What is Consciousness?

Lawrence, KS Community Group
Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS)

For the last few years, a tiny fragment of the academic community has been addressing the topic of consciousness. At the vanguard of this new movement, the University of Arizona hosted the first major conference on the topic in 1994: "Toward a Scientific Basis for Consciousness" ("Tucson I"). That university has since established a Center for Consciousness Studies to organize conferences, lectures, and web-courses, and to host visiting researchers.

But there's a problem with the academic approach to consciousness. Though subtle, it's exposed in the blurb for the book that summarizes Tucson I:

[Toward a Science of Consciousness] explores the whole spectrum of approaches from philosophy of mind and dream research, to neuropsychology, pharmacology, and molecular dynamics, to neural networks, phenomenological accounts, and even the physics of reality.

Did you catch it? The problem is exposed by what is not explored. The blurb asserts that the "whole spectrum" of approaches is limited to the conventional reductionistic, materialistic disciplines of science. It thus expresses the prevailing belief in academia that consciousness is exclusively the product of brain activity. Needless to say, this world-view is blind to the possibility that brain activity is, at least in part, a product of consciousness.

Two insurmountable handicaps prevent academic scientists and philosophers from studying consciousness. First, they are dependent on funding institutions that reject out of hand any topic that does not conform to established theories, and second, they labor under cultural taboos that prevent studying matters of spirit, including parapsychological phenomena. These handicaps translate into the fact that very few academic theorists of consciousness are familiar with the parapsychological and psychical literature.

This economically enforced, culturally inculcated "learned ignorance" is robustly oppressive: Scientists and philosophers whose thinking remains captive to academic values and beliefs have little hope of establishing a scientific basis for understanding consciousness.

This is not to say that all academic scientists accept these cultural restraints. Indeed, a handful of individuals are currently engaged in far-reaching studies of consciousness, but they pay a price for it by marginalization by the larger community.

Now compare the orthodox academic approach with that of IONS. Notably, IONS was established (by astronaut Edgar Mitchell) in 1973—long before the academic interest took shape. Moreover, the open-minded vision of the organization is reflected in the selection of prominent psi researchers for key positions: Director of Research, Marilyn Schlitz and Senior Scientist, Dean Radin.

This open-minded approach to studying consciousness is what attracted the founders of the Lawrence community group to IONS. Several of us have been actively engaged in theoretical and experimental work on consciousness for many years. Because we don't limit our approach to the topic to conform with conventional values or beliefs, we explore all phenomena that are potentially related to consciousness. We believe that this openness is the only path to triggering the paradigm shift that, we believe, is necessary to sustain our species—and many other speciesinto the 21st century.

So with open minds, we return to the question, "What is consciousness?" We think the answer to this question is provided in this quote from "The Theory of Enformed Systems: A Paradigm of Organization and Holistic Systems," a paper by Don Watson, Gary Schwartz, and Linda Russek:

In developing a theory of consciousness, we must neither limit our view to phenomena that correspond to the prevailing paradigms, nor exclude phenomena to which the prevailing world-views are blind. Instead, a deep understanding of consciousness must originate in an entirely different perspective. In short, a theory that doesn't explain all of the following phenomena doesn't adequately explain any of them:

In short, the term consciousness doesn't label just one thing. It's an umbrella that covers a wide variety of phenomena that express pre-physical ("spiritual") operations. That's why we are convinced that scientists and philosophers who don't take all of these phenomena into account aren't really studying consciousness.

DEW (v. 4/8/03)

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