The Land of It:
Reason, Logic, and Consciousness
By: Mark Bancroft, MA
"Welcome to the Land of IT. As you may have heard upon your travels here, this is a land where you will find unimagined opportunities, a life of comfort, and the opportunity to truly grasp your potential- a potential which in any other land is suppressed by absurd myths which devalue individual identity in favor of collective obedience. We offer you your individual freedom.
Our kingdom is so vast, so far-reaching, so inclusive, that once you enter through this gate the probability of our seeing each other again is highly unlikely. Most forget the gate even exists, those that find their way back seldom choose to leave. The ones that do… well, let us say that they should never have been here to begin with. They are diseased and do not deserve the blessings of individuality that this land so graciously offers.
That you were able to find this portal demonstrates that you are worthy, that you have outgrown the mythical lands that surround you. By entering through this gate you will be granted autonomy, you will experience the world in greater actuality, you will forge an identity which is truly your own. Welcome to the Land of It."
Entrance into the Land of It (the Age of Reason) has bestowed great riches upon humankind. Many treasures within the kingdom have been unveiled, among them: the demand for evidence, introspection (psychology), the ability to grasp multiple perspectives, ego identity brought forth from role identity, relational perspectives, deeper feeling and passion [Wilber, 1995]. Technological advances, medical cures, liberation movements, and development of the intellect are among the most awe inspiring feats of humankind. Above all, the age of Reason allowed for a differentiation between:
I: consciousness, subjectivity, self, truthfulness, self expression, sincerity
It : science and technology, objective nature, empirical forms We: ethics and morals, worldviews, common contexts, culture; mutual understanding
However crucial this differentiation was, it has come at a high price.
The fundamental Enlightenment paradigm reduced all I's and all We's to mere It's. The mainstream Enlightenment thought that all of reality could be captured in it -language, which alone was supposed to be really real. So it reduced the Big Three to the big flat one if it-language [Wilber, pp.122-123, 1996].
It is from this perspective, the paradigm of objective superiority, of it-language, that consciousness is attempting to be defined, explained, and understood. In more familiar terminology, the "problem of consciousness" is attempting to be solved.
The problem of consciousness is rooted in the explanatory gap between objectivity and subjectivity. In order to define, explain, and understand consciousness in the current scientific worldview an explanation of how subjective experience relates to objective matter is paramount. In the Land of It the quest to solve the problem of consciousness focuses upon finding themechanism which explains how objective correlates give rise to subjective experience [de Quincey, 1997]. The final aim is to objectify subjectivity through the methodology of science.
Strict adherence to scientific methodology which unceasingly strives towards objectivity, ideal separation between the knower (experimenter) and known (object of study), has created the problem of consciousness. It is believed that a valid definition of consciousness must come from adhering to this methodology which has proven itself invaluable in explaining sense-perceived reality above the quantum level. The grand vision of objectifying consciousness has proven to be teetering between the chasm of impossibility (the realization that the essence of subjective experience cannot be explained through objective correlates), and the abyss of denial (the ability to proclaim the non-existence of consciousness while simultaneously having a subjective experience).
The scientific methodology being used to explain consciousness is rarely considered to be the problem. Rather, consciousness is the problem for it seems intent upon not being accounted for by objective criteria. More precisely it is the subjective experience associated with consciousness which causes the turmoil. "The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience [Course reader, p.56, 1997]." Nagel points out that there is something it is liketo be a conscious organism [Course reader, 1997]. It is this some-thing which leads Roger Walsh to acknowledge that, "the nature of consciousness is one of the most fundamental and difficult of all philosophical questions…[Course reader, p.30, 1997]." Upon attempting to account for this some-thing, mathematician Alywn Scott concedes,
Nonetheless I can state without qualification that I do not believe consciousness can be analyzed in the same way that a hydrogen atom can be understood…Consciousness is an awesomely complex phenomenon. It is so complex that it cannot be reduced to some fundamental theory or to one simple biological or chemical transaction [p.159, 1996].
Inquiry into the nature of consciousness is greatly facilitated by the primary distinction between the psychology of consciousness, which merely explains variations surrounding subjective experience (most notably the distinction between conscious and unconscious), and the philosophyof consciousness, which seeks to delineate the conscious from the non-conscious [de Quincey, 1997]. The philosophy of consciousness offers a broad framework in which the existence and functionary dynamics of consciousness are explored. The framework is founded upon three fundamental pillars; three pillars which must be adequately addressed in order for the problem of consciousness to be reconciled.
The first philosophical pillar is the Problem of Other Minds. The problem is concerned with the apparent impossibility of objectively demonstrating the existence of consciousness. More definitively four essential philosophical questions are raised:
1.) The Problem of Matching Qualia: "How can I know what your experience is other than what you tell me?" Experience is an uniquely "private affair" which cannot be experienced by anyone other than the experiencer.
2.) The Zombie Problem: "If I cannot experience your experience how can I possibly know that you or anyone are conscious? You may appear to be conscious but given that I cannot prove your subjectivity I cannot discount the possibility that you are but a zombie whom merely appears conscious."
3.) The Amoeba Problem: "Given that I cannot prove you are conscious it therefore follows that I cannot disprove that you or anyone, in that case even an amoeba, are not conscious. I have no way of knowing if there is or is not an experience of what it's like to be a particular organism, and this, consequently, applies to all organisms, including the amoeba."
4.) The Problem of Computer Consciousness: "Beyond that of the amoeba, given that I can never experience any other's experience how do I know that there is not an experience for what it is like for robots, computers, or zombies?"
The problem of other minds is founded upon the subjective nature of consciousness. Generally, to prove the existence of something the object of inquiry is subjected to objective analysis- the scientific method. The philosophical problem of other minds is grounded in the assumption that valid knowledge is obtained through sense perception. In an objectified universe that which cannot be quantified is looked upon with a great deal of suspicion. "The major drawback to a science of the inner life is the stubborn fact that consciousness is invisible: we cannot see, hear, feel, or taste it. Since science is based on knowledge gained through the senses, consciousness is publicly accessible only indirectly [Herbert, p.38, 1993]."
In the scientific worldview knowledge obtained "indirectly" is considered substandard; but, if consciousness is invisible perhaps the only way to gather knowledge regarding its nature is through indirect and unconventional means. The problem of other minds is a relative problem, not an absolute problem destined to plague humankind for eternity. The problem is not "other minds", so much as a problem of wrong methodology; a reflection of overextending the usefulness of a favored methodology into areas it is not designed to accommodate. Adoption of non-sensory (hence the term, nonsense) means of acquiring knowledge apparently does away with the problem of other minds; mystics report the ability to fully experience another person's consciousness (experience). The philosophical problem of other minds is perhaps best understood as a koan; the "problem" will only be solved when perception is altered- it is no more a "problem" to be solved, than a vehicle through which the perceptual foundation of the investigator is revealed.
The second pillar forming the philosophy of consciousness is The Mind/Body Problem. The problem here lies in the relationship between matter and mind. How are we to account for consciousness in a universe comprised of matter, including our brain and physical body? Is consciousness an epiphenomenon of the brain or is it something other than that which can be quantified? Four theories have emerged to account for subjective experience; to explain consciousness.
Materialists account for subjective experience by equating it to brain processes. By equating the two the need to explain subjective experience is reduced to the ability to account for biological/ neurological processes associated with particular experiences. To explain the experience, explain the neurological activity which occurs in the brain. This approach attempts to objectify subjective essence by reducing consciousness to physical (material) substrates- molecular activity and the firing of neurons. Although the apparent affect the brain has upon consciousness is dutifully acknowledged, this does not explain why the subjective experience occurs. David Chalmers sees this as the difference between studying the "hard" and "easy" problems of consciousness: "the easy problems of consciousness are those that seem directly susceptible to the standard methods of cognitive science, whereby a phenomenon is explained in terms of computational or neural mechanisms. The hard problems are those that seem to resist those methods [Course reader, p.55, 1997]." Materialists tend to focus upon Chalmer's easy problems while refusing to acknowledge the hard problems of consciousness (experience).
Dualism considers mind and matter to be two separate substances which exist independently of one another. French philosopher, René Descartes languaged this dualism with his res cogitens (thinking stuff) and his res extensa (extended stuff occupying space) [Martin, 1996]. Dualism has been the favored choice throughout the Age of Reason regarding the question of matter and mind. Obviously, matter was elevated to "realness", while mind was considered to be an unscientific "other" not worthy of serious study. From the dualistic approach, the mind/body problem creates the conundrum that the world consists of two discrete kinds of substances: mental experience and physical objects. Yet, if this is the case how do they interact? Why would they interact? While we can adequately account for res extensa, what are we to do about res cogitens?
Rather than splitting the world into two discrete substances, or equating mind to be nothing more than material interactions, a third option, idealism, offers us the explanation that mind and matter are closely related. In fact the two are so closely related that in actuality all is mind. The perception of matter is illusionary- just one of an infinite number of forms that mind (consciousness) can assume. This is simply the opposite of materialism which claims everything is matter; idealism claims that everything is mind (consciousness). Whereas materialism lacks the ability to account for experience, idealism lacks the ability to account for matter. Both ontologies suffer from refusing to seriously accept the apparent condition of the "other". If everything is matter how could I possibly have subjective experience; how can I taste chocolate and have the experience of chocolate while my brain (the matter) never tastes chocolate? On the other hand if everything is consciousness why is it not possible for me to breath underwater? If it's all the same "stuff" why is the rock hard, why can't I simply materialize hundred dollar bills when my consciousness chooses to do so? It is well documented that a literal interpretation of idealism creates a delusional reality.
A fourth ontology, pan psychism, offers perhaps the most viable alternative to the preceding three. Pan psychism considers matter and mind to be intimately connected; consciousness does not exist without matter. This ontology is similar to dualism except for the fact that it does not consider mind and matter to be two distinctly different substances. The merit of this ontology is that it: 1. Addresses the well-known effects that the brain and body (matter) have upon consciousness (mind); 2. Does not offer an explanation of consciousness based solely upon physical properties. 3. Is better equipped to address issues in parapsychology and other related phenomena which are denied in materialism, and discarded in dualism. An important distinction is that in pan psychism matter is not limited to our current perceptual understanding which equates matter with one's body. Matter is "something which occupies space". It is acknowledged that this "something" (matter) may exist in forms not yet known to us. It is this acknowledgment which creates an ontology which may expand beyond the confines of sense-knowledge.
The four ontologies represent the four orientations from which to study consciousness. Upon adopting a particular orientation, inherent assumptions regarding the nature of consciousness are likely to be unknowingly embraced. Most vivid is the tendency to ascribe consciousness as being a "thing"- an IT- something to be understood through objective language and perception; an objective, quantifiable entity. The second primary assumption is the accepted approach of unquestionably having to decide between materialism, or dualism, or idealism, or pan psychism. Rather than exploring the possibility that consciousness may function in all forms, at the same time, in different manners; it is assumed that consciousness must obey one of the four presupposed ontologies. If consciousness is similar to a spectrum of light then it is feasible that its functions are aptly understood using different ontologies in different occurrences.
It is in this perceived notion of reality that the subtle, yet powerful, influences of the scientific paradigm are revealed. In many ways the question of choosing an ontology mirrors the challenges confronting quantum physicists. The physicist presupposed an objectifiable quantum realm where minute particles obeyed the Newtonian laws of cause and effect, what else could there be? It was discovered, however reluctantly, that the rigid "either/or" doctrine of rationality was incapable, inappropriate to describe, define, and explain the quantum world. Within this context, the philosophy of consciousness appears to be treading the same precarious path.
The final pillar of the philosophy of consciousness is the Problem of Freewill. This philosophical problem attempts to demonstrate that freewill may be more an illusion than an aspect of consciousness. The crux of the problem is to prove that freewill is neither random, nor deterministic. If the supposed act of freewill is random, freewill is nonexistent. In actuality, events where one had no choice means the person was not functioning as the cause (agent). When prior considerations affect the choice, then the act of choosing does not qualify as an act of freewill, becauseit is determined. If there was a reason for the choice it means there was never any choice to begin with, the choice was already predetermined by existing considerations. A choice, therefore, has to be its own cause. It cannot be random, or determined; and it cannot be without preexisting considerations. To be without prior consideration means to be without cause in regard to the choice (act of freewill). This means there was no reason for the choice, it was a random act. Although the cause may be attributed to the individual serving as the agent, it is impossible to know if the agent was not merely acting upon unconscious considerations. If so, this would mean that the experience of freewill is negated given that unconscious considerations affected the perceived act of choosing as an apparent free-agent. It is impossible to prove that freewill is not deterministic.
The credibility of this philosophical problem is validated when examined by logic. It does appear that without prior consideration there was no cause, merely a random event. Even if the person is the agent for the cause it is forever impossible to exclude the possibility that unconscious factors interfered in the act of "freewill". Like the problem of other minds, the problem of freewill may serve to demonstrate that our logic-based worldview is insufficient to account for the experience of freewill. This is not to say that all self-proclaimed acts are an act of freewill for in retrospect many choices can later be traced to specific origins (unconscious factors); however, deep inquiry into the question of freewill does seem to affirm that a particular characteristic of consciousness is the ability to exhibit freewill. Through meditation a deep sense that freewill is an inherent attribute of consciousness (which may be more than a one-thing) is apparent. Accessing consciousness beyond the level of conscious thought most often reveals creation, potentiality, creativity, and choice - not a realm of random chaos; nor, a universe governed by the dictates of determinism.
The problem of other minds, the matter/mind problem, and the problem of freewill collectively serve as the predisposed emissary resulting in the problem of consciousness. It has been stated that the primary problem of consciousness is experience. The validity of this assertion is recognized when the attempt to objectify subjective essence is acknowledged; to define, describe, and understand consciousness (experience) as an It has resulted in a science of correlates, none of which explains experience. It may be reckoned, therefore, that consciousness is not the problem, rather it is the blind insistence upon applying the scientific method to an area of study inappropriately addressed by such methodology.
Ironically, the problem of consciousness may be serving to fuel the very institutions which grope for an answer. How the problem of consciousness is serving academia, the institution of science, and related careers needs to be addressed. Given the honor and financial rewards associated with being a scientist; looking at the reality of academic diplomas which find merit in the Land of It; and, considering the auxiliary monetary motivations, it becomes apparent that many whom we turn to for an answer have vested interests in not answering the question. This may likely result in the tenacity to maintain the third-person inquiry, while simultaneously denouncing those who disagree. At work is an intricate web of relations, vested interests, and societal dynamics too complex to initially grasp, and too influential to ignore.
Before we attempt to create or explain a science of consciousness we must begin to understand where we are currently at. Looking into the current paradigm may prove a good place to start. Questioning why we are so insistent upon objectifying subjective essence (consciousness) may offer insight into the broader dynamics impacting our ability to presently explain the problem of consciousness. The conditioning we have been subjected to in the Land of It takes many forms; obvious and subtle, beneficial and destructive. We need to look at why an explanation of consciousness which is cloaked in the language of It is more valid than our own direct experience. The tendency to perceive consciousness as a "one-thing" may reveal some clues into some faulty assumptions we take with us upon the quest. The influence of language upon our ability to communicate to ourselves and each other concerning alternative forms consciousness may reveal a serious limitation which, if ignored, can undermine our efforts by convincing ourselves that consciousness exists strictly in the ways that we are currently capable of thinking.
Just as revealing may be the examination of our end-goal assumption. Consciousness is most often perceived to have a definitive form; as being some-thing most commonly associated with the brain. From this perspective the goal is to accurately describe the "static" form and prove that we have done so by conducting tests. In physics, the attainment of a Grand Unifying Theory still appears highly unlikely. Quantum physics is described as being stranger than we can think. Given this, it appears ludicrous to not question the presupposition of consciousness having a definitive form and existing as a one-thing (particle/object), perhaps a byproduct of the physical brain...
The essence of the "problem of consciousness" is revealing. If, in defining consciousness, we are defining ourselves, then what are we really doing by inquiring into the problem so vivaciously? Peter Russell may be onto something when he states,
The global crisis now facing us is, at its root, a crisis of consciousness. The essence of any crisis is, whether it be a personal crisis, or, as in this case, a global crisis, is that the old way of functioning is no longer working. Something new is being called for. In this case the old way that is no longer working is our mode of consciousness [Course reader, p.22, 1997].
We may be more aware of this than we realize; perhaps this is what we really mean to address by inquiring into the problem of consciousness.
"The global crisis reflects a mode of consciousness which seems intent upon destroying the habitat required for the physical expression of human consciousness. In this sense consciousness indeed is a problem for earth's ecosystems; it follows, however, that any solution to the current crisis must come from consciousness. As Visser soberly reminds us, concepts maintain the world, but cannot be used to demonstrate the world is real. You are trapped in a closed loop from which the truth of reality is excluded. You are literally trapped in your own brain, in your own personal human consciousness [abstract, 1996]."
The quest to solve the problem of consciousness may not be one of mere philosophical musings, but rather a quest to ensure our very survival.
When defining what a person is, do we insist upon choosing between their cells or body, culture or mind, past or potential? If not, why should we expect consciousness to be defined through objective reductionism? When the question, "What is Consciousness?" is asked from the first-person, or second-person perspective the "problem of consciousness", ceases to exist. It is known to be an invalid question.
Examining the problem of consciousness in a broader context reveals some very important aspects of ourselves and our society. The greatest hurdle which must be crossed in order to inquire into the nature of consciousness is self-exploration. Inquiry into the nature of consciousness is an inquiry into ourselves. Attempting to define, explain, and understand consciousness is perhaps nothing other than defining, explaining, and understanding ourselves. In this sense, our ability to posit the question may actually be serving to further the evolution of consciousness, to give rise to an entirely new form or structure which is requisite for an answer to emerge.
In the Land of It dissension is mounting. A few of the inhabitants recognize that solving the problem of other minds, the mind/body problem, and the problem of freewill is critical if survival and sanity are to prevail amidst a kingdom frozen in the presence of escalating turmoil. Many others disagree, arguing that the promises of the gate-keepers hold true: "This is a great kingdom. You have individuality, technological marvels at your disposal, exquisite forms of entertainment, not to mention freedom from the oppression so prevalent in the mythic lands. The only problem is that you are unappreciative of all that has been given to you." Rumors have begun describing a third group of people in the land who are preparing an expedition to find the gate and return to the mythic lands.
It is unlikely that the essence of the problem of consciousness is fully understood by anyone inside the kingdom. A strange cleric has remarked that not only are you defining yourselves when you define consciousness, you are also creating a new cosmology which will get passed down for generations. He sneered at the bard who told him he was overreacting, that he was making something out of nothing.
The cleric retorted, "Ah, yes, you may think you are describing an objective thing, but ultimately all you have is your consciousness. You drink that ale, why? To alter your consciousness, is it not true! When you are defining consciousness you are creating a cosmology and sooner or later the really important questions will arise, such as: mortality, the origins of consciousness, the purpose it holds- and because all you have is your own consciousness, you are, if you know it or not, defining the deepest mysteries of what it means to be human.
Reports from those who set out in search of the gate are beginning to reach the farthest reaches of the kingdom. The gate has been sealed, there is no way through to the mythic lands, the gate-keepers have abandoned their posts- there is no way back!
A decree has been issued by the elders urging the three parties to gather in the passing of two moons. The consensus among the elders is that the current division within the kingdom poses a serious threat barring reconciliation. It has been stated that the elders' top priority is to determine whether or not there is a way out of the Land of It- if there is how may it be unveiled, if there isn't what options are available for addressing the crisis looming dark and heavy over the kingdom? To be continued…
(back to articles)
Course reader. (1997). The Nature of Consciousness, Christian de Quincey. CNS 5000, Winter Qrt. JFK University. de Quincey. (1997). The Nature of Consciousness, lecture notes. CNS 5000, Winter Qrt. JFK University.
Herbert, N. (1993). Elemental Mind: Human Consciousness and the New Physics. New York: Penguin.
Martin, B. (1996). The Matter Myth: Quandaries of Modern Physics, lecture notes. CNS 5240, Summer Qrt. JFK University.
Scott, A. (1996). Stairway to the Mind: The Controversial New Science of Consciousness. New York: Copernicus.
Visser, M. (1996). Quantum Reassociation of the Mind-Body Configuration. In Toward A Science of Consciousness, Classified Abstracts.
Wilber, K. (1996). A Brief History of Everything. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, Inc.
---. (1995). Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Revolution. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, Inc.
Mark Bancroft, MA, CHT
Nevada City, CA
Article: Copyright (C) 1998. Mark Bancroft, MA, CHT, Nevada City, CA, 95959. All rights reserved.