INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
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Andy SmithAndrew P. Smith, who has a background in molecular biology, neuroscience and pharmacology, is author of e-books Worlds within Worlds and the novel Noosphere II, which are both available online. He has recently self-published "The Dimensions of Experience: A Natural History of Consciousness" (Xlibris, 2008).

SEE MORE ESSAYS WRITTEN BY ANDY SMITH

ARE PHYSICISTS
CONSCIOUS?

A Reply to David and Andrea Lane

Andrew P. Smith

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.

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.

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]

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Conclusion

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.

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 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.

Endnotes

[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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