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Studying Consciousness

The study of human consciousness is all the rage in scientific and philosophical circles.‭ ‬Only a decade ago people who delved into the questions of consciousness were relegated to the fringe.


consciousness 2Most theories of consciousness begin with a pretentious veneration at how mysterious the phenomenon of so-called subjective experience is,‭ ‬and how difficult a problem the self is for science to solve.

To my mind,‭ ‬the notion that content-consciousness and the sense of a separate self are an impenetrably enigmatic problem indicates a misunderstanding of both subjective experience and science,‭ ‬resulting from an overvaluation of both.

When philosophers and scientists talk about consciousness,‭ ‬they are almost always obsessing over the question:‭ ‬What brain processes make possible the‭ ‘‬I‭’ ‬that experiences the redness of a rose,‭ ‬the smell of earth after a rain,‭ ‬or the notes of a Mozart concerto‭? ‬But let’s turn the question around:‭ ‬Is there an experiencing of these things without the‭ ‘‬I‭?’

The privileging of both the self that experiences things,‭ ‬and the neuroscience that studies how the self does so,‭ ‬sustains mysteriousness–the counterfeit of genuine mystery.‭ ‬Ironically,‭ ‬it’s also the antithesis of science,‭ ‬which resolves mysteriousness.

There is a mystery about subjective experience that needs to be solved,‭ ‬to be sure,‭ ‬but there is no wonder in it,‭ ‬and ultimately,‭ ‬it isn’t even that interesting.‭ ‬The mystery of consciousness as awareness,‭ ‬on the other hand,‭ ‬can never be reduced and dissolved.

There’s something infinitely regressive and humorous about researching consciousness,‭ ‬since the same instrument that is the object of research is doing the research.‭ ‬The inherent circularity of the problem of studying consciousness does not seem to occur to most philosophers and neuroscientists however.

Science is the study of objective phenomena through observation,‭ ‬experiment,‭ ‬reason and evidence.‭ ‬Making an objective phenomenon out of subjective experience means either that subjective experience is an illusion open to objective study,‭ ‬or that the study is hopelessly circular,‭ ‬or both.Molecular Thoughts

Subjectivity presents a scientific and philosophical conundrum.‭ ‬As philosophers say,‭ ‬information processing doesn’t just happen‭ ‘‬in the dark‭;’ ‬it happens with conscious experience.‭ (‬Although,‭ ‬given the toxic levels of darkness that content-consciousness is producing,‭ ‬inwardly and outwardly,‭ ‬that’s an ironic way of putting it.‭)

The first question,‭ ‬it seems to me,‭ ‬is:‭ ‬Can consciousness as we usually know it‭ (‬that is,‭ ‬symbolic mediation of experience,‭ ‬including the program and conditioning of the self‭) ‬be scientifically studied and understood‭?

To a significant degree,‭ ‬the answer is yes,‭ ‬but there must first be a sound philosophical understanding of consciousness in both senses of the word.‭ ‬Otherwise the right questions cannot be asked,‭ ‬and experiments and observations will remain circular,‭ ‬simply confirming implicitly or explicitly held ideas scientists have about consciousness.

I read recently where an academic philosopher said,‭ “‬to make progress on the problem of consciousness…I first isolate the truly hard part of the problem,‭ ‬separating it from the more tractable parts.‭” ‬He goes on to describe,‭ ‬with no hint of self-awareness,‭ ‬how he‭ “‬divides the associated problems of consciousness.‭”

The key words here are‭ ‘‬separate,‭ ‬isolate and divide‭’‬—all core functions of conditioned or content-‭ ‬consciousness,‭ ‬which is fragmenting nature and humanity all to hell.‭ ‬Science is predicated on separation,‭ ‬which obviously has its place in utilitarian and scientific domains.‭ ‬But when the same separative principle is applied to the study of consciousness,‭ ‬it becomes destructively self-reinforcing of the fragmentary tendencies of human consciousness.

Molecular ThoughtsIn short,‭ ‬unawareness of implicitly held assumptions about consciousness may advance specialized knowledge in science,‭ ‬but they are harmful to the human prospect.

‭‘‬Higher thought‭’ ‬is the basis of consciousness as we usually know it.‭ ‬The function of thought is to separate,‭ ‬store,‭ ‬and manipulate‭ ‘‬things‭’ ‬in the environment.‭ ‬Therefore to speak of‭ ‘‬dividing‭’ ‬and‭ ‘‬isolating‭’ ‬one part of consciousness from another is to utterly fail to understand the essential nature of consciousness based on thought.

There is consciousness beyond thought,‭ ‬but it can only come into being when the mind/brain are completely still.‭ ‬That requires a great deal of self-knowing and attention,‭ ‬which few people are willing to give.

Be that as it may,‭ ‬the entirety of consciousness cannot ever be understood through‭ ‘‬separating‭’ ‬and‭ ‘‬isolating‭’ ‬its various elements.‭ ‬And since there is no science without doing so,‭ ‬we are confronted,‭ ‬in studying consciousness,‭ ‬with the intrinsic limitations of science.

As anyone who knows a self-unaware person realizes,‭ ‬it is quite possible to be functionally quite capable without having awareness of what one is doing or where one is coming from. Consciousness-as-awareness is more than the sum of the performance of mental functions,‭ ‬and awareness-as-‭ ‬consciousness is completely distinct from the contents of consciousness.

True consciousness is awareness that is empty and still,‭ ‬and true awareness is consciousness without the associations of memory.‭ ‬There is an experiencing without the mediation of self,‭ ‬symbols,‭ ‬and memories.‭ ‬Can such awareness be objectively studied, dissected and reduced‭? ‬Obviously it cannot.

Negating the mechanism of the illusorily separate observer through passive watchfulness,‭ ‬unwilled attention to the movement of thought/emotion leads beyond the subjective experience of the self,‭ ‬to the capacity of the brain for timeless awareness of the sublime.

As Einstein said,‭ “‬Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature,‭ ‬and you will find that,‭ ‬behind all the discernible laws and connections,‭ ‬there remains something subtle,‭ ‬intangible and inexplicable.‭” ‬It will always be so,‭ ‬no matter how far science progresses,‭ ‬especially in delving into the mysteries of consciousness itself.

Martin LeFevre

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