The following is copied from the course catalog describing the Consciousness Specialization:
Asking the question, “what is consciousness?” is not too different from asking the question, “what is life?” or “what is existence?” And the answer to all these questions is, in any definitive sense, we don’t know. One can’t help but acknowledge a degree of inherent mystery here. However, the human spirit is such that we must try to plumb the depths of the big questions. As a result there are many “views” on consciousness produced by different aspects of human thought and study: – contrast the following two quotes, the first from ancient Hindu philosophy and the second from modern science:
“Thou canst not see the seer of seeing, thou canst not hear the hearer of hearing, thou canst
not comprehend the comprehender of comprehension, thou canst not know the knower of
knowledge; he is thy soul, that is within all.”
– Upanishads (Brh3.4)
“You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will (your consciousness), are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”
– Francis Crick (molecular biologist and neuroscientist, 20th century)
These are such diametrically opposite views on consciousness that one must surmise they
arise from completely different ways of knowing or exploring the question. And there are many
At Atlantic University, of course, we are concerned with perspectives on consciousness with particular attention to their relationship to the transpersonal. One can approach this throught the study of mythology, theories of hypnosis, and the relationship between the scientific and the spiritual, or the views of Depth Psychology originating with Carl Jung and his ideas on the Collective Unconscious.
This week we are going to look at scientific perspectives, from the mainstream to more fringe, on consciousness. We will see a progression from strict scientific materialism towards notions of consciousness that will help open up into views that we will study throughout the rest of the course – ideas of consciousness being primary or independent of materiality.
We’ll begin by looking at our direct experience of consciousness – you’ll be asked to report on this as part of the discussion post this week. This exercise comes from Steve Taylor who wrote a book called “Spiritual Science” and it’s designed to illustrate aspects of consciousness. I’ve created a recording of it that you can listen to it while you do the exercise, or you can record it yourself and listen to that as you do the exercise:
Close your eyes and observe your own inner experiences. Watch your thoughts pass by, as if you were sitting on a river bank watching it flow by. These could be thoughts about what happened earlier today, about what might be happening later today, about other people around you, about this course material and so on. The important thing is just to watch the thoughts arise, manifest themselves, and fade away.
In the same way, be aware of any sensation inside of you – for example, any feelings of discomfort or irritation or tiredness. Again, just be aware of those feelings – you are just an observer of them. Also be aware of the chair you are sitting on, of the sensations of your back against it, and your bottom upon it. Be aware of your feet against the floor.
Now, with your yes still closed, try to sense that part of you that is aware of your thoughts and sensations. Since you are watching your thoughts pass by, there is a part of your consciousness that is apart from your thoughts – a watcher or observer. In metaphorical terms, this is the part of you that is sitting on the river bank watching the river of thoughts flow by. This is your sense of “I”. After a while, you may gain a sense of the distance between this “I” and your thoughts. You may also be aware of how your thoughts try to pull you away from this place of observation, how they immerse your attention, as if the river is trying to carry you away.
Finally, let’s bring your attention outside of yourself. Still with your eyes closed, be aware of the sounds in the room, and outside it. Be aware of any aromas around you. Then touch some of the objects around you. Then open your eyes and look at the objects and different phenomena around you. Be aware of your surroundings through all of your senses.
This exercise illustrates 3 different aspects of consciousness. The first aspect is our inner experience of thoughts and sensations. The second part of the exercise illustrates that we appear to have a center of consciousness – a sense of “I” with which we are aware of our own experience. We don’t just have experience, we are aware we’re having experience – this is the self-conscious observer. The third part of the exercise illustrates that consciousness includes awareness of our surroundings, putting us into apparent contact with the outside world.
The Mainstream Scientific Perspective
Coming out of the field of neuroscience primarily, we can identify a mainstream scientific paradigm wherein consciousness is a product of the physical brain. We could call this a bottom up approach to consciousness, the bottom being matter – the atoms and molecules that make up neurons with their associated electrochemical activity. Here consciousness is treated as a epiphenomenon – a kind of accidental byproduct of physical processes. This is expressed in the quote above by Francis Crick, the nobel prize winner and discoverer of the structure of DNA. This view leads us to what has been called “The Hard Problem”which is how to explain how experience (and experiencing) emerges from inert matter. It feels like something to be alive; we are aware not only of outer events but also internal ones. For this we have no explanation.
Here is David Chalmers, the philosopher who coined the term “The Hard Problem” talking about consciousness and this seemingly intractable problem:
Watch David Chalmers- Ted Talks-Subject- How do you explain consciousness
And here’s Susan Blackmore, a well-known scientist and commentator from Oxford University – she’s a die-hard materialist, but introduces the issues as seen from the perspective of science:
The Evolution of Consciousness (scientific persepctive)
In terms of the evolution of consciousness, essentially, the thinking runs that consciousness emerged from brains when, through evolution, they become large and complex enough. A study of the evolution of consciousness is then closely tied with the evolution nervous systems and of brain structure. So one would study archeological evidence (skull size and shape, evidence for “intelligence” in the form of use of tools etc.) for changing brain size, form and function. The following article in Psychology Today (link below) represents a survey of more mainstream thinking on the development and evolution of consciousness – it is entirely materialistic in its outlook. There are 5 parts (ie/ 5 sequential articles); please read Part 1. I encourage you to read all 5 parts if you have time because you’ll encounter some important personalities and ideas in the process (e.g. Daniel Dennett – consciousness as an illusion).
See this link for the Psychology article- read part one
Even within science, however, we can note that there appears to be a shift occurring. This shift involves a move away from strict materialism and can involve the notion that consciousness, and not materiality, is primary. Julia Mossbridge is a neuroscientist working at a number of institutions:
In another example, here is Donald D. Hoffman, Professor of Cognitive Science, University of California, Irvine, talking about trying to rigorously approach the problem by assuming consciousness comes first:
Or, finally, it can involve moving away from the idea that the brain is the source of consciousness. The most well known example of this is the Integrated Information theory of Kristof Koch (link). His assumption is that consciousness is a property of the universe. All things have it to some degree and that degree depends on aspects of the things complexity. The human brain is the most complex thing known in the universe, so it has a lot of consciousness.
Beginning to Move on From the Scientific Perspective
In this course we should be aware of the mainstream scientific perspective, but will find it far too limited in scope, not least because science does not know what consciousness is and there is literally no physical theory for how it is produced. We are forced to use other avenues and perhaps other ways of knowing in order to explore this domain. To bring us into this wider view let’s look at the same interviewer speaking with Deepak Chopra:
This view that consciousness is primary is of course the view that has come to us from mystics throughout the millennia. It is this kind of perspective that we must assume in order for us to proceed to consider the transpersonal perspectives on the evolution of consciousness. Now, of the perspectives we will look at, some, like those of Ken Wilber, will start out closer to the scientific view and proceed form there. Others, like those of Edgar Cayce, will simply begin from a more mystical view.
Reading and Watching Assignments:
Watch all the videos on this page (you might want to take some notes as you watch) and read the Psychology Today article (Part 1 at least
write about the following: After having viewed all the videos on consciousness in this weeks Moodle page, what’s your reaction to the mainstream scientific view and the problems it encounters. What do you think consciousness is and where does it come from? How did the experiential exercise strike you, and do you have criticisms of it? Do you think that consciousness has evolved? How about your own consciousness?
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