Bridging the Infamous Gap: Current developments in consciousness studies and initial presentation of a Ladder of Credibility
[Paper read by author at the meeting held at Killarney Heights of the Sydney Science and Medical Network Group on 15th April 2007. Originally published at the smn.org.au website, and reproduced here with permission ]
Consciousness is undoubtedly one of the areas of most controversy amongst scientists. Not so long ago I mentioned my interest in consciousness as described by Jung to a fellow scientist and got the reply: 'Well, they haven’t even proved consciousness yet!' To acknowledge further that I am moving into a ‘risky venture’ with this paper, I will share what David Wulff, a leading American psychologist, had to say: ‘The valorising of transcendental experience [as a subset of consciousness] is…risky for the field of psychology, for to take it seriously…is to open oneself to a worldview that fundamentally challenges the assumptions, theories, and procedures of modern empirical psychology.’ He adds, ‘the initial, great challenge is accessing such experiences as fully and openly as possible.’ (Wulff, 2005:430).
I want to draw a picture of where we are in building the bridge between the two poles of the searchers for truth, the physicalists who start with the brain and the parapsychologists who start with the consciousness. In this paper I will share with you what I found in my perusal of the Journal of Consciousness Studies over the last five years. That accounts for about half of my material. The other half of my material I have taken from other sources such as the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology and Philosophy East and West among others. This perusal I have grouped under 3 headings: (a) Those working from the research paradigm of the physical sciences; (b) Those in transitional mode; (c) Those in favour of accepting a paradigm that is holistic, hermeneutical, and includes transpersonal psychology, phenomenology and theology.
Those working from the paradigm of the physical sciences
- Matthew Smith writes in his article ‘The Role of the Experimenter in Para-psychological Research’ that in studying consciousness there is a problem of replicability: because there is an experimenter effect, either by experimenter error or experimenter fraud or even just by the unconscious idiosyncratic behaviour of the researcher. Smith emphasises the need to counter these effects. Although he suggests some ways to do so, it appears replicability is still a major problem in terms of gathering reliable data (Smith, 2003).
- Noe & Thompson ask whether there are neural correlates of consciousness, as such things, whatever they are, might provide evidence consciousness is only an epiphenomenon of the brain. They question also how neural correlates could exist and whether there is a causal connection between brain and mind (Noe & Thompson, 2004:3). These authors question with the purpose of finding a way to study consciousness, but without outcome as yet.
- A difficulty brought up by Anthony Marcel is the inability to trust the data when he, correctly in my opinion, states conscious experience is disunified. It can be opaque to ourselves and contains much that is non-explicit. A further complication: attending to one’s experience changes it, he states, so we cannot trust reporting our own experience, let alone the experience of others (Marcel, 2003). At this point we begin to have, in my humble opinion, evidence that the research approach of the physical sciences (which of course is to somehow get hard facts, or countable or measurable facts), is perhaps inadequate or at least inappropriate for the study of consciousness.
- Bill Faw was requested to describe the content of the conference held at Tucson USA entitled Toward a Science of Consciousness; to do an overview. In his published report he admits he fell asleep 8 times! (Faw, 2002) and importantly, had nothing to report of significance to show the way ahead in research.
- Pepperell decided to go back to considering what evidence we have. He stated, ‘two of the most fundamental attributes of consciousness are that we have a self-centred sense of experience and that this sense is somehow linked to the condition of our physiology’. He asks ‘to what extent, if at all, does our mental life correlate with biochemical activity at the neuronal level?’ His conclusion: there is up to now no evidence, the ‘infamous gap’ persists (Pepperell, 2003), hence my title.
- Snowdon comments on the concept of Radical Externalism (Snowdon, 2006:188), which describes, of course, the belief that everything in the consciousness comes from external stimuli to the brain. The horrendous if not ludicrous limitation of this theory lies in that it would totally deny any human subjectivity. It would deny the reality of all inner thoughts relating to intuition, creativity and indeed anomalous or transcendental experiences. If radical externalism could be proved, which Snowdon argues is impossible, then that might be evidence that consciousness is a world contingent on the brain and on perceptual sensing through the five senses. Snowdon, however, states the obvious, we cannot fly in the face of the facts. Consciousness, or the mind, is a given. In making a contribution to the process of elimination of what will not be helpful towards setting parameters for the scientific study of consciousness, Snowdon is the last of my list of theorists who have apparently presented us with ideas that have failed to produce progress.
Transition in paradigm
- Our next researcher begins, in my opinion, to move away from the methods of physical science for studying consciousness and starts to look for a different paradigm. Velmans suggests there might be causal interactions between consciousness and the brain, not by physicalism or standard explanations. He writes, ' it is a ‘subterranean process, where consciousness and brain can be seen to be dual aspects of a unifying, psychophysical mind. Some of the steps on this deeper route still have to be filled ...', (Velmans, 2002). Is Velmans accepting the notion of the subconscious regions of the mind as Jung proposed them? Is he suggesting we can infer the presence of such a subterranean process from the universal experience of humankind of its consciousness? He is certainly veering away from physicalism.
Theorists working within the holistic paradigm
- K. Ramakrishna Rao wrote an article entitled ‘Perception, Cognition & Consciousness in Classical Hindu Psychology’ (2005). He states categorically ‘consciousness is not a part or aspect of the mind. Consciousness is awareness as such and cannot be reduced to brain states. It is not simply an ASC (alternative state of consciousness), such that it can be traced by technology.’ He states it is an entity in itself. Indeed, I believe we now have ample evidence that consciousness or awareness is existent separate from the body by the evidence from NDE (near-death experience) and OBE (out-of-the-body) studies, as widely documented. These studies report of people whose minds have left their bodies and who have watched medical staff from up above at the ceiling working on their bodies. They have described details of what happened, whom they saw, whom they communicated with in the ‘other world’, and how they ‘popped’ back into their bodies. Importantly, they remembered their experience. What with? Their brain? No, because that was still in their body. Rather, their consciousness. We can infer also therefore that the consciousness or awareness of self can live on without a body to support it, hence that there is a continuation of life after death and that consciousness is not dependent on the brain, but that the opposite is the case: the brain is dependent on the consciousness.
- Ken Wilber (1996), well-known mystic and author, and proposer of the Theory of Transpersonalism, has asked, ‘What if we said that Buddha’s enlightenment just received corroboration from physics? What then happens when a decade from now, new scientific facts replace the current ones (as they must)? Does Buddha then lose his enlightenment? We cannot have it both ways,’ he says. ‘If we hitch the study of the transcendental to physics now, mustn’t we ditch it then?’ (Wilber, 1996:135) Hence, Wilber is on the same wave-length as K. Ramakrishna Rao: enlightenment comes from a realm different to that of the physical body. Both these last two scholars agree that enlightenment, or experience of the transcendental, i.e. the mystical, exists in its own right and human awareness or consciousness is part of that world but not of the world of physics.
- Forman describes consciousness as ‘The Innate Capacity’, which is also the title of his book (1998). He believes consciousness is a common potential in all human beings and does not need brain research to confirm its existence. I think we can go even further, and suggest brain research does not appear so far to have the capacity to explain the manner of existence of human consciousness nor any connection between the brain and consciousness.
- Torchinov in a description of research carried out in his philosophy department in the university of St Petersburg, Russia, tells how a lecturer on his staff paid attention to the cultural meaning of the famous debate on the ‘indestructibility of the spirit’ which occurred in China during the fifth and sixth centuries B.C.E. What can we infer from an interest of the Chinese people in such a thing as spirit, if not that we are talking here about consciousness or awareness and of its being a thing in itself, not dependent as an epiphenomenon of brain activity, and beyond the realms of the physical, i.e. of the spiritual and therefore the immaterial (1992).
- Gualtiero, in an article, ‘Data from Introspective Reports: Upgrading from Common Sense to Science’ (2003), writes introspective reports are used as sources of information about other minds, in both everyday life and in science. When we hear people talk about their minds, we neither refuse to learn from nor blindly accept what they say. Sometimes we accept what we are told, other times we reject it, and still other times we revise it in light of what we believe, then accept the modified version. In developing a sound methodology for the scientific use of introspective reports, he says, we can take our commonsense treatment of introspective reports and make it more explicit and rigorous. Gualtiero continues that we can discover what to infer from Introspective Reports, in a way similar to how we do it every day, but with extra knowledge, methodological care and precision. Sorting out the use of introspective reports as sources of data is going to be a painstaking piecemeal task, he states, but it promises to enhance our science of the mind and brain.
- My original contribution to this discussion, a Ladder Of Credibility (LOC), fits in nicely here precisely because it would enhance the care and precision of each report and hence the dependability of the data once it has been scrutinized. As we know, there are methodological scales in the sciences to help measurement of other data types, such as Richter’s scale to gauge the force of earthquakes, Moh’s scale of hardness of minerals in geology and Likert’s scale of personal values in the humanities. My LOC can serve as the scale to measure the trustworthiness of anomalous or transcendental experience and/or Introspective Reports. It can therefore help determine the validity of the data. An offspin of using the LOC might be to assist in countering the stigmatic notion that anomalous experience can as a rule be discounted and ignored. The Ladder Of Credibility is also an attempt to propose common ground between science and parapsychology (awareness/consciousness), as it is a MEASURING TOOL. The highest possible score is 10. Each report is given a point for a positive answer to each of ten categories.
The de Groot Point-form Ladder of Credibility
1 Data first-hand from experiencer/reporter 1 2 Data has definite categories of particularity (not just sense of ‘all is one’) 1 3 Language is visionary, but not allegorical or metaphorical 1 4 Experiencer/reporter has history of integrity and simple lifestyle 1 5 Experiencer/reporter has no covert agenda 1 6 Person was of opposite persuasion before experience, e.g. a radical externalist 1 7 Person’s life changes significantly after and due to the experience 1 8 Person has positive message or mission (encouragement, warning) 1 9 Person becomes exceptionally capable of responsibility 1 10 Quality of witnesses along same lines, specially categories 4 & 5 (at least one witness) 1 Total 10
As a practical exercise of using the LOC, I will read you the report of an anomalous experience by Ted Biddle, from his Meditation in ‘Outback Prophet’ (de Groot, 2006).'I remember Lord, the time when I was twenty-seven years of age and stranded in a lonely land. I would have died there beside an old tree but caring for me as You have always done, You spoke to one of my black [Aboriginal] brothers, and he told me what You said to him. ‘Your friend is in need, go to him,’ and he walked those long, dusty, fifty miles to come to me ...'
If we hold up his experience against the LOC, we find:
Category 1 does not get a point since it was the black brother who was spoken to, not Ted the reporter.
Category 2 gets a point.
Category 3 gets a point.
And so do Categories 4, 5, 8,10.
His total score is: 6.
If we ascribe values to the ten categories as follows:
10 points – as good as ‘hard facts’
8-9 points – highly likely to be factual
6-7 points – more likely to be true than false
4-5 points – possibly true
2-3 points – doubtful
0-1 points – no evidence.
We see then, that with 6 points, Biddle’s introspective report is in the ‘more likely to be true than false’ category.
I suggest that if this Ladder Of Credibility, crude and imperfect as yet, is standardised world wide, it could help to regularise the measuring of data reliability in the paranormal and the transcendental or mystical areas of research. I would therefore be happy to see researchers use or alter it as they see fit.
- Charles Tart, one of the founders of transpersonal psychology reported in 2006 that the science is doing well. He states there is no need for proof by the methods used in the hard or even the soft sciences. Tart also states that the centrality of altered states of consciousness (ASCs) is a given in transpersonal or mystical experiences. Tart believes the way forward in research is to gather data through state-specific knowledge. He suggests researchers should ‘get into the ASC, then refine, theorize, make and test predictions, and communicate to peers and colleagues’. Tart explains that currently transpersonal theory is still crude because the only way this experience is being studied is by ordinary state of consciousness theories of the transpersonal (2006:87). In my view, however, there is a difference between ASCs as brought on in the laboratory and by means of entheogens or the administration of drugs, and mystical experiences that happen spontaneously or naturally, such as are regularly reported through history by people in the Judeo-Christian traditions and in the Enlightenment traditions of the East. The two different types of experience require a different approach for research. Natural mystical experiences, in my view, would lend themselves very well to analysis according to Gualtiero’s concept of Introspective Reports and my proposed Ladder of Credibility.
- Copley and D’Arcy, in a current Catholic Church commentary on the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mt Thabor in the presence of three of his apostles, have the following sentence: ‘This reading leads us into an other-world experience with its sustained sense of wonder’. (Copley & D’Arcy, 2007:43). Here, I propose, is an assumption that anyone who is a believer in Jesus and the mystical spiritual life he offers, can become the subject of a mystical experience. Perhaps we cannot quite discard the contribution of theology in this scientific debate.
- Lastly in this short perusal of the state of consciousness research, David J. Chalmers has advanced the idea that consciousness or awareness is fundamental in the universe, perhaps on a par with matter and energy’, (Chalmers, 1995 a & b). I have a strong hunch that that is at least the case. If we reflect on how the disembodied consciousness of a person in an NDE is apparently instrumental, as it ‘plops’ back into its body, in bringing the body back to functioning, i.e. beginning to show signs of life on the technology, we may have to admit that consciousness precedes matter and energy.
The current state of research into consciousness appears to affirm there are still rather separate 'camps', namely physicalists and holists. The gap is not being successfully bridged yet, despite years of attempts at understanding the 'how' of consciousness by mechanistic means. Holists, on the contrary, in accepting consciousness as a given and taking phenomenology or human experience as their yardstick, are making steady progress in their research. It is for others to experiment with the use and potential value of my Ladder of Credibility and improve on it as they see fit.
- Copley, B. & D’Arcy, T. ‘Break Open the Word: The Book for Readers – Year C 2007’, The Liturgical Commission, Brisbane, 2007.
- De Groot, J., ‘Science Versus Spirituality: Of Visions, Perception and Reality’, Paper read at the Academy of the Word, Sydney, 14th September, 2004.
- De Groot, J., 'Outback Prophet: Writings of Edward M. Biddle', De Groot, Sydney, 2006.
- Chalmers, D. J. in Dossey, L., ‘Prayer’, Website of the Scientific and Medical Network, Areas of Interest, 2007.
- Faw, B., ‘Search For “Facts”, “Truth” Or “Enlightenment”,’ Journal of Conscious Studies, 2002, Vol. 9, Issue 7, pp. 44-50.
- Forman, R. K. C., ‘Introduction: Mystical Consciousness, the innate capacity, and the perennial philosophy,’ in Forman ‘The Innate Capacity: Mysticism, psychology, and philosophy’, NewYork, OUP, 1998.
- Gualtiero, P., ‘Data from Introspective Reports: Upgrading from Common Sense to Science,’ Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2003, Vol. 10, Issue 9/10, pp. 141 – 157.
- K. Ramakrishna Rao, ‘Perception, Cognition & Consciousness in Classical Hindu Psychology’ Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 12, No 3, 2005, pp. 3-30.
- Marcel, A., ‘Introspective Report: Trust, Self-Knowledge and Science’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2003, Vol. 10, Issue 9/10 pp. 167 – 187.
- Noe, A. & Thompson, E., ‘Are There Neural Correlates of Consciousness?’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2004, Vol 11, Issue 1, pp. 3-28.
- Pepperell, R., ‘Between phenomenology and neuroscience’, Prague, Czeck Republic, 7-10 July, 2003. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2003, Vol. 10, Issue 11, pp. 85-88.
- Smith, M., ‘The Role of the Experimenter in Para-psychological Research’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2003, Vol 10, Issue 6/7, pp. 69-85.
- Snowdon, P., ‘Radical Externalisms’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 13, No. 7/8, 2006, p. 188.
- Tart, C., ‘Current Status of Transpersonal Psychology’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 13, No 4, Apr. 2006, p. 83.
(a). Torchinov, E.A., ‘Meet the Researcher: Evgeny Torchinov’, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, Vol.34 (1), 2002.
(b). Torchinov, E.A., ‘Philosophical Studies (sinology and indology) in St. Petersburg (Leningrad), 1985-1990’, Philosophy East & West, Apr. 92, Vol. 42, Issue 2, pp. 327 – 334.
- Velmans, M., ‘Making Sense of Causal Interactions Between Consciousness and Brain’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2002, Vol. 9, Issue. 11, pp. 69 – 95.
- Wilber, K., ‘A Brief History of Everything,’ Shambhala, Boston, 1996.
- Wulff, D.M., Mystical Experiences, Chapter 12 in Cardena, E., Lynn, S.J. & Krippner, S. (eds), ‘Varieties of Anomalous Experience: Examining the Scientific Evidence’, American Psychological Association, 2005.