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A Definitional Debate?

David Lane

These comments by David Lane on Andy Smith's essay "Are Physicists Conscious?", which was in turn a comment on Lane's papers "Is Consciousness Physical?" and "The Physics of Being Aware", are marked with a blue line on the left. For ease of reading, Smith's original essay is printed integrally.

In two recent articles posted at this site, Is Consciousness Physical? and The Physics of Being Aware, David and Andrea Lane advance arguments for what they call a reductive approach to understanding consciousness, and make some important criticisms of Wilber's AQAL approach. As a scientist and sometime critic of Wilber, I agree with much of what the Lanes say, and welcome their examination of some of Wilber's assumptions. Nevertheless, I'm left feeling they have missed some of the key issues of consciousness. Like the old joke about the drunk who loses his wallet in a dark alley, then looks for it out in the street, because the light is better there, scientists tend to focus on problems amenable to their particular methods. This is certainly understandable, and has had immense payoffs, but it dodges the issue of whether there remain problems that may be genuinely intractable to their methods. Carried to an extreme, it results in denial that a particular phenomenon or scientific problem even exists.

Has science had any success whatsoever in understanding consciousness? That depends on how we define each of those two words. If we mean by “understanding” a phenomenon identifying its physical causes, and if we mean by “consciousness” the observable behavior of humans and other organisms we believe to be conscious, then the answer is clearly yes. On the other hand, there are other senses of those words which make the prospect of understanding consciousness much more daunting. Let me elaborate.

The goal of meditation.

In "Is Consciousness Physical?" the Lanes state:

A reductionist methodology is actually best suited to determine the physicality of such events. This doesn't mean that mystical encounters are physical, but only that taking an Occam 's Razor approach forces us to find the necessary mechanisms in the human brain for generating such illuminating displays. Ironically, reductionism is mysticism's most powerful ally. Why? Because reductionism by force of its severe focus on physical causes eliminates non-viable candidates.

I certainly agree with the first sentence of that paragraph; reductionism essentially by definition is the method of choice for determining the physicality of phenomena. The problem is that the goal of mysticism is not to determine the physicality of consciousness. This is a red herring. The goal is to awaken. Period. The mystic asserts that there is a higher state of consciousness than the one in which humans ordinarily exist. While the relationship of the two is often compared to the relationship of ordinary consciousness to sleep, a better analogy is probably the relationship of ordinary consciousness to a philosophical zombie: a creature that behaves exactly like an ordinary human being but which has no conscious experience whatsoever. A zombie is in effect completely asleep, but moves about in the world and has all the impact upon it that someone in the ordinary waking state has.

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.

Science, since it's practiced for the most part by individuals in the ordinary state of consciousness, can do very little to aid in the awakening process. Certainly being a scientist does not enable one to see any more clearly that there is a higher state, nor does the practice of science help either oneself or others to awaken. Mystics have long maintained that the kind of knowledge obtained through the intellect, including science, is pretty much irrelevant to awakening. (Wilber, in his earlier versions—e.g., Eye to Eye— understood and expressed this very clearly, but unfortunately more recently—Integral Spirituality—he seems to have amended this view, perhaps because of his desire to sell his integral system to the masses).

This claim naturally grates on many scientists, who are uncomfortable with the notion that there is any phenomenon or experience that is off limits to their profession. They also rightly worry that it's a recipe for fraud and delusion, something that, the Lanes point out, science might provide an important corrective against:

critics are religions' best friend, provided that such religions wish to know whether their respective truth claims are genuine or not.

I agree that criticism is extremely important in following the spiritual path, but here I side with Wilber: if you don't play the game, you can't make the rules. If someone does not engage in the enormous effort and suffering that the spiritual path entails, he is not qualified to say anything about what lies along that path. Science can and should get involved whenever someone makes a claim that can be empirically tested, but the point is that genuine mystics don't make such claims. Uri Geller, an example provided by the Lanes, is no mystic. If his exposure helps some people understand that, fine, but such frauds come and go all the time, and have no effect whatsoever on the mystical tradition.

Higher consciousness is just that—a much greater level of awareness than ordinary; it's not manifested in powers that are empirically observable or testable to the ordinary consciousness. In saying this, I'm not making any claims about whether such powers are or are not possible. I'm only insisting that the defining feature of the higher state is something that is currently invisible to science—and the prospects for this changing in the foreseeable future are exceedingly dim.

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.

In other words, higher consciousness is one of those back alley phenomena—and scientists trying to study it are in the position of looking under the street lamp. This is exemplified by laboratory studies of meditators. I'm all for this kind of research, but we should be very clear that these studies do not and cannot live up to rigorous scientific standards in their quest to identify the brain correlates of higher consciousness. Typically, subjects in such studies are practitioners of some spiritual discipline, and the experimenters attempt to correlate their higher state with activity in certain brain regions, as determined, for example, by EEG recordings or by imaging procedures that identify areas of high metabolic activity. The problem—which should be very obvious even to non-scientists, but which is nevertheless glossed over in these studies—is that the experimenters must take the subjects' word that they are in a higher state. They have no way of independently validating this claim.[1]

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:

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?

Many of these studies have reported physiological or metabolic differences between subjects and non-meditating controls, the implication being that that these findings provide further evidence that the subjects are in a higher state of consciousness. But an alternative possibility—again, one that should be very obvious—is that something other than a higher state of consciousness might distinguish subjects from controls. Indeed, there is a very strong candidate for this “something other”—attention, which is very frequently and mistakenly conflated with consciousness. More on this later.

Of course, the very fact that higher consciousness can't be verified by another person or through a scientific experiment seems to call into question its reality or meaningfulness. The Lanes note:

That mystics from varying traditions have practiced concentrative techniques for centuries doesn't tell us anything whatsoever about their ultimate ontological truth value

This may be true, but one can say exactly the same thing about science. Many philosophers, particularly of the postmodern school, would argue that the world as defined by science is to a great extent constructed by our perceptual/interpretive processes; indeed, many branches of science itself, from physics to neuroscience to linguistics, provide support for this claim (Lakoff 1987; Damasio 1994; Globus 1995; Clark 1998; Desilet 1999; Globus and Bezzubova 2001). What justifies science, the reason why it has become the dominant worldview, is that it describes the world in a consistent fashion that allows us to predict, within limits, certain phenomena. In a word, science works. If we don't know what the world is really like—if, indeed, there is perhaps no way that the world really is—nevertheless the description of the world presented by science has proven to be extraordinarily useful to us.

However, the same is true for mysticism. Any advanced spiritual practitioner, for example, can tell you very precisely the effect any particular behavior or activity will have on both the level and the quality of her consciousness. She can also tell you how much her level of awareness can rise in a particular period of time. She will know a great deal about why certain thoughts and emotions arise when they do, and can use such information to predict future states. Though none of this knowledge is the goal of meditation—in fact, it is always an obstacle to that goal—it generally does accompany it, and the very fact that such powerful insights are, in essence, a side product of the process, speaks volumes about this process and its ultimate goal.

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 opposite-- it 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.

Indeed, one way of understanding mysticism is as a higher, more genuine form of science. The scientific method presupposes a distinction between the scientific observer and the phenomenon to be studied. This distinction goes back to Descartes, but we now appreciate the fallacy in this view. There is no such thing as an isolated individual consciousness, unaffected by either the body it's housed in or by the world surrounding it. In blunter terms, everything we think and feel—including all our ideas, concepts and theories about the universe—is itself part of the ongoing processes of the universe. Thus all scientific knowledge which purports to tell us what the world is like is itself part of that world.

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.

Does this matter? Well, if every event has a determinate cause, as held by the classical (pre-quantum) worldview, then it's very hard to see how human beings can have free will. If we don't have free will, it's in turn hard to understand just what relationship the thoughts we think, the theories we create, have to the world. We seem to be embedded in a process over which any control is an illusion. To be sure, quantum theory has challenged this deterministic view, but it remains to be seen whether quantum indeterminism actually has an effect on our mental processes. Though there have been several interesting theories along these lines (Lockwood 1989; Beck and Eccles 1992; Stapp 1993; Hameroff and Penrose 1996), probably the large majority of scientists doubt that it does (Smith 2007).

In this light, the mystic quest to still the mind and detach from the world can be seen as a way of creating a more truly independent observer. The mystic's awareness includes not simply the outer world, but also all her inner thoughts and feelings; all of these are part of the data of observation. The mystic's claim of genuine freedom of course can't be verified by others, but it shouldn't be difficult to understand that a process designed to observe objectively all phenomena, including ones own thought processes, captures something essential in the scientific approach, and uses it to take a step out of the trap that science seems to have illuminated.

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.

Consciousness and its object.

In "The Physics of Being Aware", the Lanes tackle the question of qualia. Qualia refer to the immediate, ineffable experiences of consciousness, and are thought by some philosophers to be so different from the material processes of the brain as to be unexplainable by science. To address this criticism, the Lanes quote at length Patricia Churchland on the well known inverted spectrum problem. The idea is, how do I know that the experience I have when I see red is not the experience you have when you see, say, green? As long as we are consistent in naming a particular color, there seems to be no way to get inside someone else's mind and confirm that he/she experiences what we experience.

Churchland's point, very simply put, is that what we know about the brain makes it highly unlikely that different individuals could differ radically in their experiences of particular stimuli. I don't have a major problem with this. What I do have a problem with is that Churchland is missing the fundamental issue. She, too, is out on the street, looking under the lamp post. She is addressing the object of consciousness, rather than consciousness itself.

Churchland—in common with virtually every other philosopher and cognitive scientist, including those dualists she seeks to rebut—is in fact conflating consciousness with its object. When we have an experience of green, we can say that the object of consciousness is green, and when we have an experience of red, the object is red. The assumption, virtually universal in the cognitive community, is that consciousness always has an object, and that therefore consciousness not only can but must be studied as some particular experience, as opposed to some other particular experience.

The experience of many meditators, however—as well as, I believe, of many other forms of life, such as humans in the womb or at birth—indicates that consciousness does not have to have an object, at least in the sense that the term is generally understood. There is a state, which I refer to in The Dimensions of Experience as zero-dimensional, in which no distinction is made between self and other, or subject and object. While there may still be consciousness of something, it is not a “something” that can be contrasted with consciousness of something else (as in red vs. green).[2] And while the meditative experience may be relatively rare, it suggests that consciousness in general can and should be conceptually distinguished from the consciousness of any particular object. That is, the essence of qualia is not the redness of experiencing red, the greenness of experiencing green, the painfulness of experiencing pain, and so on, but simply experience itself. As I like to put it, there is only one quale.

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.

This is a far deeper problem than that posed by the possibility of an inverted spectrum. The point of the latter is just to ask, how do we know that our experience is shared by others? As noted earlier, I agree with the Lanes and Churchland that neurophysiology strongly suggests that our experience is shared. This is also why, for example, I believe animals that share certain portions of our brains feel pain, and should be treated accordingly. But to say that we share certain particular experiences says nothing at all about how experience could be produced by the material processes of the brain. This is the problem that science has made no progress whatsoever on, and which has led philosophers such as David Chalmers (1996), David Ray Griffin (1998) and William Seager (1999) to flirt seriously with panpsychism—the notion that consciousness is fundamental, and therefore everything is to some extent conscious. Of course we can show that the redness of an experience is correlated with the activity of certain cells, beginning with certain cones in the retina and continuing up to the visual cortex; and in principle, we can show that any particular experience is correlated with activity in some unique set of neurons. Neurophysiology clearly has the potential to explain why our experience of green is different from our experience of red. What it so far is powerless to explain is why there is any experience at all.

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.”

A very crude metaphor of the situation is offered by the concept of infinity. Consider two infinite series: the set of all positive integers, and the set of all positive even integers. Are these two sets different? Yes, in that the set of all positive integers contains numbers that the set of all even integers does not contain. Yet despite the fact that the first set contains numbers that the second set does not contain, while the converse is not true, the two sets are the same size; every number in the first set can be matched with some number in the second set. This seems paradoxical. Infinity is something we can recognize as the property of certain sets, yet we don't really understand what it is. In somewhat the same way, I suggest, science may provide us with a very clear understanding of the difference between the experience of red and the experience of green, while still not understanding at all the nature of experience itself.

Again, I disagree since the very focus of Gerald Edelman's work has been about understanding the nature of experience itself.

As Edelman most recently explained in an interview on his work with Discover magazine (see:

“The evolutionary advantage is quite clear. Consciousness allows you the capacity to plan. Let's take a lioness ready to attack an antelope. She crouches down. She sees the prey. She's forming an image of the size of the prey and its speed, and of course she's planning a jump. Now suppose I have two animals: One, like our lioness, has that thing we call consciousness; the other only gets the signals. It's just about dusk, and all of a sudden the wind shifts and there's a whooshing sound of the sort a tiger might make when moving through the grass, and the conscious animal runs like hell but the other one doesn't. Well, guess why? Because the animal that's conscious has integrated the image of a tiger. The ability to consider alternative images in an explicit way is definitely evolutionarily advantageous.”

And why are you you?

Edelman elaborates:

“Many cognitive psychologists see the brain as a computer. But every single brain is absolutely individual, both in its development and in the way it encounters the world. Your brain develops depending on your individual history. What has gone on in your own brain and its consciousness over your lifetime is not repeatable, ever—not with identical twins, not even with conjoined twins. Each brain is exposed to different circumstances. It's very likely that your brain is unique in the history of the universe. Neural Darwinism looks at this enormous variation in the brain at every level, from biochemistry to anatomy to behavior. If you have a vast population of animals and each one differs, then under competition certain variants will be fitter than others. Those variants will be selected, and their genes will go into the population at a higher rate. An analogous process happens in the brain. As the brain forms, starting in the early embryo, neurons that fire together wire together. So for any individual, the microconnections from neuron to neuron within the brain depend on the environmental cues that provoke the firing. We have the extraordinary variance of the brain reacting to the extraordinary variance of the environment; all of it contributes to making that baby's brain change. And when you figure the numbers—at least 30 billion neurons in the cortex alone, a million billion connections—you have to use a selective system to maintain the connections that are needed most. The strength of the connections or the synapses can vary depending on experience. Instead of variant animals, you have variant microcircuits in the brain. About 250 million years ago, when therapsid reptiles gave rise to birds and mammals, a neuronal structure probably evolved in some animals that allowed for interaction between those parts of the nervous system involved in carrying out perceptual categorization and those carrying out memory. 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. At that point primary consciousness sets in. But that animal has no ability to narrate. It cannot construct a tale using long-term memory, even though long-term memory affects its behavior. Then, much later in hominid evolution, another event occurred: Other neural circuits connected conceptual systems, resulting in true language and higher-order consciousness. We were freed from the remembered present of primary consciousness and could invent all kinds of images, fantasies, and narrative streams.”

Consciousness and attention

A second misunderstanding I find in the Lanes' account in "The Physics of Being Aware" is closely related to the assumption that consciousness must have an object. Since the experience of any object requires that we focus our attention on it, this assumption easily leads to conflating consciousness with attention. The Lanes say:

Yes, I can focus my attention on the visual field in front of me, such as the computer screen I am looking at, or I can instead divert my gaze and ruminate about mathematical symbols that I can imagine in my head without recourse to anything presently in my visual field. Or, I can close my eyes in order to stop or alter what images seep into my cranium. Or, I can try to shut down my chattering thoughts by focusing on one image or no image at all, or repeating a mantra, or finding the source from which my awareness arises. But underlying all three of these activities isn't a hierarchy of distinctive modalities for truth ascertainment. What we are witnessing, quite literally, is the various ways we use our attention.

A neuroscientist could point out that these different activities definitely do involve a hierarchy. Following the impact of light rays on the retina, neuronal messages are generated that pass through a hierarchy of processing steps. This process begins with registering the intensity of the light, followed by the perception of lines and edges, followed by three-dimensional forms, color and texture, followed still later by recognition of specific kinds of objects, in turn followed by thought processes that operate in various ways on these perceptions of objects. At each hierarchical level in the brain, more information about the world is incorporated into the experience, and we do in fact regard these different hierarchical stages as having different truth values. This is why science, which involves applying higher order abstract thought processes to lower order perceptual data, is believed to provide a more truthful view of the world than that available to animals which have access only to their lower, immediate perceptions.

However, this is not the main point I want to make here. The point is that the higher state of consciousness that is the goal of meditation is not about using or focusing our attention in a different way. Higher consciousness is about raising the level of awareness. Period. Repeating a mantra or focusing on some image may work as a basic instruction for a beginner, but anyone who progresses very far gradually learns that it doesn't matter at all what one focuses on; that indeed, the notion that there is something to focus on, and a subject to focus on it, is an illusion.

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.

A commonly used metaphor for consciousness, particularly prominent in the work of cognitive scientist Bernard Baars (1997), is as a theater or stage, with conscious processes playing the role of actors in the spotlight. At any given time, the light may be focused on different people, objects or processes occurring on stage, and where it is focused is a matter of attention. Meditation, however, unique among all human activities, increases the intensity or amount of the light, independent of where it is focused. In this sense, it is not what we see or aware of, but our power to see or be aware.

While attention is often associated with awareness, the two can be distinguished; recent studies suggest, in fact, that attention can facilitate processing of information that occurs below the level of awareness (Kentridge et al. 2008). Yet most cognitive scientists ignore this distinction, and unfortunately, many meditators do also. Virtually every scientific study of meditation I have seen, particularly the more recent sophisticated attempts to define the active areas of the brain using imaging techniques or more powerful forms of EEG analysis (e.g., Lazar et al. 2000, 2005; Newberg et al. 2001, 2002; Lutz et al. 2004, 2008; Berczynski-Lewis et al 2007; Holzel et al. 2007) makes this mistake. From The Dimensions of Experience:

Meditation is not a , in the usual sense of the word…it should not be confused with an enhancement of such abilities as attention or perception. Since such enhanced abilities or skills are not the goal but in fact an obstacle to the goal, it is problematical to use them as a measure of higher consciousness. Yet… some of the most highly regarded studies of brain correlates of meditation appear to be measuring such enhanced functions, or skills, rather than a higher level of consciousness per se. As far as I can see, very few scientists working in this area grasp this distinction and its importance.

But the problem is not just that researchers might be measuring the wrong activity; it's that the “right activity” might not be measurable. Meditation, since it simply reflects an increase in awareness, is qualitatively different from any other human activity. One of its distinguishing features is that it can be done simultaneously with anything else. One can meditate while walking, reading, talking, eating, gardening, cooking, driving a car, writing, and so on and so on.

This is not true for any ordinary human activity. Some activities are clearly incompatible with each other. Sometimes this is just because they compete for different uses of common parts of the body; we can't sit in a chair and walk at the same time, nor can we swallow food and talk at the same time. But often the incompatibility is due to limits not of the body, but of the brain. For example, it's very difficult to think at a highly abstract level while engaging in intense physical activity, or while doing mathematical calculations in one's head, or while attending to some demanding perceptual task, or while having a conversation with someone about an entirely different subject. According to many local ordinances in the U.S., it's also difficult to talk on a cell phone while driving. The brain has limited resources, and sometimes a choice has to be made as to how they will be put to use.

These incompatibilities can and probably ultimately will be explained by studies showing just what parts of the brain are required for any particular activity. But the fact that meditation is compatible with any human activity ought to make researchers wonder what kind of change in the brain it could involve. It can't require activation of large neuronal networks that are to a significant extent also employed by other activities, for then it would interfere with those activities. Yet many if not all of the changes in brain activity that to my knowledge have so far been ascribed to meditation do in fact involve such large neuronal networks.

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.

In the above passage, the word “consciousness” could in most cases be substituted for the word “meditation”, because while meditation raises the level of consciousness, the fundamental problem of the relationship of consciousness at any level to that of the brain remains. Indeed, the imaging techniques that are now used as a state-of-the-art approach to studying meditators were originally validated in normal subjects, in whom they are used to identify which areas of the brain are metabolically active during various forms of perception, learning and behavior. Do any of these latter studies prove, or even attempt to prove, that these subjects are simply conscious, or if they are, how conscious? Of course not. Consciousness is an a priori assumption; what is being studied in all such cases is the contents of consciousness.

It's the same with laboratory studies of meditators. A higher state of consciousness is assumed; what is actually measured, however, is some object of consciousness.

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).


While I agree with the Lanes on the value of reductive approaches to consciousness, an ever-present danger of such approaches is that the deep-rooted assumptions of reductionism will come to be used not simply to study phenomena, but to define which phenomena exist and need to be studied. Thus consciousness is too easily conflated with some object of consciousness, and with the attention that is focused on that object. With recognition of the difference dawns an appreciation that consciousness is still a very mysterious phenomenon. As many have pointed out, it isn't just that there is no theory of how consciousness could be related to the brain, but not even a notion of how to go about developing such a theory.

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. “

Even if such a theory is produced, though, it's very difficult to see how it could help people awaken, to realize a higher state of consciousness. Science has an important role to play in creating favorable conditions for human life on earth, without which spiritual practice might not be possible. But its very success in that regard blinds many people to the very notion that there is anything beyond the material world that is its focus. In modern societies, almost all meaning has come to lie in accumulating greater material wealth. Though many, perhaps most, people, if asked, insist that their lives are about more than the material, societies are clearly heavily oriented towards the latter. Right now we face another Presidential election in America, in which both candidates, as always, talk almost entirely about physical, material values—jobs, health, safety, and security. I don't mean to demean the importance of any of these issues, but it's possible to address them while at the same time recognizing a more overarching theme to human existence. This theme, as always, is lacking. Though both candidates play lip service to religion, it is a kind of religion that large numbers of intelligent people have long ago understood is at best irrelevant and at worst fraudulent.

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. “

The sad truth is that neither the two candidates nor the vast number of people who will vote for them exhibit any understanding of where they or the world could or should be going. The notion that the only point of living on earth is to develop into a higher form of being is totally foreign to most people. It would be unfair to lay all the blame on science for this state of affairs, but it certainly has contributed to this worldview. The challenge is to find a way to throw out the bathwater while preserving the baby. To make use of all science has to offer us, while respecting that there are phenomena it not only knows nothing about, but has no way even of addressing. I'm all for science continuing to try, but it must be called out when it deludes itself into believing it has solved problems it hasn't even defined.

Now I definitely know we are not in Kansas anymore. While I appreciate that the recent presidential election in America was of vital interest and importance to many of us (myself included), I don't see how it has any bearing whatsoever with the topic of studying consciousness from a scientific perspective.

If anything, it merely underlines that much of what Mr. Smith finds objectionable arises from his own religious/spiritual leanings and not necessarily the current state of neuroscience. Why? Because many of the objections that Mr. Smith raises have already been addressed by a large number of neuroscientists and are hot topics of discussion and engagement. In conclusion, let me say that I deeply appreciate the time and energy Mr. Smith gave to examining the brief article that Andrea and I wrote.

While I certainly disagree with many of his points, I think he raises very important issues and I look forward to any further critiques or clarifications he may have.


[1]. There are additional problems with many of these studies which I discuss in some detail in The Dimensions of Experience and in the article "Footprints in the Sand" posted at this site. For example, Newberg's studies simply compared imaging scans of meditators after a period of meditation with baseline readings taken prior to meditation. This assumes that meditation is something that can be turned on and off at will, and moreover, that very large changes in level of awareness can occur within a few minutes. I find both of these assumptions very problematic.

[2]. The object of this state of consciousness can be contrasted with a lower state of consciousness. As I argue in The Dimensions of Experience, the existence of such a contrast or relation provides a possible rebuttal to the postmodern argument that the mystic claim of a state of consciousness beyond words or language can be neither communicated or in any way verified (Desilet 2007). Some mystics claim that there is a still higher form of consciousness, in which consciousness has no object even in this sense. While not taking a position on this, I do note that this state does appear to be vulnerable to the postmodern argument.


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