary consciousness as higher than states of sleep, and we call the process of moving from sleep to the higher state awakening. Of course, there are many features or aspects of the ordinary state that may differentiate it from sleep. But we don't speak of the transition in words such as: I then put on my clothes, I then ate breakfast, I then went to work, and so on—because those are just aspects or features of the wakened state. They don't get at the root of what it is, namely, a higher level of consciousness. After all, it is possible to be awake and do none of those things. It's also possible, albeit rare, for people who are asleep to do some of the things that we normally associate with being awake.
Likewise, we don't get distracted by the different causes or methods of awakening from sleep. Naturally after 7-8 hours? Loud noise? Sunlight streaming into the bedroom? Cold? In pain? Need to piss? Bad dream? There are many, many ways or conditions under which we may awaken from sleep, but the fundamental experience of what happens is the same. So, to a large degree, are the neural processes involved. So much so that we have a single word for it which we all understand encompasses all the possible causes. My point is that we should view awakening to a higher state in much the same way.
There are of course limitations in pursuing the analogy between sleep/waking and waking/higher state. But I think in the senses just discussed these analogies are helpful and reasonably accurate.
DL: First, it may be one thing to say that a goal of mysticism is to achieve a higher state of consciousness (let's for argument's sake take that as our agreed condition), but it is then quite another to dogmatically exclaim “it's not manifested in powers that are empirically observable or testable to the ordinary consciousness.”
How do we a priori know this? I can think of several ways where ordinary awareness could in fact provide suggestive tests for those who claim extraordinary states of consciousness. For example, the famed mystic Ramana Maharshi claimed that he once had a very vivid bilocation experience, as have numerous other mystics from differing traditions (e.g., St. Teresa of Avila from Roman Catholicism and Jaimal Singh from Radhasoami Satsang Beas).
Such excursions, though clearly beyond “ordinary,” are, in fact, subject to empirical verification. One of my philosophy students alleged that he could astrally travel at night to my locked office and see the contents on my desk. I mentioned that if this was truly the case, then he should have no difficulty reading a seven digit number off my wall. He took up my test but ended up completely frustrated because he never could get the number correct. Why? Well, there are many possibilities, but outstanding among them is that my student wasn't truly astral traveling to my office but was rather conflating a lucid dream state (which was a virtual simulation within his own brain) with the ontological reality of this shared waking state.
If a state of awareness is indeed higher, then it should quite easily give indications of such illumination upon any lower state that precedes it. Testing those very “effects” is quite open to science, just as studying the effects of a minute subatomic interactions is open to science even when the “thing” itself is not.
AS: If higher consciousness does involve powers that can be empirically tested, how come no one has ever passed these tests? Something has to give here: either a) I am correct about the absence of these powers; or b) no one who actually has acquired these powers has come forward; or c) there really is no higher consciousness at all (or there is, but no one has realized it to any significant extent). Or possibly d), that these powers are so weak or haphazardly expressed that they can only be demonstrated by very sophisticated tests—the argument of paranormal fans.
I ask anyone who dismisses a) to think about what higher means. If our long evolutionary history is relevant at all, I would think it would have a relationship to our ordinary consciousness something like that of the latter to a single cell in our brain (with some qualifications I won't go into here). So consider that relationship. Do we in our ordinary state exhibit special powers on the level of the cell? Do we or can we direct actions on our individual cells so they behave in ways completely out of the ordinary way in which they behave? No, not ordinarily. On the contrary, our consciousness in some manner emerges from the behavior of a great many cells, but it does not turn around, so to speak, and have spooky actions on those cells. It may be that there is a two-way interaction between neural activity and consciousness, but the point is, this is all part of normal behavior.
Or if one doesn't like this analogy, consider sleep/waking. Can we, in our waking state, influence our dreams? Well, maybe occasionally, if the dream is lucid. But that is more the case of someone mostly dreaming with a foot in the waking world, rather than someone fully awake going into the dreamworld. The point is that these two states of consciousness are mostly independent. Yes, the contents of our dreams are sometimes affected by our waking lives, but in a largely random sense.
Of course, these are only analogies, and may not do much to convince people that higher consciousness has limited effects on the ordinary state. But at least this discussion should make the case that that is a reasonable way to view their relationship. Being higher does not necessarily mean one has the power to act on the lower in ways that alters the behavior of the lower. Or to put it more precisely, all the behavior of the lower such as it exists already takes into account all the actions of the higher.
I have probably belabored this point more than I should have. I understand the notion of higher powers is a very popular one, and it may yet turn out that I'm wrong. But I don't see that proving that someone does not have such powers has much relevance to the question of whether higher consciousness exists.
There is much, much more I could say about the concept of higher. I have gone into some of this in "The Unverifiable Truth".
DL: This last line by Mr. Smith is both quite revealing and quite ironic. He writes, “The experimenters must take the subjects' word that they are in a higher state. They have no way of independently validating this claim.” Of course, this begs the larger question which is subsumed by this line of reasoning. How does anyone know that something is a “higher” state versus a lower one? Is it always up to the subject to make such a differentiation? If so, then we are in a very slippery area since as we already know from many well grounded psychological studies that it is exceptionally easy to deceive ourselves about a given “reality.” See the pioneering work of Ramachandran in his famous scientific study, The Evolutionary Biology of Self-Deception, Laughter, Dreaming and Depression: Some Clues from Anosognosia (linked here: http://tinyurl.com/cq7czy)
Moreover, what do we exactly mean by a “higher” state of awareness? Or, to use Smith's more tightly woven context, what do we mean by an “awakened” state?
AS: With regard to the first point, I basically agree. Self-deception is rife in this area. Which was the whole point, or much of the point, of my original article—that we have no independent way of verifying higher consciousness. And yes, this can lead to a slippery slope, which is why I have criticized studies of higher consciousness. They very definitely do depend on believing the subject.
David Lane does not seem to see the trap or dilemma we are in. He (or at least scientists attempting to study it) wants to identify some empirical correlate of higher consciousness, so we can accurately measure, or at least determine, when someone is in that state. But in order to make such an association, we have to have a way of assessing the higher state without reference to this empirical observation. We have to be able to say, we know for certain that this subject is experiencing higher consciousness; so now let's see what kind of empirically observable behavior is associated with that state. And that is just what I claim we can't do.
It's useful to compare again with our ordinary state of consciousness. I know that I am conscious, but how do I know anyone else is? Actually, I don't. We all assume that others are conscious because they say so, and because they exhibit other behavior that we associate with being conscious. But what if I were conscious, and everyone else was a zombie, behaving like a human being yet completely unconscious (or better still, for this argument, very slightly conscious, but much less so than I)?
How would I know this? I might not know it, unless I had been a quasi-zombie before, but had for some reason experienced a major elevation in my degree of consciousness. I would then know the difference between the two states. I would know that I was now at a higher state than before, just as surely as I know when I awaken in the morning that I am at a higher state than when I was asleep.
Given this, how would I convince these quasi-zombies that they are mostly unconscious, and that it is possible to be far more conscious? Perhaps these quasi-zombies would say to me, if you have higher awareness than we do, prove it by exhibiting some special power. But what power? Since these are zombies, by definition they can do all the things I can do. (In this particular example, that isn't rigorously true—they don't talk about experiencing higher consciousness—but it is close enough for our purposes. A full discussion of what's going on is beyond the scope of this article). The only difference is that I'm more aware of everything going on around me, as well as of my thoughts and feelings. But there is no way this can proven to the quasi-zombies.
The philosophical literature simply teems with discussions of this problem. Some philosophers insist there is no problem, but others insist that there is. Again, one doesn't have to come down hard on one side or the other. The only point I'm making here is that it is quite conceivable that someone could exist in a higher state of awareness than other people, yet have an extremely difficult if not impossible task in proving this to them. The notion of zombies has other implications which I will discuss later.
So to summarize, we don't really have scientifically rigorous proof of ordinary consciousness, as each of us applies it to others. It's simply an assumption, one that is so entirely necessary as well as reasonable that we all accept it. All human societies have of course assumed it. It is the bedrock assumption of civilization. But on a strict adherence to the rules of science, we can't prove it. It isn't just that we can't prove it with 100% certainty, which is almost always the case in science, anyway. We really can't prove it at all. The only really scientific proof of it we have is that we know the structures of our brains are highly similar, so if one of us is conscious, assuming there is a close correlation of consciousness with the brain, so likely are others. Philosopher John Searle uses this argument in defense of the notion (obvious to most people) that higher vertebrates are conscious to some degree.
But when the conditions that justify this unproven assumption are removed, as they are when we confront someone who claims to be experiencing higher consciousness, this inability to satisfy scientific standards is laid bare. If everyone, or even a significant fraction of the population, realized higher consciousness, there would be no need to prove this, any more than there is a need to prove we are all conscious in the ordinary sense. It is just because this is an exceptional state that it requires proof. And it is just because it is so much like the ordinary state—except that it is higher, more intense—that this proof apparently frustrates any scientific project.
DL: I actually agree with Mr. Smith's observations here about what a seasoned meditator/mystic can tell us about what arises within one's consciousness. This makes sense since anyone who focuses on any specific region of activity tends to be much better at describing varying shades of nuance. A dedicated surfer usually stands to be a wonderful guide at describing subtle changes in wave and wind conditions, just as a trained musician may have a better ear for tone and pitch.
However, a mystic's expertise on analyzing one's own consciousness doesn't mean that such awareness is “beyond” science.
Quite the oppositeit may suggest that what a mystic is experiencing is, in fact, his or her own neuronal discharges. Perhaps they just happen to be more in tune with this internal symphony than most.
AS: I agree. An expertise at describing one's experience doesn't mean those experiences are beyond science. In fact, that was the whole point of the passage that David was responding to—that there is a predictive aspect to mysticism. I actually think this is the one aspect that might be amenable to scientific study. But while it might offer the possibility of third person verification of what one is experiencing, it does not offer direct proof of higher consciousness. The claim is that these predictions are possible because of a higher state, but other reasons might be offered. This at best would be indirect evidence of a higher state. In the very best case, in a world where very large numbers of people were experiencing higher consciousness, we might find this indirect evidence sufficient, in the same kind of way we find the indirect evidence that other people are conscious sufficient.
DL: No, I wouldn't say that understanding mysticism is a higher, more genuine form of science. I would say, rather, that mysticism has the potential of being studied scientifically. Higher and lower are adjectives that don't need to be invoked at this preliminary stage.
Let's keep in mind a couple of caveats: One, we never do study the experience “as is” but rather as we interpret such to ourselves and/or to others. Second, to say something is a pure experience is oxymoronic from the very start.
AS: Well, it depends on how broadly one defines science. It comes from the Latin for knowledge, so I would say mysticism is a kind of science, but certainly there are ways of defining science that would exclude mysticism. I recognize that science provides us with knowledge that mysticism doesn't, but the reverse is also true. I regard mysticism as a higher form of knowledge because, as I noted in the article, it takes the scientific approach of the objective observer and carries it further than science itself does. The mystic must become objective with respect to his own thoughts, including those that are part of the practice of science.
Again, I think the organism/cell analogy is very useful. The individual cells in our brain have knowledge that we do not have and cannot have. They have detailed information about thousands of other cells and their interrelationships with them. (For the sake of this analogy, one does not have to believe that individual cells have any awareness; we can simply hypothesize that if they do, this is the sort of thing they would be aware of). We know nothing about this, and ordinarily can't. But we have knowledge that they don't have. Why is our knowledge higher? I think it should be obvious. For one thing, all of the accumulated knowledge of our individual cells goes to make up this higher knowledge. For another, all the knowledge of our cells is limited to events within the brain or organism, while we have knowledge of events far beyond the organism. For still another, we know that these cells exist, or at least, as organisms, have some knowledge of events occurring within our bodies, while the cells have no knowledge of the organism, and events beyond it. And so on.
It is in this sense, or these many senses, that I think mystical knowledge, while different from scientific knowledge, is higher. Can I prove this? No. It's obviously highly speculative, and I'm well aware that many people will dismiss the idea. But it is the best explanation I know of that fits so many descriptions of a higher state, and at the same time fits with what we know about evolutionary relationships between cells and organisms. That is, we do know that higher/lower relationships are prolific in nature, and the relationship of a higher state, as often described, to our ordinary state looks to me very much like one of these.
There are other, more practical reasons for believing higher consciousness is indeed higher. By definition one has greater awareness of one's surroundings, and of one's thoughts and emotions. One can, if one chooses, take advantage of this greater awareness to become more skilled. One has the ability to focus more intensely on tasks. But as I discuss in "The Unverifiable Truth", this is not the purpose of meditation, and may often interfere with it, so it is not a simple matter to use such an ability as evidence to others of higher consciousness. And of course, even if one convinces others that one is more skilled at some worldly activity, there are always alternative explanations. As always, what one wants is evidence of powers that simply are unavailabe at all to others, and this is what I deny is possible.
DL: These last two paragraphs seem to me to be a bit jumpy and disjointed (or, is this an indication of quantum logic?)
Putting aside Newtonian physics and quantum mechanics for a second, we don't need to be mystics to be able to have awareness of our inner feelings and thoughts. Indeed, all one has to be is human. Most scientists don't deny that we have a rich subjective life and most working neurologists are quite interested in whatever subjective reports a patient provides about their internal states of awareness, since such a feedback loop is invaluable in properly assessing certain drugs and certain surgeries.
Even my own dentist is quite interested in my own subjective reports of pain, especially when he is doing a root canal.
The issue of freedom or lack thereof is also a question that is of great interest to those scientifically studying consciousness. Several past Nobel Prize winners, such as Francis Crick and Gerald Edelman, have taken the subject very seriously. But neither claims to be a mystic or need mystic knowledge to explore interior states of being.
AS: I disagree with the claim that we don't have to be a mystic to have awareness of our thoughts and feelings. In the ordinary state of consciousness, we are not aware of our thoughts, or only to an extremely slight degree; rather, we access them with other thoughts, in other words, we think about them. Of course such subjective reports are valuable, but thinking about our thoughts and feelings, and even experiencing the feeling itself, which we certainly do, is not the same thing as being aware of these thoughts and feelings, of observing them objectively.
This is not simply my view. Many philosophers seem to accept this notion, or something like it. Some theories of consciousness, such as David Rosenthal's higher order thought (HOT) theory, explicitly associate consciousness with thought. Other types of higher order theories equate consciousness with some form of perception, which may not involve thoughts, but still involve mental processes rather than some awareness separate from them. Members of the representationist school (see below) understand our awareness in terms of representing some object, which also suggests a mental process that is not distinct from other mental processes. Cognitive theories like Daniel Dennett's multiple drafts model are quite explicit in identifying consciousness with mental activity.
John Searle, not associated with any of these schools, sums up the general view as follows: “an objectively observable reality presupposes the notion of observation that is itself ineliminably subjective, and that cannot be made the object of observation.” I think it would be a fair interpretation of Searle to say that he doesn't believe objectively observable reality is possible in this sense, and that he doesn't believe it just because the observation process involves thoughts, or some other mental activity, which are part of the reality to be observed. Indeed, any materialist, which I assume David is, is going to have a hard time avoiding the conclusion that there is nothing other than processes in the brain, some of them performing operations on others. From the usual scientific point of view, it is very difficult to see how there could be any way of in effect stepping outside of everything going on in the brain and viewing it objectively.
This is what I claim meditation does, and can do precisely because it involves a higher state of being, one beyond the body/brain. It is very different from introspection. To introspect is to look at our thoughts and other feelings with other thoughts. Another way of putting this is to say that we can observe the contents of our thoughts, but not the thoughts themselves. It is something anyone can do to some extent. Though some philosophers may argue that introspection requires a great deal of skill and training, it does so in much the sense that any intellectual profession, including philosophy itself, requires skill and traning. Meditation is not a skill in this sense of the word. It requires—and here I speak for a very wide consensus among mystics—a detachment from all thoughts. People do not and can not ordinarily do this. It is a very special discipline, involving enormous hardship and suffering. It is not something one can do as one does a profession, during working hours, so to speak. It has to go on all the time. It affects everything one does, and indeed, demands a total revision of one's lifestyle.
DL: I disagree with Mr. Smith here, since the cognitive science community at UCSD (where Churchland works and where I did my Ph.D. work in the Sociology of Knowledge and where my wife, Andrea, did her undergraduate work with V.S. Ramachandran on visual perception) is well acquainted with consciousness without an object what he terms “zero dimensional.”
In fact, Gerald Edelman in his book, Second Nature, talks at length about this unified form of awareness where the subject and object are one, what he terms the extended present. Additionally, it should be noted (even if it is not widely known) that V.S. Ramachandran's own mother was a devout follower of the famous South Indian mystic, Ramana Maharshi. Andrea has spoken at length with her former mentor about precisely this issue in consciousness studies and in his book, A Tour of Consciousness, Ramachandran explains some of the neural mechanisms behind why some individuals may experience such moments of unification in awareness.
To suggest that neuroscientists or neurophilosophers are unaware or are consciously neglecting this very important issue is only an indication that one has not read or studied widely enough in this field.
AS: All right, I may have overstated the case. But not by very much. The mainstream view in philosophy of mind is that consciousness has an object. Willliam Seager expresses this view when he says that “consciousness is always of something, and of that something as something.” I'm fairly certain most philosophers would agree with him (all philosophers, as I'm sure David knows, never agree on anything!) The entire field of representationism, which is very hot in philosophy of mind now, presumes that there is a close relationship between consciousness and the mind's act of representing something in the environment, and the hard-core in this area believe that is all consciousness is—representing something. Unless I'm missing something, this is completely incompatible with the notion of consciousness without an object. If there is no object, what is there to be represented? Some philosophers might argue that what is represented does not have to be anything physical in the external world, but it's still an object.
This view is also implicit in much of the language of modern philosophy. Consider the word “qualia”, as used by Edelman himself in a quote in Lane's response. Qualia refers to some immediate experience, such as the color green or some pain. But qualia is a plural term (the singular is quale). Why do philosophers use the plural? Because it is their view that every experience is of something, some object, and since there are a great, perhaps infinite variety of objects, there are a huge number of qualia. But if consciousness can exist without an object, why not speak of a single quale, consciousness itself? Why not make a distinction between consciousness, and the object that it may, but does not necessarily have to, have? This distinction is rarely made as far as I can see.
Having said all this, I will agree with David that some investigators now do accept the possibility of consciousness without an object. I certainly welcome this, and I'm fairly sure it mostly reflects the impact that mystic reports and experience are having on this field. In other words, people with “spiritual agendas” getting involved. Rama has apparently been influenced by such reports, and yes, he is not the only one. Point taken, and it is not a minor one. But I'm fairly sure he's in a minority, and this minority is likely to be composed more of scientists than philosophers. Those who spend all their hours thinking about consciousness tend to have a difficult time getting their heads around this idea.
DL: No, what Mr. Smith has just opined here is quite mistaken. Neuroscience has made tremendous progress in explaining much of what we experience and why we may experience it. Evolutionary biology has given us a quite reasonable explanation for why we experience things the way we do. Consciousness confers an evolutionary advantage over those who don't have it by allowing self-reflective humans (and other mammals) the ability to virtually simulate their environment before having to act instinctually upon it. This confers a tremendous benefit for any number of reasons, not the least of which is our ability to “plan” before we act. As Donald Griffin points out in Animal Minds:
“Conscious thinking may well be a core function of central nervous systems. For conscious animals enjoy the advantage of being able to think about alternative actions and select behavior they believe will get them what they want or help them avoid what they dislike or fear. Of course, human consciousness is astronomically more complex and versatile than any conceivable animal thinking, but the basic question addressed in this book is whether the difference is qualitative and absolute or whether animals are conscious even though the content of their consciousness is undoubtedly limited and very likely quite different from ours. There is of course no reason to suppose that any animal is always conscious of everything it is doing, for we are entirely unaware of many complex activities of our bodies. Consciousness may occur only rarely in some species and not at all in others, and even animals that are sometimes aware of events that are important in their lives may be incapable of understanding many other facts and relationships. But the capability of conscious awareness under some conditions may well be so essential that it is the sine qua non of animal life, even for the smallest and simplest animals that have any central nervous system at all. When the whole system is small, this core function may therefore be a larger fraction of the whole.”
AS: I said earlier that David makes several major points assuming they reflect a scientific and philosophical consensus, when in fact they don't. Here is an example.
With all due respect to the late Dr. Griffin, who has been an important influence on my own understanding of animal consciousness, his often-expressed argument does not hold up under scrutiny. It is quite possible, in principle, for unconscious organisms “to think about alternative actions and select behavior they believe will get them what they want or help them avoid what they dislike or fear”. This is just why the zombie argument in philosophy is so important. A zombie, by definition, behaves indistinguishably from a human being (or other organism, if you like), yet has no conscious awareness. Thus zombies could do all the things real organisms do, and be selected for doing them. As several philosophers have pointed out, they pose a real problem in understanding why consciousness evolved, if it does not provide any survival value above and beyond what an unconscious brain identical in its information processing capabilities could provide.
Philosophers argue endlessly over whether zombies in the strictest sense (identical atom for atom with some human being) really are conceivable. This is highly controversial, because if they do, it seems to be a very strong argument against a purely material or physicalist view of consciousness. But the notion that some creature or machine not physically identical to us could behave just like us, and yet be completely unconscious is fairly widely accepted. As the entry on Zombies in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, “plenty of physicalists accept that merely behavioral or functional duplicates of ourselves might lack qualia.” Indeed, some day we will likely be able to create robots that are like us. Can we conceive of an unconscious machine that could, say, recognize a tiger in the bushes and flee (to take Edelman's example?) Of course. We already have face recognition programs. If the machine is sophisticated enough, it can integrate all this information from different modalities, compare it with memories of similar experiences, perhaps, and flee. Or maybe it just has everything it needs hard-wired. Many animals are hard-wired to avoid certain shapes overhead, as they are likely to be birds of prey. Is it necessary to be conscious to do this? No.
Edelman says: “At that point an animal could construct a set of discriminations: qualia. It could create a scene in its own mind and make connections with past scenes.” But neural Darwinism, even if it correctly describes what goes on in the brain, does not necessitate qualia. A scene in the mind, like one on the screen of a computer, results from bringing together a vast amount of information. All of that information could be unconscious (and in fact, most of it is). Consciousness, in the sense of qualia—and that is just the sense I'm talking about here—is not needed. There is no reason in principle why all that unconscious information can't run various behavioral programs that are equally unconscious.
In case anyone has gotten confused here, let me emphasize that I'm not saying most animals are unconscious. Readers of The Dimensions of Experience will know precisely the opposite. I am only pointing out that the evolutionary value of consciousness, specifically of qualia, is still a very controversial issue. There are many philosophers who believe there are no good arguments for it. This in fact is one argument in favor of panpsychism. If consciousness always accompanies material forms, it did not have to emerge at some particular point during evolution and be selected for. It does not have to do anything that unconscious processes could not do.
Why, then, is there this persistent belief among many researchers that consciousness is closely associated with flexible behavior? I believe it's due in large part to the fact that in our own case, the most flexible type of behavior is conscious. There is a view among many neuroscientists, particularly well developed and expressed by philosopher Bernard Baars, that consciousness is “where it all comes together”. All brain researchers accept that a great deal of information processing in the brain goes on unconsciously. At some point during this processing, however, information from various sensory modalities, along with memories and other internally derived information, is put together in the form of images, concepts, mental representations, and so on. Much of these are conscious, so it has been natural to think that this a function of consciousness.
There is, however, an alternative view. It could be simply that we, and other organisms, are conscious of the highest-level processes in our brain, whatever they happen to be. We are conscious of thoughts, images, and so on not because it requires consciousness to form them, but because these represent the ultimate in information processing in the brain. We are unconscious of many cruder forms of sensory information, along with much of language processing, not because they are inherently unconscious, but because they occur at lower levels in the brain, and are in effect overgrown or obscured by the higher processes. According to this view, any organism might be conscious to some degree, but only conscious of its highest levels of neural processing, whatever they happen to be.
Is there any evidence for this alternative view? I think so. Consider very small children, even newborn babies. Are they conscious? Most people would say so. There are a few philosophers—notably, I believe, Daniel Dennett—who deny this, but most of us accept that even babies are conscious, for basically the same reason we think adults are: their behavior, though very different from that of adults, nevertheless is of the sort we associate with consciousness. Thus they cry in response to painful stimuli, and so on.
But babies lack much of the higher order information processing that we associate with consciousness in the adult. This alone suggests that much of these higher structures are not required for consciousness—that much of the flexible behavior associated with consciousness in fact can be absent without affecting the existence of consciousness. If babies are conscious, they are conscious of somewhat lower level processes. Moreover, I think a very good case can be made that babies, or at least small children who are somewhat more developed, are much more conscious of these lower level processes than adults are. If we recall our early childhood, back to whatever age we have somewhat reliable memories, we remember a world that was much richer in a purely sensory sense than what we experience now.
Why is this? Because the higher brain structures necessary for fully developed concepts, abstract thought, and so on, are not yet in place, or at least not fully developed. They have not yet begun to overgrow and obscure the information associated with the lower structures. With these higher structures out of the way, consciousness can be freely experienced of the phenomena associated with these lower ones.
This is only a hypothesis, of course. But the point is, the notion that the higher level processes are required for consciousness, that this is what consciousness does, is not by any means an established fact. It is simply one view of the matter, which remains to be supported by better evidence.
DL: Now again I find Mr. Smith making sweeping generalizations that are both misleading and inaccurate when closely examined. Why? Meditation isn't a singular act upon which all practitioners agree. There are many varying schools of thought which use meditation for a whole set of reasons, some for raising the kundalini, some for listening to an internal sound, some for developing stillness of mind, some for aligning the mind with God's will. The list goes on. So for Mr. Smith to say something as dogmatic as “The point is that the higher state of consciousness is the goal of meditation is not about using or focusing our attention in a different way” is to merely proffer his own opinion about what he thinks meditation is all about.
In other words, it would be much more accurate to say “I, Mr. Smith, believe that meditation should be about such and such.” It might be interesting to see which form of meditation Mr. Smith actually has in mind so that our discussion could proceed in a more specific fashion.
But even if we place this corrective parameter on Mr. Smith's sweeping generalizations about what meditation is for, he adds a tautology which doesn't progress the discussion beyond a priori platitudes and dogmatisms. Writes Mr. Smith, “Higher consciousness is about raising the level of awareness. Period.”
Period? Are we having a scientific discussion of consciousness (which by its very nature must be inductive/open) or are we merely sprouting forth spiritual axioms? If the former, then adding periods to any discussion leads nowhere. If the latter, then we are not in Kansas anymore and we are having is a not so sophisticated theological (or should I say “meditationalogical”?) debate?
I say this because Mr. Smith has already assumed what is and what isn't an “illusion,” as if seasoned meditators couldn't be just plain mistaken about their own interpretations of what occurs during meditating.
AS: Guilty, guilty, guilty. I will just refer interested readers to "The Unverifiable Truth".
DL: I can now see where my major difficulty arises with Mr. Smith's critique. The imprecision of how we exactly define meditation. When the previous quote categorically states that “meditation is qualitatively different from any other human activity” presumably because you can do it at the same time as you are gardening or writing critiques of articles on Integral World. But is this actually true? I can think of several very human activities that one can do while shopping or surfing, such as “praying” or “day-dreaming”. One can pray while driving a car, one can pray while eating. I can also day dream doing lots of other things, including driving my car or even eating a meal.
I don't see anything that unique about meditation given the comparisons in the above referenced quote. Additionally, I think we should be a bit more precise about what we actually mean by meditation before we start praising its utter uniqueness.
AS: Of course there are some activities that can be done in conjunction with some others. The point is that there is no activity except meditation that can be done while doing anything else. Prayer? If you mean a very specific set of words that must be said aloud or quietly, there are certainly other activities that would interfere with it. If you mean just a very vague thought that there is some higher power that one is appealing to, it might seem that prayer could go on almost all the time.
Except that it doesn't. People who observe themselves carefully, as meditators do and must, soon learn that they can't keep particular thoughts in the mind at all times. There is an old joke about not being able to stop thinking about pink elephants. But the more salient and less recognized point is that we can't think about pink elephants all the time. At some point we get completely distracted, and minutes, hour or days later suddenly realize that we had forgotten all about the thought.
Prayer in the loose sense is like that. One may think one is praying all the time, but in fact the original set of thoughts very quickly becomes corrupted, to the point where it would be unrecognizable over time. This is the problem that meditators struggle with, and if persistent, eventually overcome.
Sometimes losing the thought may occur very quickly, for example, if an urgent, perhaps life-threatening situation arises, demanding all of one's mental resources. Can someone pray under those circumstances? In a very loose sense, as when we say, I was praying for my life at the time, of course. But all that really means is that the person feared for her life. When people talk about praying in everyday life, what they are doing is not what they would do or could do if they faced a life-threatening situation. All of those thoughts are erased from the mind. There is no room for them at that point.
Daydreaming is a little different, because that is a background state that is going on all the time. That's sort of like saying we can breathe or pump blood in conjunction with any other activity. Daydreaming is generally not a focused activity.
Of course, one may intentionally engage in some fantasies, but I think it would be very hard to engage in any particular fantasy under any conditions. Again, the life-threatening situation comes to mind. People are not going to engage in fantasies at that point.
I don't want these arguments to distract from the more general point that every form of human behavior involves activity in certain parts of the brain, and when these portions overlap, there is interference, so that it is difficult or impossible to engage in both behaviors simultaneously. Also, one behavior may be incompatible with another if it demands such a large proportion of attention and resources that in effect nothing else is left. The brain has limited resources. I'm quite sure any scientist studying the brain will agree with me on this. Trying to nitpick and find examples of behavior that can apparently go on all the time doesn't change this general situation. And my point in discussing all this is that if meditation is compatible with any behavior, as I claim it is, then it is difficult to explain how it could involve activity in areas of the brain that are known to be also associated with other kinds of human behavior.
DL: I don't know if a higher state of consciousness has to be assumed.
Why not simply a “different” state?
I don't see why such value laden adjectives have to be placed in the mix when we are in the preliminary stages of understanding what happens to the brain under certain meditative techniques (which, again, depends on what kind of meditation we are talking about).
AS: I discussed this earlier. See "The Unverifiable Truth" for still more discussion.
DL: I think the bigger danger that confronts the study of consciousness isn't reductionism but our repeating the mantra of how “mysterious” awareness is.
We used to think the sun was an impregnable mystery, until we actually started to study it physically.
This is why I find the groundbreaking work of Edelman, Churchland, Koch, Ramachandran, and others so interesting.
They are tackling the issue by looking precisely at where consciousness arises—within our skull and our extended body.
I don't know why Mr. Smith thinks that we don't even have a notion of developing a theory of consciousness when already evolutionary biology has given us an excellent explanation for why self-reflective awareness would have arisen under evolutionary pressures.
As Andrea pointed out in DARWIN'S DNA: A Brief Introduction to Evolutionary Philosophy:
“The idea that our brains could literally deceive us is now well established in neuroscience. Indeed, the brain's capacity for filling in objects that are not present is a vitally important component of how we navigate in our day to day world. As the abstract to "Perceptual filling-in from the edge of the blind spot" on Science Direct explains:
Looking at the world with one eye, we do not notice a scotoma in the receptor-free area of the visual field where the optic nerve leaves the eye. Rather we perceive the brightness, color, and texture of the adjacent area as if they were actually there. The mechanisms underlying this kind of perceptual filling-in remain controversial. To better understand these processes, we determined the minimum region around the blind spot that needs to be stimulated for filling-in by carefully mapping the blind spot and presenting individually fitted stimulus frames of different width around it. Uniform filling-in was observed with frame widths as narrow as 0.05° visual angle for color and 0.2° for texture. Filling-in was incomplete, when the frame was no longer contiguous with the blind spot border due to an eye movement. These results are consistent with the idea that perceptual filling-in of the blind spot depends on local processes generated at the physiological edge of the cortical representation.
The brain is forced to makes these "lying" choices to us as part of its mapping expertise. We are not seeing or hearing or smelling or feeling or touching the world "as it is," but rather as our brains "simulate" it for our evolutionary survival. “
AS: I discussed the evolutionary question earlier. I very much understand that the brain is a product of evolution, that is what The Dimensions of Experience is about, and in Chapter 1 of that book, available at this site, I go into some detail in explaining that all nervous systems, not just ours, interpret the world. But none of this has any bearing on the question of why qualia, as opposed to the functional or behavioral properties of organisms, evolved.
I also have no problem with studies of perception. I think they're very valuable, particularly binocular rivalry ones, which get at the question of a neural correlate of consciousness. But even if the concept of an NCC is meaningful (and not all philosophers and scientists agree that it is, see Chapter 1 of The Dimensions of Experience, How History Repeats Itself, at this site), it does not get at the essence of qualia, the underlying quale if you will. This is David Chalmers' hard problem of consciousness, and it is not solved by identifying a specific group of neurons that are active when we experience the color green, another when we feel a certain pain, and so on. Since all of these experiences are conscious, consciousness per se cannot be localized to any one of these correlates. And even if it could, the problem remains of understanding how consciousness emerges from physiological actiivty.
Chalmers is a very strong believer in the notion of a NCC, and has written several highly recommended articles on the subject. I think it's very noteworthy that he himself recognizes the limitations of this notion, that even identifying them would not solve his hard problem.
DL: The more I read through Mr. Smith's critique, the more I realize that its riddled with a religious or spiritual agenda that really has nothing to do with coming to grips with how science will understand consciousness. While I understand that Mr. Smith may want us to meditate or get to a higher state of consciousness, none of these nice wishes has anything whatsoever to do with critiquing the current state of neuroscience. We shouldn't confuse our religious agendas or leanings with a priori assumptions about what science can and cannot do.
Rather, let science explore consciousness both subjectively and objectively, using whatever methods it can to best explain what has hitherto been defined as a mystery. Of course, what I just wrote is completely superfluous.
Why? Science is already doing precisely that.
Here is just one sample from V.S. Ramachandran at UCSD:
“Evolution often takes advantage of pre-existing structures to evolve completely novel abilities. I suggest that once the ability to engage in cross modal abstraction emerged — e.g. between visual "vertical" on the retina and photoreceptive "vertical" signaled by muscles (for grasping trees) it set the stage for the emergence of mirror neurons in hominids. Mirror neurons are also abundant in the inferior parietal lobule — a structure that underwent an accelerated expansion in the great apes and, later, in humans. As the brain evolved further the lobule split into two gyri — the supramarginal gyrus that allowed you to "reflect" on your own anticipated actions and the angular gyrus that allowed you to "reflect" on your body (on the right) and perhaps on other more social and linguistic aspects of your self (left hemisphere) I have argued elsewhere that mirror neurons are fundamentally performing a kind of abstraction across activity in visual maps and motor maps. This in turn may have paved the way for more conceptual types of abstraction; such as metaphor ("get a grip on yourself").
How does all this lead to self awareness? I suggest that self awareness is simply using mirror neurons for "looking at myself as if someone else is look at me" (the word "me" encompassing some of my brain processes, as well). The mirror neuron mechanism — the same algorithm — that originally evolved to help you adopt another's point of view was turned inward to look at your own self. This, in essence, is the basis of things like "introspection". It may not be coincidental that we use phrases like "self conscious" when you really mean that you are conscious of others being conscious of you. Or say "I am reflecting" when you mean you are aware of yourself thinking. In other words the ability to turn inward to introspect or reflect may be a sort of metaphorical extension of the mirror neurons ability to read others minds. It is often tacitly assumed that the uniquely human ability to construct a "theory of other minds" or "TOM" (seeing the world from the others point of view; "mind reading", figuring out what someone is up to, etc.) must come after an already pre- existing sense of self. I am arguing that the exact opposite is true; the TOM evolved first in response to social needs and then later, as an unexpected bonus, came the ability to introspect on your own thoughts and intentions. I claim no great originality for these ideas; they are part of the current zeitgeist. Any novelty derives from the manner in which I shall marshall the evidence from physiology and from our own work in neurology. Note that I am not arguing that mirror neurons are sufficient for the emergence of self; only that they must have played a pivotal role. (Otherwise monkeys would have self awareness and they don't). They may have to reach a certain critical level of sophistication that allowed them to build on earlier functions (TOM) and become linked to certain other brain circuits, especially the Wernickes ("language comprehension") area and parts of the frontal lobes.
Does the mirror neuron theory of self make other predictions? Given our discovery that autistic children have deficient mirror neurons and correspondingly deficient TOM, we would predict that they would have a deficient sense of self (TMM) and difficulty with introspection. The same might be true for other neurological disorders; damage to the inferior parietal lobule/TPO junction (which are known to contain mirror neurons) and parts of the frontal lobes should also lead to a deficiency of certain aspects self awareness. (Incidentally, Gallup's mirror test — removing a paint splotch from your face while looking at a mirror — is not an adequate test of self awareness, even though it is touted as such. We have seen patients who vehemently claim that their reflection in the mirror is "someone else" yet they pass the Gallup test!) It has recently been shown that if a conscious awake human patient has his parietal lobe stimulated during neurosurgery, he will sometimes have an "out of body" experience — as if he was a detached entity watching his own body from up near the ceiling. I suggest that this arises because of a dysfunction in the mirror neuron system in the parieto-occipital junction caused by the stimulating electrode. These neurons are ordinarily activated when we temporarily "adopt" another's view of our body and mind (as outlined earlier in this essay). But we are always aware we are doing this partly because of other signals (both sensory and reafference/command signals) telling you you are not literally moving out of yourself. (There may also be frontal inhibitory mechanisms that stop you from involuntarily mimicking another person looking at you). If these mirror neuron-related mechanisms are deranged by the stimulating electrode the net result would be an out-of-body experience. Some years ago we examined a patient with a syndrome called anosognosia who had a lesion in his right parietal lobe and vehemently denied the paralysis. Remarkably the patient also denied the paralysis of another patient sitting in an adjacent wheelchair! (who failed to move the arm on command from the physician.) Here again was, evidence that two seemingly contradictory aspects of self — its the individuation and intense privacy vs. its social reciprocity — may complement each other and arise from the same neural mechanism, mirror neurons. Like the two sides of a Mobius strip, they are really the same, even they appear — on local inspection — to be fundamentally different. “
AS: I have a lot of respect for Rama's work, but again, let's be clear. We are talking about NCCs. Fine, so when an individual has a certain experience, we can correlate it with activity in certain portions of the brain. The question remains, why is one conscious? Why does activity in that part of the brain, or some other part, result in conscious experience?
Just because we can have so many different kinds of conscious experiences, involving activity in different parts of the brain, we can conclude that activity in any one particular place is not what results in consciousness. We can't localize it very well, it seems to involve very widespread activity. But even if we could localize it, we still would not be answering the question, why does activity in that particular place result in consciousness? This is the hard problem, and in this respect, we are no closer to understanding consciousness than we were fifty or one hundred years ago. We have known for a very long time that consciousness is associated with activity in the brain. What we have mostly done in the past century is focus this understanding. We can now pinpoint to some degree where activity correlated with some particular experience is. We are beginning to make inroads into understanding the kind of activity, i.e., the neural code. This is very important and significant work, I don't mean to denigrate it by any means. And it may lead to new psychological insights, as Rama's work suggests. But the fundamental problem, the gap between neural activity and the experience itself is as great as ever.
I think very few investigators would disagree with this conclusion. Some might say the gap is not that important or significant (Dennett), some might say we will never know and it doesn't really matter (Edelman has expressed thoughts like these at times). Some will say, just give us more time (the Churchlands). Some doubt we will ever close or explain this gap (Nagel). One doesn't have to take sides in this debate simply to concede that in this very important respect no progress at all has yet been made.
To conclude, I think there are two main issues between David and myself.
With respect to higher consciousness, I see very deep problems in its scientific study, which I don't think David appreciates. David accuses me, fairly, of bringing my personal experiences into this discussion. I don't see how this can be avoided, and see no problem with it as long as it is done openly. Everything that we—society or the scientific community—know about higher consciousness is based on someone's experiences.
With respect to studies of ordinary consciousness, while I respect the enormous progress made in understanding the neural correlates of various mental processes, I do not see that any of this work has brought us closer to closing the immense gap between the material world and our very familiar experience of consciousness. David either doesn't appreciate this gap, or thinks that we have somehow succeeded in beginning to close it. If the latter, he does have some supporters in the scientific and philosophical community, but I doubt they are in the majority.They most definitely are not a consensus. He's enttled to his opinion, but there are large numbers of investigators who disagree with him here.