Caught Inside the Wind: 
The Systems Approach to Consciousness

By: Mark Bancroft, MA

Part One: Consciousness & the Pea
Part Two: Consciousness - A Living System?
Part Three: Alchemical Evolution
Part Four: Science & The Conscious Experience

Part One: 
Consciousness & the Pea

Throughout the ages the relationship between humankind and the understanding of consciousness has ebbed and flowed between eras of invigorating, romantic courtship and intervals of bitter, dysfunctional contempt. In one period consciousness is celebrated and looked upon with fascination. In another time consciousness is despised, discarded, and denied- despite the fact it is our most intimate reality. Heralded in by such esteemed thinkers as René Descartes, Nicolaus Copernicus, Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and Galileo Galilei, the Age of Reason jettisoned scientific interest in consciousness in favor of constructing an objectified reality. Psychiatrist R.D. Laing explains,

Galileo's program offers us a dead world: Out go sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell, and along with them have since gone esthetic and ethical sensibility, values, quality, soul, consciousness, spirit. Experience as such is cast out of the realm of scientific discourse [Capra, 1996, p.19].

Like a homeless person precipitously cast from society, until recently consciousness had no place in the utopian scientific age. The 'good life' was reserved for quantifiable entities, such as the atom, DNA double helix, and the neuron. Ironically, recent interest in studying consciousness has been revived through advances in reductionist brain sciences and computers [Hameroff, Kaszniak, & Scott, 1996]. Emerging in the mid-1970's, the 'cognitive revolution' has ushered in a new era where the study of consciousness has begun to be taken seriously by science [Newman, 1996]. Within the scientific community, consciousness remains elusive. There exists a surplus of viewpoints and opinions regarding the nature of consciousness which circulate through the scientific community; no collective opinion has prevailed. What is understood at the present time is that the relationship between consciousness and science has entered a new era:

No longer is the "C-word" taboo in the august halls of science; it can now be mentioned in polite discourse without a loss of credibility. The subject is on the table, but the question remains: Where do we go from here [Hameroff, Kaszniak, & Scott, 1996, p.725]?

Fitting with the favored reductionistic approach of traditional science is the parable of the princess (in this case a king) who cannot sleep comfortably due to a single pea lodged somewhere within the mattress. For science, that pea is consciousness [Lanier, 1996]. David Chalmers has classified the study of consciousness into the 'easy' and 'hard' problems. "The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience"; Thomas Nagel reminds us, there is somethingit is like to be a living organism- even for such a lowly creature as the bat [Chalmers, 1996]. It is this some-thing (the pea) which leads Roger Walsh to acknowledge that, "Indeed, the nature of consciousness is one of the most fundamental and difficult of all philosophical questions…[Walsh, R. & Vaughan, F., 1995, p.1]." Some contend there are no 'easy' problems regarding the pea (consciousness):

I do not consider that there are any 'easy' problems of consciousness, and consider that Chalmers' division of the problems into 'easy' ones and the 'hard' one betrays an inadequate conception of conscious thought and experience- a conception…suggesting that the only problem with functionalism is its apparent inability to say anything about 'qualia' [Lowe, 1995, p.266].

Despite bitter disagreements, the fervor surrounding consciousness studies within science is beginning to address more fundamental issues; namely, the adequacy of the scientific paradigm itself. The sleeper on the mattress (objective science) is rolling over; realizing that the pea is not going to go away. The implications of this may prove to be enormous. Will the king get up and look under the mattress? Will he find a pea? If he does not see (traditional science) the pea but knowsit is there, will he begin to question his assumptions about reality? What will happen if those assumptions are found wanting? (back to top)

Part Two:
 Consciousness - A Living System?

In this paper an important distinction regarding consciousness must be made; lack of such distinction notoriously results in unnecessary confusion. The term consciousness shall refer to human subjective experience, conscious awareness. We shall rely upon the tried and true definition of consciousness as found in the American Heritage Dictionary (1992): "The state or condition of being conscious. A sense of one's personal or collective identity." The intent is not to debate where to 'draw the line' of conscious existence; nor shall we do battle with the 'zombie', or speculate on the experiences confronted by the 'amoeba'. The goal is not to prove that consciousness exists; the fact that you are reading this will suffice. Philosopher Daniel Dennett claims he is not conscious [Lanier, 1996]; so be it. The intent is to consider human consciousness (subjective awareness) from a systems perspective. Through living systems theory (LST) a slightly different way of conceptualizing consciousness becomes available. Although fundamentally reductionistic, LST may prove useful in bringing forth a broader, potentially more complete perspective on consciousness.

Applying the basic tenants of LST to conscious awareness reveals remarkable similarities between living organisms and consciousness. To begin with, the idea of open systems developed by Ludwig von Bertalanffy characterizes living structures by their dependence on continuos inflows of energy and resources [Capra, 1996]. Likewise, consciousness functions as an open system. It is clear that external sensory stimulation is requisite for consciousness to function 'properly' andto ensure physical survival. Research studies on tactile depravation of newborns had to be terminated prematurely for endangering the infant's physical survival [Lecture notes, 1992]. Prisons use isolation, solitary confinement, as a means of punishment. Parent's often rely on sending children to their rooms when disciplinary measures are called for. Altered states of consciousness research shows that if stimulation from sensory inputs is eliminated or greatly altered hallucinations result. Loss of identity, difficulty in meeting basic survival needs, apathy, and depression have been known to occur in a total sensory deprivation environment. Research subjects typically find the experience intolerable within only four days [Wallace & Fisher, 1991]. In order to function, consciousness operates as an open system.

Boundaries constitute an important characteristic of conscious experience. The qualities of plasticity and flexibility are exhibited. The absence of a boundary results in schizophrenia. Likewise, over-emphasis on one's boundary results in psychological dysfunction:

In America, we raised individualism to its highest expression, each of us protecting our boundaries, asserting our rights, creating a culture that, Bellah writes, "leaves the individual suspended in glorious, but terrifying, isolation" [Wheatley, 1992].

Boundaries are known to spontaneously collapse, as with the mystical experience. The expansion of one's conceptualized boundary has been persuasively likened to psycho/spiritual growth by Ken Wilber. Transcendence leads to the disillusionment of one's self into unity consciousness,

The world and the self return as one single experience, not two different ones. No longer do we wave-jump, for there's only one wave, and it's everywhere [Wilber, 1979, p.158].

Closely related to the notion of boundaries is the LST tenant of identity/purpose. An "I" is created that acts as the singular collective voice for the person [Martin, 1997]. The magical "I" may identify the person with his/her body, spouse, career, or car. Highly structured boundaries typically result in excessive identification at a particular level: obsession with one's appearance resulting in anorexia or bulimia; obsessive national allegiance which feeds collective insanity (Vietnam); ethnocentricity responsible for institutionalized oppression. A sense of purpose ties into a person's identity. The attainment of wealth, fame, prestige, and recognition may serve as one's purpose. Others may find purpose in service work, adhering to social norms, or following a spiritual path promising enlightenment.

Just as the mysterious "I" serves to produce a singular, unique identity, the elusive "They", so commonly referred to in passing conversation, serves as a singular/collective representation which functions as a sensor. The sensor functions as a feedback device. Associated with 'unspoken' social conditioning and values, the mental construct of the "They" operates as an objectified standard by which an individual can measure his/her self-image with the collective.

Generally speaking, we are continually engaged in a project of trying to validate our existence and worth as unique individuals, of achieving a worthwhile image of who we are and what we are doing. We feel good when this self-image is furthered, and badly when it is negated or thwarted [Welwood, 1979, p.153].

Living organisms maintain themselves through the day-to-day processes of metabolism. They exhibit an ability to repair damage and reproducethemselves (the ultimate repair). Metabolism as displayed by consciousness takes the form of taking in ideas, thoughts, beliefs, conversations, gossip, the media. Reading books, listening to music, going to the prom, watching a movie, or perusing the internet constitutes metabolism. The capacity for consciousness to 'repair' itself is demonstrated in psychotherapy, the self-help industry, religions espousing redemption and salvation. Reproduction takes the form of passing on stories, folklore, creative works of art, notable achievements. Autobiographies, architecture, and history represent the potential sustainability of consciousness despite physical mortality.

Ilya Prigogine contributed greatly to the understanding of the dynamics of living systems through his theory on dissipative structures. By maintaining themselves in a state far from equilibrium (maximum entropy), living systems have the opportunity to develop into forms of increasing complexity (order/diminishing entropy). This results in supramolecular organization (unifying cohesion) at critical points of instability, termed bifurcation points. Amplified feedback loops serve as the mechanism through which order and complexity emerge [Capra, 1996]. Nonlinearity, degrees of indeterminacy, and freedom to 'choose' at bifurcation points are characteristic of dissipative structures.

The constitution of dissipative structures has parallels with conscious phenomena. Consciousness displays an inherent tendency to act and create. Marital, financial, career, or existential crises oftentimes result in psychological growth (greater complexity/order). The probability of self-sabotage increases once a person achieves equilibrium; a comfortable 'fit' between their inner and 'outer' worlds. Entropy takes on the guise of boredom or depression; the person literally 'shuts down', loses energy, and becomes psychologically disassociated (disorder-ed). Bifurcation points, amplified by feedback loops, result in dynamic alterations in the fabric of one's life. Unimportant events, a passage read in a book, or a comment from another person turn out in retrospect to have dramatically altered the course of one's life.

Indeterminacy and nonlinearity characterize the unfolding pattern of a person's life. In fact, initial examination of one's life may be perceived as chaotic. Interestingly, through introspection or psychoanalysis, reappearing patterns or repeating 'lessons' commonly emerge; the chaotic life reveals a definite, concise pattern. The form of the pattern derives from what chaos theory terms an attractor. The attractor, associated with being a 'simple set of rules' (an algorithm), generates a pattern of intricate complexity. Mastering life lessons, the process of individuation, the attainment of wisdom, or spiritual evolution all constitute possible attractors with respect to consciousness.

By the end of our lifetime, we are able to discern our individual basins of attraction…We discover that we have been influenced by a meaning that is wholly and uniquely our own. We experience a deeper knowledge of the purpose that structured all of our activities, many times invisibly and without our awareness [Wheatley, 1992, p.137]. The discovery/ experience of our own strange attractor.

The LST tenants overview applied to consciousness suggests that conscious awareness in its own right is a type of living system. It metabolizes, reproduces, operates via boundary, identity, and feedback. Taken together, the emerging picture points to the insight that consciousness is not an isolated affair. Interdependence is clearly revealed between the conscious experiencer and his/her environment. Adoption of a worldview where one considers himself to be an isolated, singular being inexorably separated from others and the biosphere appears to be pathological from the LST perspective. LST would surely deem adherence to such a worldview as self-destructive for it deliberately summons entropy. A pattern is revealed: through LST, personal conscious experience is inseparably connected to the external world- while the external world is simultaneously being constructed, perceived, and interpreted inwardly. (back to top)

Part Three: 
Alchemical Evolution

An alternative perspective of (way of perceiving) species evolution is addressed by LST. Similar to the way that the basic tenants of LST conflict with traditional science, the LST evolutionary perspective appearsto clash with the established Darwinian evolutionary theory founded upon adaptation and natural selection. Please understand that this is not a paper designed to prove or disprove evolutionary theory. The objective is to demonstrate how one's inward perception of reality (consciousness) as depicted in evolutionary schema alters remarkably by adaptation to a different viewpoint on a particular subject- in this case evolution. The patterns and inherent characteristics of evolution taken from each perspective may help serve to produce insight into the nature of consciousness.

A descriptive and informative account of the applicability and validity of Darwinian evolution can be found in the book Climbing Mount Improbable, by genetic essentialist Richard Dawkins. Throughout the book Dawkins stresses that the cornerstone of Darwinian evolutionary theory is non-random, cumulative natural selection. While potentially random mutations may occur, it is not a theory of random chance. The dynamics of non-random selection foreshadow all elements of chance, resulting in a deterministic explanation of evolution offering a detailed account of the most improbable biological developments. Dawkins points out that Darwin's great achievement was to discover that evolution occurs in gentle gradients over long periods of time, through the workings of non-random natural selection [1996].

Mount Improbable is a metaphor used to depict how seemingly impossible biological progress takes place. On one side, the mountain appears impossible to climb. The vertical precipices and sheer size of the mountain causes the observer to conclude that nothing could possibly ascend its ominous face- yet, species of all types are found on the highest ledges, living in the most improbable places. From this side, evolution appears guided, directed, and purposeful. However, if the observer visits the backside of Mount Improbable they will discover:

...not vertical cliffs and echoing canyons but gently inclined grassy meadows, graded steadily and easily towards the distant uplands. Occasionally the gradual ascent is punctuated by a small, rocky crag, but you can usually find a detour that is not too steep for a fit hill-walker in stout shoes and with time to spare. The sheer height of the peak doesn't matter, so long as you don't try to scale it in a single bound [Dawkins, 1996, p.73].

Dawkins maintains that equating evolution to random chance is equivalent to vaulting from the base of the mountain to its highest peak in a single jump. The mountain's message is threefold: 1.) there can be no sudden leaps up the mountain; 2.) species cannot descend the mountain; and, 3.) there may be more than one peak (more than one way for species to 'solve' the same problem) [Dawkins, 1996]. Darwin simply discovered the backside of Mount Improbable.

LST presents an entirely different view on evolution. Examination of the evolutionary pattern suggests that the underlying mechanism is not natural selection/ adaptation, but rather creativity- life's inherent tendency to create novelty [Capra, 1996]. The new evolutionary theory emerging from LST suggests an interplay between adaptation and creation. When systems in homeostasis become 'disturbed' they reduce the deviation from their balanced state via negative feedback loops. Deviation may become amplified through positive feedback loops resulting in an entirely new structure which then fluctuatesaround its new stable state; a system never reaches absolute stability [Capra, 1982]. Neo-Darwinian theory depicts organisms as moving toward equilibrium; perfect environmental fit. According to LST, systems function far from equilibrium; demonstrate the ability to co-evolve; and, life's inherent tendency to create novelty supersedes achieving environmental fit [Capra, 1996].

LST shifts the evolutionary focus from the individual organism striving towards environmental fit to the co-evolution between the organism and its environment. Lynn Margulis expands on the notion of co-evolution through her symbiogenesis theory. The theory claims that the mechanism of evolution lies, not in the divergence of species, but in the convergence of formerly independent organisms into new composite entities [Capra, 1996]. Major environmental catastrophes are likened to planetary bifurcation points resulting in subsequent periods of rapid growth and innovation. There is no evidence of an evolutionary purpose, plan, or goal; LST does not suggest evolution is following a course of progress. Becoming human-like does not appear to be an evolutionary goal:

Evolution may not "drive" toward humanoid qualities at all…What evolution may be up to could be merely the continuing structuration of the biosphere through increased levels of communication between systems of one level, resulting in more integrated supersystems on the next [Laszlo, 1972, p.86].

Applied to consciousness, Darwinian theory and LST offer two fundamentally different perspectives that appear irreconcilable. Consciousness evolution from the Darwinian viewpoint provides explanation through analysis of brain correlates; quantifiable evidence of how the brain (consciousness) evolved. LST presents a qualitative explanation based on the observation of general patterns. However, the two may not be mutually exclusive. An important part of alchemical work involves the joining together of two opposites to form a 'third' element that 'contains/joins' the original opposites. The process, termed coniunctio, integrates an otherwise dualistic reality resulting in greater unification and understanding [Edinger, 1985]. The perception of a dualistic split of opposites equates to the absence of wisdom. Perhaps Neo-Darwinian theory addresses what may be likened to the 'easy' problems of evolution. LST may be on the opposite end of the same spectrum considering the 'hard' problem(s). Just as Newtonian science cannot account for subjective experience, classical evolutionary theory cannot account for the development of consciousness:

If adaptation alone were the core of evolution, it would be hard to explain why living forms ever evolved beyond the blue-green algae, which are perfectly adapted to their environment, unsurpassed in their reproductive capacities, and have proved their fitness for survival over billions of years [Capra, 1982, p.286].

By examining the pattern, LST opens the hard questions up for debate: "Why is there life?" "How can life emerge via complexification?" "Is our human perception regarding evolution biased; is it tainted by self-serving beliefs which unknowingly strengthen our conditioned worldview?" "Is it possible that plants and animals participate in, and help guide, evolution through their actions thus causing non -random mutation(s) to occur (Lamarckism) [Marhsall & Zohar, 1997]?" As with consciousness and traditional science, the process of evolution is typically explained away through selective inquiry of physical substrates stemming from the ideal of there being an objective, quantifiable universe independent of the observer. (back to top)

Part Four: 
Science & The Conscious Experience

Common sense presents a clear message: consciousness must evolve in order for its expression by way of humanity is to survive. Poised between an apparent, crumbling worldview headed for biospheric suicide; and, the capacity to illicit incredible change through conscious will, humankind finds itself standing on the brink of the most decisive bifurcation point it has ever encountered. Fritjof Capra contends that humanity faces a crisis of planetary dimensions that he refers to as: The Turning Point [1982]. Consciousness functions as the central component perpetuating the crisis:

Ultimately these problems must be seen as just different facets of one single crisis, which is largely a crisis of perception. It derives from the fact that most of us, and especially our large social institutions, subscribe to the concepts of an outdated worldview, a perception of reality inadequate for dealing with our overpopulated, globally interconnected world [Capra, 1996, p.4].

Robert Ornstein (1972) states that:

Our biological evolution is, for all practical purposes, at its end. There will be no more further biological evolution without human "conscious evolution" [p.4, 295].

Peter Russell (1992) echoes the sentiments Ornstein:

We are, in effect, facing an evolutionary exam - a cosmic intelligence test. We have prodigious powers at our disposal - enough to harm a planet - and before we can continue our evolutionary journey we must prove that we have the wisdom to be the master of ourselves and thus use our creativity in ways that are beneficial to all [p.223].

LST would depict humanity as having settled in at a point of suboptimization; a bifurcation point is being reached which will require the choice of a particular 'path'. One route would be to maintain the existing paradigm. A paradigm now constricted and crumbling under its own weight, due to the pride (hope) placed upon its foundational constructs rooted within the belief in some form of pure/objective logic and reason. Given the present course of the prevailing paradigm, literal self-destruction will prevail--- the ironic, final result being the ultimate testament of irrationality (the #1 fear to be found within and throughout the Age of Reason!).

Another possibility is to place the current paradigm within a larger, more inclusive framework. This is what LST has to offer. Perhaps consciousness can evolve- create novelty through reaching out for a more comprehensive perspective of the world that would potentially result in a more useful paradigm capable of diverting absolute destruction of the biosphere.

The point is: the current structure of collective consciousness is becoming its own worse threat. Rising discontentment, third-world nuclear threat, escalating environmental destruction, perpetuation of unlimited wants despite finite resources, blindness to racism and oppression…all these are symptoms of denial. The denial to acknowledge life's inherent interconnectedness. Denial of the necessity to question socially conditioned ideals pertaining to one's boundary and identity. Denial that the 'reset button'(planetary bifurcation point) will likely be 'pressed' if humankind continues on its present course.

Fortunately, we might just be the first species to actually have a 'choice' in its demise. We can decide to cloak consciousness in materialistic, pseudo-objective terms and become mortally crippled by a dysfunctional paradigm. Or, we can begin to consider the broader framework offered by LST that seems more capable of ensuring our continued survival through its acknowledgment of interdependency. LST would likely be a wise choice if forced to choose between the two- it is the choice more likely to allow one to choose again.

However, it must be remembered that LST is still reductionistic; it depends on analysis (the breaking apart) for understanding. The present structure of consciousness does not seem to exhibit the ability to think holistically. While we can feel/intuit holistically, logical thought is analytic. This may be the result of the current relationship between the mind which can process up to 30 billion bits of information per second, and the brain capable of processing a mere 2 bits per second [Martin, 1997]. In this case LST does appear as the next developmental step for consciousness to take. Co-evolution eludes to the possibility that taking this step would likely effect the physiological makeup of the brain- the end result being the ability to literally thinkholistically (structural alteration resulting in +2 bits/second processing). In fact, the very emergence of LST may someday prove to be evidence affirming this position.

And, in the end, the human experience (experiment) on earth will end. If not through our own doing, perhaps by the red dwarf star, Gliese 710, that is 100,000 times as massive as the earth and is traveling at us at 14 kilometers per second [Muir, 1997]. Ultimate fate is assured when our sun begins to run out of hydrogen in an estimated five to six billion years causing it to become a white dwarf star [Gribbin, 1993]. What we do have going for us is our present capacity to co-design our experience of the world through conscious thought and perception. Admitting that the present design threatens biological extinction well before any foreseeable natural catastrophe; questioning the value of the current paradigm becomes not only wise, but logical and rational. If consciousness does evolve, and continues passing such evolutionary tests, then it is foreseeable that consciousness' "human-experience/experiment" contains within it the ability, inherent creative potential, to carry on even after the natural destruction of planet earth.

And so, we now return to the present moment. The only experience one ultimately has of consciousness. And so too remains the conditioned want for transcendence; the desire to separate entirely from this temporal world of which we are all a part. Richard Dawkins announces that what is needed for scientific understanding is a less human-centered view of the natural world; "We must learn to see things through non-human eyes [1996, p.258]." He shares a personal story to elucidate his assertion:

I was driving through the English countryside with my daughter Juliet, then aged six, and she pointed out some flowers by the wayside. I asked her what she thought wildflowers were for. She gave a rather thoughtful answer. 'Two things,' she said. 'To make the world pretty, and to help the bees make honey for us.' I was touched by this and sorry I had to tell her that it wasn't true [1996, p.256]. authors italics

The story demonstrates how reducing the world through objectivity ultimately fails. The belief of knowing why anything exists always takes us back to ourselves, to the present moment, conscious experience. The author, however convinced of the accuracy of his knowledge, winds up, in the end, feelingsome-thing.... touched and sorry; the subjective, qualitative presence of consciousness!

LST would likely question the assumed split between the natural world and mankind by considering the behavior of dissipative structures that function as open systems demonstrating the characteristics of interconnectedness and an inherent tendency to create, co-evolve, and converge. LST may be closer to the essence of life (and consciousness) than traditional reductionism; but, it is not the essence. It is a map; not the territory. It is the characters, punctuation, and syntax comprising the poem; but it is not poetry. It is the paper on which the scales and notes of the score are written; but, it is not the composition. And, in the midst of all this, maybe LST can somehow serve to break the binds of conditioned objectivity so that one may begin to capture the beauty of the moment- driving through the English countryside with his or her six-year-old daughter taking in the beauty of the wildflowers giving life to a potentially barren wayside.


You ask me what the lobster is weaving down there with its golden feet,I tell you, the ocean knows this
You say who is the acedia waiting for in its transparent bell, I tell you its waiting for time, like you
You say who does the macrocystis algae hug in its arms?
Study it. Study it at a certain hour and in a certain sea I know

You question me about the wicked tusk of the narwhale and I respond by describing to you how the sea unicorn with a harpoon in it, dies
Inquire about the kingfisher's feathers which tremble in the purest springs of the southern shores
I want to tell you that the ocean knows this,
That life, in its jewel boxes, is endless as the sand,
impossible to count, pure

And the time among the blood colored grapes has made the petal hard and shiny,
filled the jellyfish with light, untied its knot, letting its musical threads fall
from a horn of plenty made of infinite mother of pearl
I'm nothing but the empty net which has gone on ahead of human eyes,
dead in the darkness', of fingers accustomed to the triangle,
longitudes in the timid globe of an orange

I walked around like you investigating the endless star
And in my net during the night I woke up naked
The only thing caught, a fish, trapped inside the wind

- 'The Enigmas'
by Pablo Neruda

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Mark Bancroft, MA, CHT
Nevada City, CA

Article: Copyright (C) 1998, Mark Bancroft, MA, Nevada City, CA, 95959. All rights reserved.