« The challenge to understand the nature of consciousness requires the discipline of science together with a willingness to accept the contribution of other, diverse approaches. »
What is consciousness and what is its nature? Can this subject be studied and can it be approached only scientifically? these are the main questions that this essay will attempt to answer. But to be able to understand the nature of consciousness, it is already necessary to define it as the words “conscious” and “consciousness” are umbrella terms that cover a wide variety of mental phenomena. And the review of the scientific literature shows that not all researchers agree on the definition of consciousness. Are we talking about the arousal of consciousness as Rosenthal (1986,1996)? In this case we should be interested in perception, memory and attention, subjects which have been studied by cognitive psychology and neuroscience. Or do we define consciousness as more qualitative states called qualia i.e. the introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects of our mental lives? consciousness may also be considered as phenomenal, defined as the overall structure of experience which involves far more than sensory qualia. Whatever the definition given to consciousness, its subjective nature makes its study delicate and requires recourse not only to scientific rigour but also to other approaches.
In this paper we will examine how science contributes to the study of consciousness and why it is important to adopt a scientific attitude in this study. But we will also see the limits of this approach, a limit which makes it necessary to look at the contribution of other perspectives, especially spiritual ones. A few examples will help to explain the necessity to dwell into other disciplines.
But I will begin by defining what is meant by the nature of consciousness in this essay as it is defined differently by different authors. This will help to narrow the field of investigation.
What is the nature of consciousness about and the specificity of its study?
The answer to this question refers to the definition of consciousness and not all authors agree on this definition. Etymologically, the word ‘consciousness’ comes from the Latin ‘Conscientia’, which literally means common knowledge and refers to an immediate intuitive or reflexive knowledge that everyone has of his or her own existence and that of the outside world. It is therefore a personal feeling, a knowledge that one has of oneself and which can be different from one person to another although every human being and perhaps living has access to consciousness. It can be defined as the dynamic and personal organisation of psychic life. Defining consciousness is important because this definition shows the subjective, personal, universal and experiential character of this phenomenon and therefore the difficulty of using a classical scientific method for studying it.
The etymology of the word consciousness refers not only to the subject’s knowledge of the object, but also to the fact that this object is always a reference to the subject himself and his belief system. As we shall see, this is one of the reasons why traditional scientific paradigm cannot be fully applied to the study of the nature of consciousness, because in this case, subject and object overlap. This occurs often with the human and psychological sciences through the mechanism of transfer, but with the study of consciousness this subject-object association is absolute and methods have to be found to obtain the neutrality required by any scientific study. This also reinforces the importance of adopting the discipline of the scientific approach in the study of the nature of consciousness in order to for the researcher to handle this bias.
The contribution of science to the study of the nature of consciousness
Science, defined as the knowledge and methods developed in institutional or academic communities, is looking for proofs. Science provides researchers with a number of recommendations they could use for building evidences such as being an impartial and objective observer, conducting experiments to gather evidence, using logic to reason in a sound manner on the basis of these evidences, and trying to understand the patterns behind the way the world behaves. In psychology, as in another science, researchers approach information and knowledge in a systematic and consciously articulated way. The start of the research process requires a topic to be chosen, concepts to be defined and aims of the research to be clearly specified. And this is one of the key problem when studying the nature of consciousness as no commonly accepted definitions exists as of today. Adopting a scientific approach means asking a specific question and when possible formulate a hypothesis or a claim as for example ‘what is the role of memory in consciousness?’. When the question has been devised, then data may be collected through experiments, interviews, questionnaires, tests, observations or hermeneutic approach such as discourse analysis. If the methods are numerous in qualitative research like the one on consciousness, the definition of the research question is difficult. “There is considerable confusion surrounding the notion of consciousness. This confusion can be partially resolved by clarifying the referents of the word ‘consciousness’. Doing so, however, reveals a more insidious problem, namely, the role played by personal beliefs in understanding consciousness” (Baruss,2008)
Thanks to its methods, the science, especially the cognitive psychology and the neurosciences, allowed a better understanding of what consciousness could be and … what it could not. Through quantitative and qualitative researches and imaging brain, they highlighted the role of attention, perception and memory in consciousness. They also proved that consciousness may be above awareness as for example with experiences on blindsight. In other words, science addressed successfully the “easy” problems of consciousness (Chalmers,1995), letting the hard problem aside, i.e. how the brain may product consciousness.
However, consciousness may still be studied scientifically under three angles: Phenomenological, neurophysiological and behavioural. The first angle is the domain of felt experience or qualia. The second uses a variety of methods such as brain imaging technics or recording the electrical activity of neurons to register events or change in the brain that accompany experiences. The third angle, the behavioural data domain, includes reports from individual about their experiences: if the reports can in principle be checked against those made by other individuals, they are intersubjectively verifiable. Whatever the angle adopted, the scientific study of consciousness may only address what Chalmers called The easy problem of consciousness’; it includes the neural underpinnings of the processes that make it possible for us to discriminate environmental stimuli, to integrate information in the brain, to produce verbal reports sand so on. These phenomena appear directly susceptible to investigation using the standard methods of science as they may be explained in terms of computational or neural mechanisms. But science cannot explain the ‘hard’ problem and the nature of consciousness. As expressed by Nagel (2012), « The physical sciences can describe organisms like ourselves as parts of the objective spatio-temporal order – our structure and behavior in space and time – but they cannot describe the subjective experiences of such organisms or how the world appears to their different particular points of view »
The limits of science in the study of the nature of consciousness
The scientific approach has limits and cannot answer to all the questions raised by the study of the nature of consciousness. The scientific study of consciousness is still in infancy and the disparate findings can seem like the scattered pieces of a jigsaw yet to come together into a coherent whole. This reflects the current state of play in the field of consciousness studies. The aspects of consciousness currently being tackled using scientific methods tend to be carefully limited and precise rather than broad and general. For example, the experience on blindsight is about trying to trace the neural correlates of phenomenal experience and not trying to unravel more philosophical approaches to consciousness or to explain its nature; “The search of the neurophysiological approach is for the neural correlates of consciousness but not why or how any feature of neural activity might be the cause of consciousness.” (Metzinger, 2000).
Other ways have to be explored to understand the nature of the consciousness and to answer to the following questions: why are we conscious? Is it only adaptive as explained by the evolutionary theories or is it an essential part of the Self as without consciousness we will not be able to make decisions, thus to be free? How can we perceive an unified world while each of our senses provide us with different information? Science therefore does not, for the moment, provide satisfactory explanations because the protocols it uses cannot be applied to the study of the nature of consciousness because of its above-mentioned specificities. Moreover, studies show that the brain is only a tool that allows consciousness to emerge and develop. « consciousness cannot be fully understood as a product of brain processes alone. We may hold, for example, that consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe, or of all biological forms, and/or that it is in some sense primary – with matter as an expression of consciousness rather than the other way round, or even that it derives from a dimension that is transcendent to mind and matter.” (Lancaster). Lancaster opens a very large field of investigation as it goes beyond what is directly observable.
Therefore, we need to change our paradigm and start from a new premise: The topic of nature of consciousness can only be approached through experience, which is all that we know or could ever know. However even if we struggle with the implications of this statement, we cannot legitimately deny it. Being the only thing that can be known, experience itself must be the criterion of reality. If we do not take experience as a criterion of reality, belief will be the only alternative: experience and belief – or « the way of truth and the way of opinion », as Parmenides said in the 5th century BC – are the only two possibilities.
Understanding the nature of consciousness can only be achieved through experience, whether it is our inner experience, i.e. thoughts, images, feelings and sensations, or our outer experience of ordinary reality, i.e. the world we know through the five senses of perception. This experience nourishes the mind, defined as the element of a person that enables her/him to be aware of the world and her/his experiences, to think and to feel or as the faculty of consciousness and thought. If experience represents all that we could ever know and all experience is known in the form of the mind, then in order to know the nature or ultimate reality of all known things, it is necessary to know beforehand the nature of the mind. Thus, the first imperative of any seeker who wishes to know the nature of reality must be to examine and know his own reality. Whether the mind perceives a world outside of itself, according to the prevailing materialistic paradigm, or whether it projects the world inside, everything we know or experience is known or experienced through the mind. In other words, the mind, including the mind of the seeker, imposes its own limits on everything it sees or knows, so all his knowledge and experience appears as a reflection of his own limitations. This is why scientists will never discover the reality of the universe until they are determined to explore the nature of their own mind and its belief system. And this is the fundamental limitation of the scientific approach applied to the study of consciousness, namely the study of the subject by itself, the impossible total distancing of the researcher from himself and the difficulty of studying consciousness with his consciousness alone. Often researchers use the notion of consciousness, not in a technical sense, but as a Rorschach blot on which to project their favourite ideas about the nature of reality. These ideas are not necessarily based on empirical research or logical reasoning, but are simply beliefs held by a researcher for whatever reason, so the importance to understand the relationship between notions about consciousness and personal beliefs about reality when studying consciousness. (Barušs, 2012)
the need for a paradigm shift
Because of this ontological limit of the science, it is therefore essential to complement the scientific methodological approach with other perspectives: the study of consciousness and its essential nature requires another kind of knowledge such as transpersonal psychology may offer. Is consciousness non local? Does ‘unconscious’ exist? Shouldn’t we rather talk about ‘sub consciousness’ instead when studying experiences through dreams for example? The conclusions of various experiments such as NDE lead us to think that other worlds exist and that there would be a non-local consciousness, non-observable and therefore impossible to study with classical scientific methods. Transpersonal psychology invites us to change our perspective in the study of the nature of consciousness and no longer to start from the material but to integrate traditional spiritual approaches.
A paradigm shift means changing the way we look at things and no overlook or dismiss people’s accounts of experiences which do not fit conventional assumptions while keeping in mind that all knowledge is not of equal validity. If we start from the hypothesis that the brain is only a tool at the service of consciousness, the determinants of its nature must be sought elsewhere, whether at the level of the microcosm, as advocates by the Panpsychism or at the level of macrocosm (Schwartz, 1995).
What is important to observe is that the construction of the Self is a consequence of the nature of consciousness. « Humans seem to share a common intuition of a ‘self’ that has access to conscious sensations, inner speech, images and thoughts (self-consciousness)” (Barušs and Moss bridge, 2016). According to the corroborating testimonies collected from people who have lived an NDE or an ‘extra-ordinary experience’, there is another reality. I would like at this level to mention a survey conducted in 1969 by a retired professor, Alister Hardy, which describes the transcendental nature of consciousness allowing to reach a state of well-being. She advertised only one question in a newspaper: ‘Have you even been aware of or influenced by a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?’ She received 3.000 answers that she classified into five categories based on the five senses, omitting the taste but adding the ‘sixth sense’, i.e. extrasensory perception. Among the ‘triggers’ of these experiences, the most common were natural beauty, participation in religious worship, prayer or meditation, music, literature and dream, depression or despair. The most frequently recorded effects was a sense of security, of protection or peace, a sense of joy or happiness, a sense of guidance, vocation or inspiration, a sense of certainty, clarity or enlightenment, a sense of integration, wholeness or fulfilment (Hay,1990, p141). To my opinion, this experience evidences that consciousness may allow people to access to their higher self and to a state of well-being but only approaches different from the one proposed by science may be used for understanding these phenomena such as the ones issued from Buddhism, shamanism or other spiritual traditions.
The aim of the psychology is to understand human psyche and the ability to access to another realities is not only part of this psyche but a feature of consciousness. Exploring this aspect of consciousness is important as it allows to understand people need for transcendence, the quest for meaning in their lives and this knowledge will be give them the means to find it: This enables them to reach a state of well-being or/and healing. To this regard, the study of the approaches of spiritual traditions can bring a lot, whether it is in terms of cosmogonic knowledge which gives meaning to the evolution of Man on earth as Kabbalistic psychology teaches or in terms of practices such as meditation or altered states of consciousness as with shamanic journeys.
The discipline of science is essential for studying the nature of consciousness: it teaches us the epistemological and even ethical requirement according to which a researcher should adopt an axiological neutrality (Weber max). This is an important principle to keep in mind when studying consciousness because the observer cannot be impartial as being at the same time object and subject. It implies that experiments in this field should be conducted with a scientific rigor.
But science cannot explain the nature of consciousness and a change of paradigm is required. It will not be the first time; In the 1930s, Karl Popper challenged the existing scientific approach by introducing a new approach to scientific method and reasoning based on scepticism and continued questioning. It was already a call to scientists to adopt an open, sceptical and imaginative approach.
It is perhaps again time to review the existing paradigm by promoting interconnectedness between approaches essentially in this period of spiritual questioning. Science can help to explore new fields of research in a rigorous way. It also develops means to produce high-quality researches, either based on qualitative or quantitative data. But science has limits, one of them being the position of the observer as subject and object, and therefore should not refrain from exploring other approaches, especially at a time when there are so many evidences about the nature of a consciousness that would be non-local and whose development would bring peace and well-being to people.
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Barušs, I. & Mossbridge, J. (2016). Transcendent mind: Rethinking the science of consciousness. American Psychological Association.
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Hay, D. (1990), Religious Experience Today, London, Mobray
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