An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).


The "Revenge" of The Mysterians

Reply to Frank Visser

David Lane

Frank Visser in a recent email communication with me raises several pertinent points concerning the study of consciousness:

“I can't help but feeling that no amount of string theory will throw any light on emotions, thoughts etc. Perhaps it's not so much that the mysterians declare consciousness to be a mystery, but only if you look for it in the wrong location. You can't find an inside thing such as consciousness on the outside, only outside correlates of the inside. What would you say?"

I agree that string theory, as a fundamental theory which gives rise to the four forces of the universe (and perhaps more)—gravity, electromagnetism, strong nuclear force and weak nuclear force—doesn't shed the clearest light on emotions or thoughts. But if we move up the materialist scaffolding project (Wilson's consilience hierarchy) there are emergent physical properties that do indeed illuminate how emotions and thoughts arise and how they function.

If we focus on the biochemistry of emotions, for instance, all sorts of interesting and fascinating information becomes available. As Jocelyn Selim explains,

“Oxytocin, a peptide produced by the brain's limbic system, is released in both men and women during sexual climax as well as during birth and breast-feeding. Receptors located in the brain's dopamine reward system reinforce the good feelings that these activities bring. But oxytocin, like love, works in mysterious ways. In women, estrogen seems to facilitate the feel-good effects of oxytocin by moderating the release of adrenaline and other stress hormones. Testosterone makes men more susceptible to the fight-or-flight response and mitigates the stress-relieving effects of oxytocin. 'Although cause and effect is difficult to discern, oxytocin certainly facilitates social networks,' says neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp. 'And better social networks are associated with better overall health and increased longevity.'”[1]

If we follow Wilson's lead (and, with some necessary caveats, Wilber's holonic schema), each academic discipline is nested within an explanatory hierarchy, such that if one wishes to understand religion or theology, focusing on sociology first is elemental. Likewise, to properly contextualize how society operates, a deeper grounding in psychology is of great assistance. Therefore, when it comes to grasping how our minds work, we realize that concentrating on biology and chemistry gives us a tremendous advantage in properly framing why we think and behave as we do.

The fundamental differences between a dog and a human are not due to some astral influences, but due to varying neuroanatomies.

Of course, one has to be careful not to indulge in cheap reductionisms, since reducing our appreciation of Mozart to jiggling electrons is neither helpful nor instructive. If we pay close attention to how knowledge is contextualized within preceding systems then that which looks impossible to explain becomes more amenable to a scientific understanding. But this necessitates that we take great care and time in properly nestling informational streams within their natural (or emerging) order.

This is why Frank Visser is correct when he cautions us not to look for an explanation of consciousness in the “wrong location.” I realize that for some theorists the wrong location is the empirical arena. However, as I have long argued, I think this is a premature conjecture at this stage and one which too often is intertwined with religious approbations.

We seem to have no difficulty in looking for physical causes behind our lost of sight, or hearing, or smelling, or touch, so I find it peculiarly odd that we resist trying to ground our understanding of consciousness within the physics of the world we find ourselves.

What really is the difference between an ant and a cat and a monkey? Is it really something “transcendent”? Or, is it in their physical composition? Practically speaking, if we focus on the physics of awareness we will be much more successful in our endeavors than opting for a spiritual first explanation.

The fundamental differences between a dog and a human are not due to some astral influences, but due to varying neuroanatomies.

The issue of Alzheimer's is a good case in point here. In such a state, it may be quite difficult for one suffering such dementia to explain to another (not under its spell) what it is like. However, just because we lack such a subjective (or “qualia”) understanding of that state doesn't mean we simply stop looking for physical reasons for its onset. Indeed, it is exactly because we are confident that Alzheimer's is a degenerative brain disease that scientists have made significant progress in trying to locate how and why it arises with the ultimate hope of preventing its occurrence.

This doesn't mean that we discount the subjective experience that goes along with dementia. To the contrary, it is those very experiences that give us a benchmark on how our medical knowledge and treatment is progressing or failing.

The Blue Brain Project
The Blue Brain Project

The study of consciousness is best served by a multi-pronged approach, but focusing on the evolution of the brain and how it works first seems to be the most practical course at present. Perhaps the distinction between “outside” and “inside” will melt away once we get a firmer grasp of the mechanics of how self-reflective awareness arises from complex nervous systems. Perhaps not, but before we succumb to axiomatic Mysterianism, we should see what the Allen Institute for Brain Sciences and the Blue Brain Project discovers in their neuronal quest. Their quest doesn't preclude our own individual journeys, as each is not mutually exclusive. I see no inherent conflict in studying the brain objectively and in voyaging subjectively within, since each can better inform the other about what they find and dovetail their findings respectively.

The meditating Buddha as a neuroscientist isn't a contradiction in terms, but rather an enlightened proposition for where the future of consciousness studies is leading.


[1] Johnson, S. Emotions and the Brain: Love, Discover Magazine, May 01, 2003,

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