A Dialogue on Consciousness
Ben the neuroscientist has evolved in his thinking since we last met him (see chapter “Consciousness as a Modern Mystery”). He has been campaigning for a reinterpretation of consciousness and has returned the Nobel Prize he received for his discovery of the causal structures of consciousness. We learn why, as he is interviewed by a popular science reporter:
Interviewer: Ben, you received the Nobel Prize for having unlocked the secrets of consciousness, and you recently gave it back.
Ben: Yes, my reception of it gave a false impression.
Interviewer: What do you mean? You solved the problem of consciousness, didn’t you?
Ben: According to the current scientific criteria of identifying causal
structures—yes. But people think there is no longer any mystery to consciousness, and that’s wrong.
Interviewer: So that’s why you wanted to give the prize back?
Ben: I gave it back to make a statement—one that has to be made and that
is worth more than the prize money, if the scientific community is willing to hear it.
Interviewer: Yes, go on.
Ben: You know I became a mysterian after the reception of the Nobel
Prize—right? First, others told me I was a mysterian, and then I saw it myself. The thought that I, the mysterian, had received the Nobel Prize for having explained consciousness got stuck in my mind like a splinter. It threw me into a strange state of mind, and I had to get away from scientific research for a while and do some—I don’t know what to call it—soul searching.
Interviewer: You gave up research and became a hermit.
Ben: That’s what people don’t understand. I didn’t give up research; I
became more active than ever. I just didn’t do the same sort of research I was doing before.
Interviewer: What do you mean? What kind of research are you doing now, and how is it different from what you did before?
Ben: Before, I was doing narrow research on consciousness, known as
finding the neural correlates of consciousness.
Interviewer: You went beyond that and found not only the neural correlates of consciousness but also the causal structures of consciousness. Indeed you explained consciousness scientifically.
Ben: Yes, but it was all narrow research, you see?
Interviewer: In what sense?
Ben: In the sense of operating within a limited metaphysical perspective.
Interviewer: What do you mean by “metaphysical”? You’re a neuroscientist, not a philosopher.
Ben: I was a neuroscientist and not a philosopher; now I am both, and that
has given me headaches because I can no longer see things in as simple terms as before.
Interviewer: How have things changed?
Ben: I see the world differently. Wittgenstein said we all inherit our world
pictures. I had inherited—I realize now—a materialist world picture, which I cannot live with anymore.
Interviewer: Why not?
Ben: It is too limited.
Interviewer: In what sense?
Ben: Kant was right.
Interviewer: What do you mean?
Ben: Kant’s picture of the mind leaves it as ultimately not subject to full
explanation by the mind itself. In Kant’s view, the mind in itself— including consciousness—cannot be known. I got my Nobel Prize by explaining the phenomenal mind. The reason I am returning it is that people believe that I, using Kantian terminology, have explained the mind in both its phenomenal and noumenal forms. But that is a dreadful mistake. I fully admit and believe with Kant that I cannot understand my mind as a thing in itself or what is the same: my noumenal mind.
Interviewer: I can see how it might be a mistake.
Ben: If people actually believe I have explained the mind noumenally,
then they will likely identify with being a chemical soup—the brain. Yet that is not what we are noumenally. Chemical soups are found in the phenomenal world only.
Interviewer: But isn’t that an old fear that the modern world has had since Newton?
Ben: Yes, and for Kant, the world of phenomena was the world of
Newton’s mechanical universe. It is an old fear, but that doesn’t make it any better.
Interviewer: What do you mean?
Ben: To see this, think about how philosophy developed after Kant in the
twentieth century: logical positivism, analytic philosophy, and phenomenology. These traditions all began by seeking absolute foundations for knowledge—some ground of knowledge that could not be doubted.
Interviewer: Now you sound like Richard Rorty.
Ben: Well, I think Rorty was basically right in his campaign against foun-
dationalism, and it seems to me that most philosophers today agree that foundationalism is hopeless as a project.
Interviewer: Many people have appeared to give up not only on foundationalism but also on philosophy.
Ben: Yes, and others who grappled with foundationalism, like Quine,
have argued that science can and should be the foundation for knowledge, not philosophy. Yet if you ask what justifies belief in science as a foundation for knowledge, you get no further justification other than that it seems to work well for us. So you are left in the situation of Hume’s faith in nature or pragmatism.
Interviewer: So you became a philosopher, and now you have come to the conclusion that foundationalism is out as a viable approach to knowledge. Why is this insight so important for you?
Ben: Because, as a scientist, I was operating within a presupposition of
foundationalism, and I believe that this is how science is being taught. It is an assumption of our society that foundationalism is right.
Interviewer: So when your Nobel Prize was announced, people believed that you had really explained all there was to consciousness, because of a tacit assumption of foundationalism?
Ben: Yes, there is a belief that science can explain it all—noumena
included—and it can’t.
Interviewer: So what is the solution then?
Ben: Rorty proposed pragmatism as a solution to the problems of foundationalism. Yet it doesn’t work.
Interviewer: What do you mean “it doesn’t work”?
Ben: It doesn’t work for consciousness. When it comes to consciousness,
there is an experiential dimension—what has been recognized early in the Eastern meditative traditions as the formless. None of the philosophical traditions that Rorty discusses in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature have been interested in the formless.
Interviewer: So you believe, as a researcher of consciousness, that the Western tradition has left something important out with respect to—how did you put it—the formless?
Ben: Yes, I think this is something that not even the mysterians among the
philosophers of consciousness have made explicit. The postmodern, analytic, phenomenological, and pragmatist traditions simply do not recognize the formless. Neither did Hume, nor Kant.
Interviewer: Why is the formless important?
Ben: The question is the same as asking why consciousness is important.
So, in reality, it is odd that the Western tradition has come to ignore the formless. But I think we can see why. The West has been obsessed with reason and rationality and not being.
Interviewer: What about Heidegger? Was he not obsessed with being rather than with reason and rationality?
Ben: Heidegger is complicated, but his project was different from that of
the classical meditative traditions. To see the importance of the formless, or what the meditative traditions have sometimes called emptiness, we ought to have a look at Adorno and Horkheimer and their work Dialectic of Enlightenment. In that work, they essentially ask how fascism and totalitarian regimes could have happened dur?ing the Second World War in Europe. Their answer was that this development was inherent in the enlightenment project as it came to focus on instrumental rationality and progress in a desecularized world. Here we can reformulate their results in terms of what happened to consciousness from an Eastern meditative perspective. What happened—what allowed fascism to surface—was a loss of consciousness, a loss of the formless or emptiness. For Adorno and Horkheimer, the loss was in terms of form, not the formless; it was a loss of traditional ideas, moral values, and religious values. Yet how could they say that with confidence? From an Eastern meditative perspective, any act of evil is a loss of consciousness; evil acts cannot ultimately be explained in terms of a loss of form. They can only be explained in terms of a loss of consciousness. We can see traces of this in Western traditions, where evil is sometimes characterized in terms of a loss of awareness or perhaps “higher” knowing. So, for example, when Jesus exclaims “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do,” that statement is not about a particular fact that they don’t know. It is not the case that they are missing some piece of information; no, they are to be forgiven because they have lost themselves in form. They have certain ideas that they follow so blindly that they have become like the fascists that Adorno and Horkheimer described. They are to be forgiven because they have lost themselves in thought at the cost of consciousness. They are to be forgiven because they are virtually unconscious and have lost touch with the formless. Adorno and Horkheimer could have analyzed the tragic downfall of the Western tradition in terms of a loss of consciousness and the formless in the same way, but they instead analyzed it in terms of a loss of form: values and ideas about who you are as a culturally rooted being. Their purported solution was then a set of new values in the form of reformed socialism. From an Eastern meditative perspective, the solution would instead lie in emptiness (the formless).
Interviewer: How could that be?
Ben: Emptiness allows for flexibility. Emptiness, or nothingness, is not
simply a meaningless void as Westerners have often thought; emptiness is consciousness as a field of possibilities without things—it is a no-thingness from which form arises and which forms can no longer dominate. It is the opposite to the conditioned thought patterns and conditioned states of mind that the fascists found themselves caught up in.
Interviewer: What about the existentialists?
Ben: What about them?
Interviewer: Didn’t they come to the conclusion that all an individual is left with is consciousness when it comes to making decisions in life?
Ben: Yes, you could say that with Sartre, for example. Yet with the existentialist Sartre and early Heidegger, there is the embedded idea of an individual around which everything revolves. The human is the only source of meaning. Then, if you want to live in any authentic manner, you have to struggle to make your own life meaningful. Heidegger believes he can find a way out through more thinking—a new kind of thinking—in his later phase, but neither Sartre nor Heidegger realized that there is the Eastern meditative way. All forms of existentialism are, in reality, philosophies of the self, of the subject, and that is very different from the Eastern meditative way.
Interviewer: This all sounds mystical to me.
Ben: The meditative traditions have experiential components. You can’t
fully articulate them. But what is important here is that, in contrast to existentialism, the meditative traditions managed to transcend existential worries. You can see this in some spiritual figures, such as the smiling Buddha. Here is my interpretation of why the Buddha is smiling. The Buddha is smiling because, in contrast to Sartre’s characterization of the normal human stance toward life, he sees all the existentialist worries as constructions of the human mind. So when Sartre has one of his fictional characters declare that “hell is other people,” that is misleading. Hell is not other people, but people’s egoic minds can create hell. The same goes for Sartre’s own saying that we are “condemned to be free.” That saying is part of a fictitious story created by a human mind. Sartrean existentialism is a characterization of the human largely in terms of problems created by the human ego. But we are much more than the ego.
Interviewer: What is that “more”?
Ben: That “more” is what we ought to explore in our research on consciousness from a broad perspective. It is consciousness as the formless.
Interviewer: Why—what would we gain from it?
Ben: We would gain a new enlightenment based on both the Eastern and
Western traditions—a beautiful merging or synthesis of them.
Interviewer: But what would that mean more concretely for our understanding of consciousness?
Ben: If we view ourselves according to a materialist reductionist perspective, we find that a human being is “nothing but a pack of neurons,” as the late Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist Sir Francis Crick put it, or that we are von Neumann machine, as renowned philosopher Daniel Dennett suggested, or that we are nothing but some other materialist entity X. The question is: are we nothing but mechanical machines, or not? From an Eastern meditative tradition, we would have to say no. Why? Because we acknowledge the formless—consciousness as not reducible to the forms that appear in consciousness. Suppose we have a formless dimension which, from an Eastern meditative perspective, is obvious. We can then ask ourselves why anyone would come to identify with form. Here I believe that the Eastern meditative traditions have the answer. We cling to form—to a form-based account of ourselves—because we hope to find safety or satisfaction in form, in things we desire, want, or think can strengthen us. In a way, we live in a delusion of believing that we are form, and indeed the Western tradition has gone so far as to make it something like a purported scientific fact. But it ought to be as obvious to us as to Hume, Kant, and the Eastern meditative traditions that we are not merely what we observe, think, or experience in the world of form. We have no reason to believe this, for we have, as Hume thought, not the faintest idea whatsoever of the nature of the place where our mental contents appear. We can experience consciousness, but thought cannot grasp it. So the real question is not how we can believe that there is more than form; the real question is how we could ever have thought that we were solely form. We are fundamentally consciousness, and consciousness has no ultimate materialist explanation—only one that works, in what Kant would have called the phenomenal world. That means we can find brain- based correlations for when consciousness is present and even what allows consciousness to be caused or—better, I think—received.
Ben: I have changed my position from thinking of consciousness according to a causal account to one that sees it as being received. You can still think about consciousness as causal. It is just that, for me personally, I like to think of the brain as a kind of antenna, receiver, or filter for consciousness—something through which consciousness flows. But, at any rate, the scientific explanations do not explain consciousness noumenally.
Interviewer: Why is that so important?
Ben: Once you see this, you can see also how the normal condition of
human beings is to be trapped in form.
Interviewer: Can you give some examples? What would it mean not to be trapped in form?
Ben: It would open up seeing reality differently. So, for example, Popper
I think that science suggests to us (tentatively of course) a picture of a universe that is inventive or even creative; of a universe in which new things emerge on new levels. (Radnitzky et al. 1987, p. 142)
I believe he did this with an openness. He was not saying that the more we understand the universe, the more pointless it seems. That would have been a constricted or Western subjectivist view of reality. If we come to identify with form, then the universe must, in some sense, be shrunk to something we can grasp. This is how the ego looks at reality. Recognizing the ultimate mystery of consciousness opens up a window on the universe that is less constricted and open to seeing it as part of a creative evolution with a purpose.
Interviewer: What would that purpose be?
Ben: I don’t know, but it does appear that the universe is evolving toward
greater and greater complexity locally, and it does appear that this evolution is creative.
Interviewer: How can you say such a thing? Aren’t you a scientist? Is this how you have become philosophically corrupted?
Ben: I can say it because of my respect for consciousness as ultimately a
mystery to science and something not graspable by thought, because thought is form. Yes, I am happy to say that I see meaning and purpose in being the universe (I am part of it) and watching it unfold in ever creative ways. Yes, I am a mysterian but note that there is nothing mysterious in acknowledging the formless dimension of consciousness. It is a truism that there is both consciousness and form.
Interviewer: So you are a dualist?
Ben: No, from a Western perspective, I align myself closest to Spinoza—
someone who believes that our universe has infinitely many dimensions or attributes, as he termed them. From an Eastern meditative perspective and also a German idealist tradition, with roots in Meister Eckhart, I view the universe in terms of a single source that expresses itself through form, but these ways of thinking about reality must ultimately be nothing more than feeble attempts of the mind to grasp something that is—as Kant would put—out of bounds for reason.
Interviewer: What you are saying makes no sense—I mean—how would a philosopher work with these disparate views of yours? You start to mix in spirituality with your accounts, and that is mixing apples and oranges. Can you please remain within the bounds of our set discourse?
Ben: I disagree with you that you cannot mix spirituality, philosophy, and
science all together. Indeed this is what Whitehead, Dewey, Popper, and Einstein all did, and it was natural for them to do so. Have you ever considered that it might just be the other way around—that leaving out spirituality from science and philosophy is problematic? Perhaps we ought to bring back spirituality into philosophy and science in order to wield a better picture of reality.
Ben: Because without any openness to spirituality, we tend to end up with
a view of the universe as pointless and ourselves as accidental collocations of atoms. We tend to blind ourselves to consciousness for one simple reason: the thinking mind cannot grasp consciousness noumenally and therefore treats it as nothing but manifest materialist content and not what it is essentially.
Interviewer: The philosophers that you mention—do you want to revive their philosophies? Is that the plan? To create a neoprocess, emergentist metaphysics based on early twentieth century philosophy?
Ben: I believe that process and emergentist strands of metaphysics have a
lot going for them. The most promising metaphysical accounts I have seen are given by those philosophers who combine genetic epistemological accounts with emergentism. If you ask me how philosophy should proceed metaphysically, I would have to say that the new approaches that combine genetic epistemology, process philosophy, and emergentism look promising.
Interviewer: What do they say?
Ben: For one thing, they avoid getting trapped in foundationalism.
Interviewer: How do they do that?
Ben: They acknowledge that, from a genetic, epistemological perspec-
tive—we are limited beings, as William Wimsatt put it. Then they acknowledge that the universe is always in process and undergoing change, and they don’t rule out the possibility of a creative universe. But, perhaps most importantly, emergentism opens up ways to understand the universe as pluralistic.
Moreover, we can also say that reductionism appears to fail, so we need pluralistic accounts to understand nature.
Interviewer: But all of this is really nothing but poetic language designed to appeal to our intuitions.
Ben: I can’t prove to you that the universe is creative and meaningful.
What I can do, however, is point to some of the features of reality that signal, to my mind, a creative universe that is evolving with a purpose.
Interviewer: I might have sounded critical, but I can actually begin to see your point.
Ben: I don’t wish to perpetuate a picture of science as having understood
consciousness and reality along what is essentially reductionist, materialist lines. We need a new approach to consciousness research and our place in reality.
Interviewer: I gather that you think all science education has ignored the formless?
Ben: Yes, and that gives an implicit reductionist picture of our universe,
which then paves the way for materialist accounts of consciousness and ourselves. The leaving-out of the mystery of consciousness from the basic science curriculum has been tremendously damaging.
Interviewer: What could an integration of the formless do for our science education?
Ben: It could bring about a revolution in our understanding of ourselves
as conscious beings, and that is no small thing. Such an understanding could then help to make this world a better place to live.
Interviewer: Can you give an example?
Ben: I can give several: terrorism, school shootings, meaningless street
violence. These are all phenomena due to identification with form and loss of consciousness. From a Western perspective, as Isaiah Berlin has pointed out (Berlin 1958), there is the idea of a higher and lower self, so we could say that these violent people are not acting in accordance with their higher self. We might also say that they don’t know what they are doing. From an Eastern perspective, the view is different, and you might say that what is really going on is that they have lost consciousness. This might appear strange from a Western perspective—aren’t they awake and acting in the world? Yes, but on an entirely conditioned or superficial level of consciousness. They are conditioned by thought, ideologies, or ideas that blind them to people (including themselves) as human beings. They have, in this sense, lost consciousness. It is not only that they have misunderstood something. The unconsciousness comes from entirely identifying with ideas of who they are and who others are that leave them without any means of healthily distancing themselves from their own thoughts. It is as if the core consciousness— the higher consciousness of those individuals—can no longer express itself as it should; only somnambulistic surface consciousness becomes manifest.
Interviewer: So conscious awareness is the solution?
Ben: I am not saying that this is a solution. We don’t know, but anything
that could be done to raise awareness of consciousness as a way of being—in contrast to conditioned thought processes—would help. This point is difficult to express, because, again, consciousness cannot be understood without the experiential dimension.
Interviewer: But that is mysticism.
Ben: Call it what you will. There is nothing mysterious about its being a
formless dimension. For the mind that wants to understand that dimension through form, it is of course mysterious. What can you expect?
Interviewer: So we need to take the Eastern meditative traditions seriously?
Ben: Yes, to avoid total identification with form and to realize that there
is something else that is our essence and yet is not to be understood through thought. The teachings of philosophical and scientific materialism as overarching metaphysical perspectives have often tacitly assumed or communicated that all we are is form. The first step is to stop teaching that.
Interviewer: You have mentioned some dramatic examples, from terrorism, etc., that apply only to a minority of the population. Do you have some examples that apply more broadly?
Ben: There is the question of computer addiction. It is becoming more
and more common. This might be an extreme form of something that applies more generally in society. Many of us are more or less addicted to computers and digital devices. Look around you in many public spaces, such as public transportation spaces, and you will find that people are no longer looking at the world around them; they are looking at screens. Research has shown that for each piece of information we gather, we get a dopamine reward. So there is a physical basis for this sort of addiction to form at the cost of the formless. As we live our information-intense, always connected lives, we tend to spend less time in conscious awareness and more in shallow thought. Nicholas Carr (2010) has written a whole book on the topic: The Shallows. Carr draws the conclusion that, sadly, we want a life of information chatter. But that is not a good answer. If it is sad, then we don’t want that life of chatter and we should get rid of it. There is the idea here of a higher self, again, who tells Carr that it is sad, or—from an Eastern perspective—a core consciousness that expresses itself in the same way: the formless from within which comes an awareness of how we are losing ourselves in form. Yet Carr suggests that our clinging to chatter or form is inevitable. But that is not true from the perspective of the Eastern meditative traditions.
Interviewer: So what would all of this mean for consciousness research?
Ben: Certain theories are ruled out. If we assume that we have to come up
with theories that are not in conflict with the formless, then we must give up on theories that see consciousness exclusively in terms of form-based content. We are then left with certain potentially promising theories, such as field theories of consciousness.
Interviewer: So you are saying that all of those representational theories of consciousness are wrong?
Ben: Yes, all theories that equate consciousness with content are wrong.
We can rule them out—all of them.
Interviewer: But, how can you say this!? Hardly anyone believes in field theories of consciousness anymore.
Ben: That is just because of our historical heritage in the West. We think
of the whole mind as a thing, and that is true to some extent if we restrict our analysis to thought. But, as soon as we move to consciousness, we find that it is no thing. I have been trying to make these points over and over again.
Interviewer: Look, if I was not essentially my thoughts, then what would I be?
That’s what I am worried about. I think most people are unwilling to take the leap and say that they are a kind of nothingness.
Ben: That’s what I learned from the Eastern meditative traditions.
Interviewer: You mean you adopted the psychology of these traditions?
Ben: Something like that. I learned what the Eastern meditative traditions
found thousands of years ago.
Interviewer: What did you learn?
Ben: That it is the normal condition to cling to almost anything we think
can strengthen our sense of self and who we are. It can be possessions, social positions, material wealth, or physical power (our bodies), but the strongest clinging is to the idea of a self that is who we ultimately are. But—and this is important for our account of consciousness—the only thing that could possibly be stable about us is not really a thing; it is consciousness. Whatever shows up in consciousness—mental contents, including stories about who we are— are unstable and fleeting.
Interviewer: I just cannot accept that picture, and I don’t want to let go of the self.
Ben: In one sense, you are letting go of the self, but in another, you are
not. You are only letting go of a certain picture of the self as a stable entity and, as you do, you become liberated. You can still enjoy being a self, but now with greater flexibility because you no longer see that self as the essence of who you are. Consciousness is the essence.
Interviewer: I think I am beginning to see now what you are saying. To acknowledge the formless as who you essentially are is to find yourself at home in the world.
Ben: I think that’s right, but I am surprised how you took such a sudden
turn in your understanding.
Interviewer: If I cling to form, then I will always be dissatisfied. I just realized this and, to be honest, I surprised myself. It was as if I suddenly experienced a gestalt switch. I just saw everything differently, all of a sudden.
Ben: Look, for most people, the normal condition is to have consciousness revolve around form. They think that’s how it works. So they try to arrange the world of form—including stories of who they are, material possessions, social status, and so on—so that everything is perfect. But of course that never works, because forms are always changing. If we instead think of consciousness as our primary being and then accept the world of form as it is, then life becomes relatively unproblematic.
Interviewer: A Copernican revolution.
Ben: The question is: should we teach the formless perspective on consciousness in our schools?
Interviewer: Why not?
Ben: Some might say that it is tied to ideology or religion.
Interviewer: Well, the West has had its turn in propagating ideologies about the mind and consciousness for long enough. Why not teach it in a setting that acknowledges both perspectives on consciousness?
Ben: Yes, I think that could open up a discussion of consciousness from a
[End of dialogue]
We have discussed issues here that are related to a certain view of consciousness, and its place in nature, that has been under critique. Our last job in this chapter is to try to spell out what that view is more concretely.