From Towards a Science of Consciousness 3
My thesis lies in the title of my talk and its implied dialectic. We begin with a mutual problem shared by both transpersonal and cognitive science approaches to consciousness: their need of each other.
On the one hand, on the cognitive science side, our so called conscious awareness system that synthesizes and directs experience is curiously transparent and impalpable-more to be looked through than at, and lacking in the empirical features needed for empirical science. Enter the detailed phenomenologies of altered and transpersonal and meditative states. These show consciousness to be something that can undergo specific transformations and development.
Indeed, transpersonal states may show the very inner cognitive processes of consciousness otherwise invisible within its more ordinary functioning. On this view, transpersonal and altered states would serve as a kind of microscope for the processes behind ordinary consciousness. If so, then consciousness does have empirical features after all, and a cognitive science of consciousness will be hobbled without their study. On the other hand, if a cognitive science of consciousness risks having nothing to talk about without its potential for transpersonal development, transpersonal psychology risks remaining mere "magic" and only a modern re-recording of lost traditions, without some account of what it is about our minds-our neurocognitionthat allows such experiences to occur. We need a nonreductionistic account here, yet recognizable by modern cognitive science, however thereby opened up and expanded.
Let us explore the first thesis more specifically: cognitive psychology needs the transpersonal. We begin with the strange debate in current cognitive science about qualia. In his book Consciousness Reconsidered, Owen Flanagan rejects Daniel Dennett's attempts to deny qualia-the qualitatively sensed dimensions of immediate conscious experience whose supposed privacy places them outside science. But Flanagan also doubts the early suggestion of Charles Sanders Peirce that each day and week has its distinct and unique quale or feel that can be discriminated. This he feels goes too far. So what is the status of these distinct feels and physiognomies, to use Pierce's list-of red, bitter, tedious, and hard?
Dennett intuits correctly that such sensory qualia have nothing to do with functional perception. Since they seem inherently private and indescribable, Dennett argues we can as well imagine them as inverted or eliminated zombielike without any practical impact on how we live in the world. Certainly, psychologists from William James and Peirce to James Gibson have insisted that perception is not composed of separate sensory dimensions. Instead, sensation is the result of a self-aware analytic abstraction that appears when we ignore the dense tapestry of immediate experience and artificially isolate a single quality for our inspection.
Peirce says that separate qualia-in their irreducible thatness-are not actually present in the immediate moment of consciousness. Rather qualia are only potential or latent within the moment-"maybes" rather than "facts" of ordinary experience. For Gibson, also, "sensations" are not "in" ordinary experience, but they are developed out of a more primary perception that is first and foremost always of a world and our being in it. In Gibson's terms the first organization of perception is the continually flowing pattern of the ambient array surrounding all moving creatures. So we could say that it is our capacity for the self awareness of our ongoing perception that brings forth specific qualia out of it, either to be manipulated in representational thought or to be felt as such in the direct experiences of the arts. Functional perception comes first and qualia are its "maybe's"- potential experiential states latent within the more primary envelope of flow.
Now, if qualia are consciously utilized in the arts, we see already that they must be potentially consensual and not private-complexly emergent and not primary or atomic. It is just here that the transpersonal development of consciousness offers a unique contribution to cognitive science. Peirce would be right about his specific quale or felt sense for each hour and day, but they are emergent within a development of self-awareness, and some people are better at bringing them forth as experiences than others. Meditation and mystical experience would then be the major cross cultural settings that foster the development of qualia for their own sake. If qualia are potentials or latencies within our ongoing moments of awareness, these are exactly what meditation prolongs and then develops in their own right.
We can see this in Marghanita Laski's classic descriptions of what she calls the "quasi-physical" qualities of ecstasy. These include expressive and metaphorically richpdimensions of light and darkness, felt bodily expansion, liquidity and flow, and sensed upward surgings and risings. More recently, A. H. Almaas locates separate aspects of mystical or numinous experience such as strength, will, joy, power, and compassion and love-each with its characteristic physiognomy or qualia. For instance, when it is essential strength that predominates in spiritual experience, with its paradoxical sense of vulnerability and openness, there is an expansive aliveness, sense of beauty, bodily heat, and fiery redness. What is striking here, and contrary to philosophical critics of qualia as private and outside science, is just how sharable and consensual the developed qualia of transpersonal states can be. Max Weber termed them charismatic in their social impact and Durkheim even thought that such experiences expressed the actual energy binding together the social group.
In short, a cognitive science of consciousness needs the transpersonal because the consciousness it wants a science of is not static but undergoes a potential development best reflected in the meditative traditions, and it is that development that may best reveal the inner forms and processes of consciousness itself.
We can go further and see how it is that so called ordinary consciousnessalready carries within it the seeds of transpersonal development. Peirce defined qualia as the total content of the immediate moment of consciousness-a state that is the whole of our life in that instant-but when we go to ask about it we always arrive too late. Certainly it is not "ordinary" to observe immediate consciousness in its own right. It is more the ocean we swim in, the medium we look through and not at, but our capacity for self awareness allows us to try, and the early history of academic psychology involved just such introspectionism. Contemporary cognitivists love to use William James on the "stream of consciousness," the first phenomenology of immediate awareness, but they usually miss how close James's observations of the flowing moments of awareness are to the states sought in Buddhist meditation. First, he tells us that it is not we who do this streaming but strictly speaking it does or has us-just like more intense mystical experience. It would be more phenomenologically accurate he says, if we avoided saying "I think," and instead said "it thinks" or "thinking going on," in the same way we say it rains." Second, there is no central self or identity discoverable in immediate consciousness other than the ongoing flow itself. Finally, in his later work he even describes "pure experience" as the sheer "thatness" prior to being taken as any specific "what." Here James approaches the sense of pure presencing or being, the suchness or bare facticity so central to Eastern meditation, Heidegger and Almaas. Along these lines, James even offers this description of coming out of anesthesia: "At the beginning of coming to, one has at a certain moment a vague limitless infinite feeling-a sense of existence in general without the least trace of a distinction between the me and not me." This is the sheer "thatness" prior to any "what," and it may require a self-aware being to become aware of this pure open potentiality of our experience.
We find even more specific examples of meditativelike states in the dry as dust experimental introspectionists like Titchener-so striking precisely because they did not intend it. For instance, in John Nafe's study of affective pleasure in 1924 his laboratory observers eventually experienced the immediate moment of "liking" or "pleasure," in response to the unexpected stimuli being presented, in ways very reminiscent of Laski on ecstasy-that is, as a sense of surging or rising expansion from the abdomen moving into their head and even beyond out into the room, a bit like the beginning of an out-of-body state-all this described with metaphoric and synesthetic references to expansive brightness and luminosity. These ultra-brief, momentary experiences of pleasurebriefly magnified by direct observation-have the same features of the more prolonged ecstasies of advanced meditation. Other studies at this time described the immediate moments produced by such intensified self observation in terms of brief states of timelessness, loss of spatial localization and self identity, synesthesias-or states of inter-modal translation between the patterns of the different senses-and related experiences of subject-object mergence. In its later years Titchener's introspectionist laboratory almost sounds like a mystery school, with its focus on mind moments so reminiscent of Buddhism, its studies showing all recognizable surfaces to be memory illusions, and T-scope studies of the bare experience of light that use the same metaphors as the Tibetan Buddhists.
So we see how the more developed transpersonal states are actually based on an unfolding of the qualia latent in the immediate moments of consciousness. Our cognitive sciences of consciousness have missed the fact that the historical core of academic psychology was already transpersonal, and it is only fully understandable from a transpersonal perspective. This material also demonstrates something that the spiritual traditions have always maintained-that the basic features of transpersonal experience are actually implicit and potential in the present moment, if we but shift our attention away from what our awareness is "about" or "for" to its more immediate "isness."
So on now to our second thesis: transpersonal psychology needs a cognitive science of consciousness:
First, we must ask why would the ongoing moment of consciousness-which it is already nonordinary even to notice in its own right-contain within it the forms whose development is the transpersonal, and how do we come to experience this at all? A commonplace of cognitive theory has been that what distinguishes the human mind from that of nonsymbolizing creatures is its capacity for turning around on itself, for taking the role of the other toward our experience, and so transforming and rearranging it-constituting the creativity of the human mind.
If we follow William James on pure experience, then our immediate consciousness is this normally unnoticed thatness-a sense of sheer beingness-prior to its expression as the many "what's" or contents of the different symbolic forms. This moment by moment experiencing-which as self aware beings we have the potential to observe-is the context for and contains as latencies all the forms for the more specific functional expressions of consciousness. These are the deep forms or archetypes of experience in Plato's sense. Or in the sense of Almaas, the thatness of immediate awareness flows already in the multiple aspects of strength, will, love, and joy that are a necessary part of our ongoing aliveness. Prolonged into focal consciousness these forms become the different qualities and flavors of spiritual or numinous experience. We see this same principle in T-scope studies of vision stopped at phases too brief to allow specific visual patterns to be recognized. Instead, what subjects report are the more basic geometric forms underlying ordinary vision-the same forms seen in some altered states and used as such in the arts.
So, if with the cognitivists, human cognition is a turning around on and recombining of the structures of perception, we must ask then about the relation between perception itself and transpersonal states of felt meaning. Is it possible that what stands forth in these states are the basic features of what Gibson calls the ambient array of ordinary perception? For Gibson the kinesthetic or enactive movement of creatures creates a rich pattern of flow that wells forth from the indefinite horizon ahead, expands in the direction in which we are going, and then narrows behind us as we proceed. Like Heidegger's analysis of Dasein, Gibson undercuts the classic dichotomy between subject and object by showing how each specific pattern of flow we make reflects back our unique position and speed. So, each "there" of the moving array casts back its own co-emergent "here" like a shadow-proprioceptively locating our position as specific to just that array.
We find something similar in the more formless levels of mysticism, where in Heidegger's terms a sense of openness that cannot be further specified-he even calls it horizonal-allows or lets us experience a sense of presence or Being as such. Or, for Plotinus, the unspecifiable Absolute gives forth of itself in utter generosity the forms of all existence, whose dynamic flow through time can then be experienced as the highest potential of the human soul. On the more specific level of Almaas on the separate aspects of numinous experience, we can see in Gibson's unfolding perceptual array the basic form of essential strength-as the continuous expansion of horizonal openness, the essential "will" in the directionality and intent of the perceptual flow, the essential power or energy in creaturely movement, the essential joy in the full exercise of these capacities, and the loving and compassionate way in which the presencing of the organism is mirrored by the array surrounding and holding it.
In short, we can see how the fullest development of transpersonal consciousness expresses the fundamental forms of the living, moving sentient creature. It is the basic forms of perception itself that are realized and developed into the metaphors and metaphysics of transpersonal states.
But does that mean that transpersonal states are thereby somehow primitive or regressive? On the contrary, these states also involve an abstract cognitive development. First, there is the witnessing attitude of detached observation that de-embeds consciousness from its usual functions and allows it to develop as such. Second, as I alluded to above, these states seem to involve inter-modal synesthesias that allow different aspects of the numinous to be recognized on a symbolic level. Synesthesias are much broader than the simple color-hearing translations usually described. There are also complex synesthesias in which the tactile-kinesthetic patterning of the body image is cross translated with visual forms and colorsreflected in Almaas'saccounts of the cross modal physiognomies of transpersonal states mentioned above. Complex synesthesias also seem to be entailed in the full experience of the chakras, with their multi-modal fusions of muscle groups, colors, geometric designs, and mantras, all with characteristic emotional transformations that sound like a more formal version of Gendlin's focusing.
Here I argue we find a further confirmation of the neurologist Norman Geschwind's theory of the cross modal translation basis of all higher symbolic forms. For Geschwind it is the direct cross translation of the patterns of vision, touch, and hearing across the neo cortex that would allow the multi-modality patterns basic to language and the arts. Transpersonal states would be the experiencing of these complex synesthesias for their own sake and independent of the practicalities of ordinary cognitive functioning. So, for instance, the "white light" experience, with its phenomenology of a sensed all-inclusive totality, felt eternity, and sensed annihilation of the ordinary self, can be understood, in cognitive terms, as the synesthetic translation of the usual body image into glowing light-as both the most basic quality of vision and the perfect metaphor for the openness of time and Being. The full dissolving of the body image into light should convey just the sense of dying and disappearing so often described in the mystical literature.
If such states also involve the abstract re-presentation of the primary dimensions of living perception as felt meanings then that would include the sense that we are already somehow familiar with them. Metaphors fully felt in this synesthetic way become life-worlds or realms of their own-so there is nothing else the light can be of or about than the light of creation itself, and whether that be truth or illusion can not be decided from the cognitive processes involved.
Such a cognitive account is nonreductionistic, in that these abstract synesthetic processes do not create or construct transpersonal states so much as recognize and amplify them on a specifically human level. We are present, we do exist. The being ness of the universe is continually welling forth around us in pure generosity. Consciousness, as our immediate presencing into openness, is a fundamental and nonreducible category.
Now I'd like to deal with some implications of a more balanced and reciprocal dialogue between the transpersonal and cognitive perspectives. First, from a transpersonal or spiritual perspective can we really be done so quickly with the spectre of false reductionism? Is not any psychology of the cognitive mediation of higher states of consciousness false if their phenomenology is of an objective, unmediated transcendence? Must not our dialogue break down just here?
Perhaps not. On the one side, we have the metaphysical claims of the spiritual traditions. All the universe is made of consciousness or the singularity before the big bang is somehow consciousness itself. On the other side, for the cognitivist, the experience of light in mysticism appears as a metaphor that mediates a felt meaning or felt sense of the source of all existence. How is this line between metaphysics and metaphor to be crossed?
For Almaas and Heidegger what knits them together is the language of being and presence. Within the categories of metaphysics and mystical cosmologies are hidden the primary being experiences that these systems first tried to capture and may yet still evoke if approached more experientially. On the other side, what the felt metaphors within transpersonal states evoke is also this same sheer isness or thatness of Being-which is after all real, and the perfect expression for the root of spiritual experience in our age of the scientifically "factual." What is more of a "fact" than the Being of all that is, welling forth around us?
Yet if the sensory metaphors of light, expansion, and flow that are the vehicles of transpersonal experience are latent within the ambient array of perception does that mean that in these experiences we ultimately just see ourselvesthat this approach to the metaphoricity of these states makes them solipsistic? Here we need to recall that the flowing texture of perception in moving creatures is itself nested within the physical universe as science has come to understand it, and that the organization of perception cannot ultimately be inconsistent with the principles of that universe. Certainly we can see the reflection within Gibson's flow patterns of the nonlinear dynamics of water and air, and arguably of other levels of physical reality as well.
A second issue: In the light of our discussion of a nonreducible primacy of experience shared by both transpersonalists and some cognitivists, what of the ongoing debates about the point of emergence of consciousness in nature? There are those who see consciousness-even a simple and immediate one-as only emergent through the evolution of complex enough neural nets. So for Edelman, Crick, and others a neurocognitive perspective is necessarily the most inclusive in any account of what consciousness is and does. Or, there are those who seek to rest a primary or basic consciousness on the field properties of quantum physics.
Where to most plausibly place the emergence of consciousness seems a major key to all subsequent theory and research. If it is placed significantly too high or too low the entire field of consciousness studies will be distorted. I would argue from a primacy of experience perspective-locating the most basic consciousness in immediate perception and its behavioral manifestations-that both the neurocognitive and quantum explanations are ultimately reductionistic and so obscure the most basic features of consciousness itself.
If we assign primary consciousness on a need to know basis then it is probably first visible in all creatures who move enough in relation to their surroundings that some self-location during and after each movement will be necessary for survival. Single cell organisms meet this criterion and show many of the behavioral sensitivities associated with theories of perception-a point first noted by Alfred Binet and Peirce in the late 1800s. In fact the chemical and electrical processes by which single cell organisms move are the same as those in the depolarization of the neuron. Is this too daringly inferential or is it, as the early Darwinians thought, an extension of the same first person based inferring of consciousness that we do with each other? If we are trying to find some midpoint between the spiritual view that the universe itself is conscious and the behaviorist denial of consciousness even in ourselves, then behavioral reflections of Gibson's ambient array of perception seem like the most plausible place to begin. If so, then although the neurocognitive perspective will surely help to explain how consciousness gets gathered and focused in complex organisms, it cannot explain consciousness itself. It cannot solve the "hard problem." Instead, consciousness becomes a defining property of all moving life forms. So from a primacy of experience view, it is not neurocognition that is the all inclusive perspective that explains consciousness, but the phenomenal properties of reality that ultimately may help to explain the neurochemistry and neuroanatomy of neural nets.
What then of the quantum field modelsso tempting to some transpersonalists interested in the commonalities of physics and mysticism and to physiologists who study quantum events in cells and neurons? If we can speak of an emergence of consciousness at some point in evolution, why not its submergence or latency in the physical order? Some would see such latency in the nonlinear dynamics of the fluid media that first support life and others in the indeterminancies of quantum fields. Certainly there is ample evidence in nature of higher emergent processes utilizing lower supporting ones, but that does not mean that the quantum events posited in cell metabolism somehow are already consciousness. For instance, the quantum events posited by Hameroff and Penrose in microtubules may have more to do with the chemical coherence of the cell than with the elementary flow processes common to both movement in single cell organisms and neuronal depolarization. Indeed these quantum events seem as characteristic of stomach cells as neurons. If consciousness is the felt inner side of movement within an ambient array, quantum microtubule events have gone too deep inside to be consciousness. On the present view, mystics and physicists have principles in common because they both develop-in utterly different directions-the same properties of a primary flowing perception.
By way of conclusion, a view of the primacy of phenomenology has consequences for both transpersonalists and cognitive scientists of consciousness. It contextualizes all purported "explanations" for the existence of consciousness and reminds us-with William James-that all we ultimately have is our experience, that all we know about brains and microtubules comes to us refracted through the very medium they are being used to explain. If science itself cannot answer why there is something rather than nothing, maybe it cannot ultimately answer either why there is a consciousness that witnesses that something. Perhaps there are conceptual primitives-like space, time, and consciousness-whose variations we can trace and even manipulate without being able to explain. Historically psychologists have been far more timid about such speculations than physicists and mathematicians. I personally think it would be more fruitful for the emerging fields of consciousness studies if we leave it open whether what is happening here is a genuine science of consciousness-with a suitable expansion in its methodology to fit its new subject matter-or the spiritualization of science-in which we begin to acknowledge that all our real and emerging knowledge about consciousness does not tell us anything about why it is really there or what it means. To address the questions of meaning, purpose, and existence we must always start, as Kierkegaard says, from the same place as all previous generations, and for such questions we have only our own experience of this life and, one hopes, the integrity and faith to follow where that experience leads-both individually and collectively.
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