Questions of consciousness – what it is, where it comes from, whether it evolved, how it relates to matter, and so on – are surely some of the most important and perplexing questions that have ever faced humanity. Yet what is almost as fascinating about these questions, is just how reluctant we are to ask them, even in the face of compelling evidence that has emerged from fields such as quantum physics and other sciences over the past century.
They are uncomfortable questions for many, no doubt, as they get right to the heart of how we experience the world. How we answer these questions will largely determine whether we see the world as alive with complex meaning and connection; or, as has been the case for much of the past few centuries, as little more than a set of coincidental mechanistic occurrences. And this, in my view, is exactly why they are such important questions. As Christian de Quincey, a professor of philosophy at JFK University, puts it –
“Until we successfully reexamine the implicit ‘nuts and bolts’ of the philosophical superstructures that condition the way we think (more than what we think), we will continue to program ourselves to repeat the same kinds of mistakes. A major – perhaps the major – element in the conceptual and perceptual matrix that shapes our worldview is our scientific attitude to consciousness and its relationship to the world of matter. For, from this view, we look out on a world devoid of any real intrinsic value, of any inherent purpose, meaning, or feeling.”
The current mechanistic world view is, in the scheme things, only a recent paradigm, beginning with the likes of Descarte’s in the 17th century. Prior to this, the world has always been viewed as full of complex meaning and value. Focussing specifically on the subject of consciousness, it is interesting to consider the emerging similarities between the findings of modern science and the ancient beliefs held by Eastern cultures such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. Perhaps it is by returning to these ancient cultures for guidance, that we might find the path forward?
This essay represents an attempt at exploring the subject of consciousness and its relevance to our experiences of the world, via an informal and personal experiential view point. It has been written as part of the course requirement for Module 4: Mind in Nature, of the Holistic Science Masters course at Schumacher College.
As I have indicated in previous essays, one of the main reasons for my decision to travel half way around the world to study at Schumacher College related to a deep search for meaning. Intuitively I have always believed there is more to the world than the mechanistic, pure chance hypothesis that typifies the current mainstream view, a view so eloquently and convincingly summarised by renowned 20th century philosopher, Bertrand Russell when he said –
“That Man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.”
It is hard for me to imagine a more depressing lens through which to view the world around us, yet it is the paradigm that we are all born into. When this is the dominant world view held by society, is it any wonder that we continue to worship the false gods of money, power and fame? Is it any wonder we are destroying the world around us? The world to which we are so inherently connected.
If we are going to navigate our way off our current course of certain planetary and self destruction, I am with de Quincey in believing that it will require a fundamental rethinking of our attitudes towards consciousness and its relationship to the world of matter. At a deep level, I feel it is only going to be through finding meaning in the world, that we will have any hope of saving it.
Thankfully, science is pointing towards a reality where consciousness is anything but a random and useless evolutionary coincidence. What’s more, we are not the first humans to be asking these questions – Eastern religions such as Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism have, for thousands of years, held central to their beliefs that sentience pervades all life and matter. And that it is this sentience, or, as the Taoists call it – Tao, that underpins reality.
The Taoist also realised that this Tao was, in essence, unknowable. It is everywhere and everything, it is beyond definition because in attempting to define it we are limiting the limitless. The first verse of the central Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching states – The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
And it is with this as the starting point, that Eastern thought turned away from attempts to understand, and towards a focus on alignment with that unknowable force.
But before I go further down the path of exploring how millennia of Eastern thought could be useful in guiding a path towards meaning and, ultimately, a harmonious existence as an integrated part of the Gaian system, I want to spend some time exploring the philosophical and scientific problems with the current worldview.
The Storyteller Paradox
One of the most fundamental paradoxes of the current worldview is what Christian de Quincey describes as the “storyteller paradox”, that we have created what he terms a “wonderful cosmology” story, but we have forgotten to include the storyteller – consciousness. Explaining this paradox, de Quincey suggests that –
“Science and philosophy exist only because of consciousness, yet consciousness is precisely what cannot be found anywhere within modern science or philosophy. We have a story without a storyteller.”
The renowned Austrian physicist and philosopher Erwin Schrödinger described the storyteller paradox in his own terms –
“The material world has only been constructed at the price of taking the self, that is, mind, out of it, removing it; mind is not part of it; obviously, therefore, it can neither act on it nor be acted on by any of its parts.”
And he went on –
“Mind has erected the objective outside world of the natural philosopher out of its own stuff. Mind could not cope with this gigantic task otherwise than by the simplifying device of excluding itself withdrawing from its conceptual creation. Hence the latter does not contain its creator.”
The fact is that the universe could have existed without observation, unknown and unobserved, it’s story never told, nor heard. But the reality is that the story is being told and therefore continuing to ignore the existence of the storyteller seems, not only pointless, but severely limiting to any attempts at understanding the universe and our place within it. The reality is that there is a raft of evidence to show that mind is influencing our physical reality; unfortunately, to accept this evidence requires many to overturn their entire world views, and herein lies the (understandable) resistance.
The discovery of the quantum realm in the early 20th century, in many ways should have stopped the mechanistic view of the world in its tracks by demonstrating that events occurring at the subatomic level are non causal, that is, that they are inherently uncertain and unpredictable. Quantum entities are both waves and particles, a reality that remains unexplained to this day, almost a century later.
Christian de Quincey describes two distinct problems that quantum theory has thrown up for the mechanistic paradigm –
- “Mechanism cannot be the whole story if there are quantum gaps in the world – because mechanism requires continuity and contact between adjoining objects to transmit the energy of their collisions.” and,
- “Furthermore, if quantum events happen only when observed the supposed subjectivity that goes hand in hand with mechanism comes into question.”
The second problem is particularly interesting when it comes to our approach to science. If we take the lessons of quantum theory onboard then the whole basis for objective science gets thrown out the window. Simply by performing experiments, we, as observers, are influencing the results. This, I feel, could be a good example of what Schrödinger was referring to above regarding the “gigantic task” of keeping mind in the picture.
And yet, possibly the most puzzling quantum question of all, is that of entanglement – something Einstein referred to as – “spooky action at a distance”. Quantum entanglement links the properties of particles, even when they have been separated by large distances. Via experimentation in this area scientist have been able to estimate that entangled particles would either need to travel at 10,000 times the speed of light, or, as is the accepted reality, that quantum events are non local, that quantum events are connected at some deep level of reality. Or, as physicist David Bohm interpreted it – “At the implicate quantum level, reality is an undivided whole.”
What is fascinating to me when pondering the implications of quantum theory is just how little the scientific findings of this field of science have impacted on our current world views. Despite the startling findings in this field we are still, very much, locked into the sort of mechanistic world view that quantum theory so clearly challenges. I can’t help but feel this is due to our addiction to certainty, something that keeps coming up for me in my studies at Schumacher.
There is no doubt that quantum theory has challenged the very basis for our mechanistic views of the universe, no one can argue against that. But as quantum theory remains a fundamental mystery at its core, we seem unable to accept its findings as reason enough for loosening the grip of mechanism over our world-views. It’s as if we are stuck in a pattern where we have become addicted to the false belief that we understand the world, to the extent that we seem unprepared to drop a core hypothesis, even when evidence has disproven it, without an equally complete hypothesis to replace it.
The obvious paradox here is that, given that the evidence has disproved the original hypothesis, we never had an accurate hypothesis to begin with. We are holding onto something that is false and misleading simply out of a reluctance to embrace uncertainty. Surely this is the most anti-science position possible?
This apparent addiction to certainty is exactly the same issue that I came up against when considering the reluctance to accept Gaia theory as an accurate metaphor for a living earth. Because Gaian scientists have been unable to provide a clear and concise mechanism for how the planet could possibly function as an integrated whole, many scientists have basically laughed Gaia off. But they are ignoring the evidence that Gaia is functioning as an integrated whole.
The Science of Mind
This is an extremely broad spanning subject and something I could write an entire PhD thesis exploring, so rather than attempting to review this area in any detail I will focus instead on some personal experiences that have convinced me that there is much more to this question than conventional science would have us believe.
The first major challenge to my thinking on this subject came a number of years ago, when a friend introduced me to a project called the global consciousness project. This project has has been running for over 15 years and involves about 70 random number generators located throughout the world. The project has proven that when events of global significance occur, attracting the attention of the world, subtle structure emerges within the otherwise random number sequences. Scientists involved with this project estimate a one in a trillion probability that this effect is due to chance alone and make this ultimate conclusion – “the evidence suggests an emerging noosphere or the unifying field of consciousness described by sages in all cultures.” This project represents the most detailed and substantial evidence for the connectivity of mind that I have ever come across.
More recently, during the Mind in Nature module we were privileged to spend a week listening to the renowned biologist and author Rupert Sheldrake. Sheldrake began his career as a talented and highly regarded researcher before reaching a point where he felt that the structure of science itself was preventing him from pursuing the lines of inquiry he felt most drawn to.
Sheldrake has published over 80 scientific papers on subjects including – plant development, crop physiology, cell biology, and about half, published from the 1980s onwards, on experimenter effects, the sense of being stared at, telepathy in animals and people, and his own concept – morphic resonance (a concept in many ways aligned with that of unifying fields of consciousness referred to above). Much of his research is available on his website – http://www.sheldrake.org/
Sheldrake has gathered a vast collection of research clearly (in my view) demonstrating the connectivity of human (and animal) minds. If I had any doubts about this matter they were blown away when he showed us a video of an experiment involving a parrot named N’Kisi. Unfortunately, the video of this experiment is not publicly available due to private concerns of the parrots owner, but non the less, I have never seen a clearer and more convincing example of telepathic phenomena – the full details of the experiment are available here. It was while watching this video of N’Kisi that I made the very conscious decision to stop questioning whether or not minds are connected and instead, simply to accept it as a deep and mysterious truth.
But for all the fascinating science and information provided by Sheldrake, the thing that will stick in my mind most about his lectures were the discussions around how he has been constantly abused and vilified for daring to study these “off limits” issues. Before meeting Sheldrake, it is interesting for me to note my own position of scepticism, having read so much criticism of his work, I was extremely curious to meet the man in person. In some ways I was expecting a brash, opinionated, self promoter. What I experienced was an extremely humble and reserved man with an extraordinarily broad knowledge. Nothing like his critics would have us believe.
The experiments that Sheldrake performs are remarkably simple and cheap to conduct, yet his research is continually maligned as “pseudo science” by the fundamentalist sceptic’s who, instead of testing his hypotheses themselves, prefer to stand idly on the sidelines hurling abuse. They claim (and no doubt believe) they are the protectors of science and rationality, instead I feel they represent everything that is wrong with the current state of science. In convincing themselves that they are the guardians of science, they are, ironically, the most anti-science participants imaginable – completely incapable (it would seem) of viewing evidence independently of their preconceived views.
The evidence for the psychic phenomena is huge, as author Dr Dean Radin puts it –
“Psi has been shown to exist in thousands of experiments. There are disagreements over how to interpret the evidence, but the fact is that virtually all scientists who have studied the evidence, including the hard-nosed sceptics, now agree that something interesting is going on that merits serious scientific attention.”
But, to use Radin’s words again, the reality is that –
“Facts don’t change minds as often as they confirm what the mind insists on believing.”
That is to say, we have to be willing to look at the evidence and consider it with an open mind. Unfortunately, the keepers of the keys to “science” are still very much invested in the current paradigm beliefs that centre around mechanism and certainty. While this is understandable, it’s also something that must be overcome if we are to move beyond this current impasse and ensure that it is a scientific approach that guides our explorations into the subject of mind and consciousness.
There is ample evidence to show that psychic phenomena exists, what is needed now is thorough engagement around what it means for humanity and our relationship to the earth and cosmos. On this question, at least we have thousands of years of Eastern thought to guide us.
Lessons from the East
As I’ve attempted to highlight throughout this essay, research in fields such as quantum physics and the science of mind are pointing towards a reality that is interconnected in ways we have barely begun to comprehend. If we are to take on board these findings and pursue them, in search of higher truths, we must be willing to step into and embrace the world of uncertainty. As I mentioned at the start of this essay, Eastern religions start with uncertainty as their primary premise, and it is here that I feel we have so much to learn.
Fritjof Capra in his book, ‘the Tao of Physics’, exploring the relationship between modern physics and Eastern religions summarises the essence of the Eastern world view as follows –
“The most important characteristic of the Eastern world view – one could almost say the essence of it – is the awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things and events, the experience of all phenomena in the world as manifestations of a basic oneness. All things are seen as interdependent and inseparable parts of this cosmic whole; as different manifestations of the same ultimate reality. The Eastern traditions constantly refer to this ultimate, indivisible reality which manifests itself in all things, and of which all things are parts.”
This “ultimate and indivisible reality” is referred to as Brahman in Hinduism, Dharmakaya in Buddhism, and Tao in Taoism. Instead of focussing on attempting to understand these concepts, Eastern religions instead focus on aligning themselves with them, understanding that no words or definitions could ever hope to contain the infinite.
Eastern philosophy sees our perceived separation from the world around us as an illusion brought on by our rambling unconscious minds. As Capra explains –
“To believe that our abstract concepts of separate ‘things’ and ‘events’ are realities of nature is an illusion. Hindus and Buddhists tell us that this illusion is based on avidya, or ignorance, produced by a mind under the spell of maya. The principal aim of the Eastern mystical traditions is therefore to readjust the mind by centering and quietening it through meditation.”
The benefits of meditation on health and wellbeing have been the focus of much study in recent decades with conclusively positive findings. Combine this with the scientific research coming out of the fields of quantum physics and parapsychology and it is clear that much can be learnt by going back to the ancient teachings of the East.
At a time when our separation from meaning and the world around us continues to see us pursue personal profit over our long term future, I can’t help feel there is much we can learn from a philosophy that puts “awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things” at its core.
This module and essay represent the first steps in what I feel will be a lifelong journey of exploration into the subject of mind in nature. I can only end by agreeing once more with Christian de Quincey in feeling that –
“Consciousness is not only science’s next frontier, its relationship to matter is also philosophy’s deepest mystery – a mystery that lies at the heart of the philosophy of mind.“