Be it of the physical, mental or social world, understanding is always of something which is other than us, to which we are not acquainted with. We intend to know the other. We understand the other by means of images, ideas, words and metaphors. All of these tools are involved in the building of institutions and organized knowledge systems. In the process of understanding we also try to integrate the knowledge we get, to a larger system of our world-view, which in turn influences, consciously and unconsciously, our ways of responding to situations.
In the study of mind and consciousness the basic duality involved in understanding takes an interesting turn of that of integrating the understanding of the experiencer with experience itself. The experiencer itself becomes a factor in the process of intending to understand the experience.
If 'definition' and 'knowledge' are to be objective, with the potential for 'predictability' and 'repeatability', can we include the study of human mind and consciousness under classical ways of understanding? Can we define consciousness based on pre-experiential understanding of it? Can the experience be studied with the experiencer having minimal or no role? Conversely, can the self/experiencer be understood with experience having minimal or no role? In short will the definition of consciousness be exhaustive of its complexity?
I propose that these questions are as difficult or easy as asking 'can I see my face'. I can see my face as much as it is represented. But none of the representations can replace my original face. What we 'see' is only the reported. The being of the reported cannot be confused with the being of the original. Whether they are two distinct duals is of course a metaphysical theme for discussion. How ever, I think, the most interesting issue is that though 'the reported' and 'that which is reported about' could not be reduced to one, 'the reported' and 'that which is reported about' can influence each other. I understand and define my self based on my experiences. At the same time, my experience depends upon the notion that I have of my self.
I intend to know.
I also integrate that which I know.
And it is this mysterious power of consciousness to both intend as well as integrate the puzzle that we are all trying to solve!
2. Methods and Approaches
2.1: 'Name-ing' and 'Form-ing' the Unknown
A common feature of many of the approaches to the study of 'consciousness' is the distinctness in the method of defining the problem. The study of 'consciousness' is initiated by two parameters such as the 'name' and 'form' of consciousness. In other words 'the what' and 'the where' of consciousness (Menon, 1999) mark the starting point to address the complex issues involved of the unknown. The definition for 'consciousness' would restrict the specific areas for investigation and also categorise them on the basis of related functions whether cognitive, physiological or even trans-mental. The classification of different approaches to consciousness studies could be based on this point itself. And, without this classification, there is not only the possibility of the absence of conceptual exchange between methods but also semantic confusion. This would also mean that 'the perspective' is as important as the problem at large for the interdisciplinary discussions on a complex phenomenon like consciousness. If the perspective itself is clearly laid down by means of the categories and concepts used the 'mystery' and 'anonymity' generated, during the discussions, about 'consciousness' could be avoided to a larger extent.
A major clash between discussions being how the subjective and/or objective (functional) nature of consciousness is accounted, an initial clarity and specificity in terms of the conceptual framework and extent of the applications of the method would be helpful as well as foundational in constructing theories and developing interdisciplinary exchanges.
2.2: Localisation of Conscious Experiences
To elaborate further on this contention, a wide spread 'attitude' towards consciousness namely the 'given-ness of the problem of consciousness' could be looked into. A taken for granted assumption that 'consciousness' is something static and sedentary 'sitting' somewhere to be understood has led to a major part of the research towards the localization of the conscious experience/s. Though the 'unknowability' of 'consciousness' as a complex phenomenon is conceded, it (the 'unknown') has also encouraged the classical way of knowing which is by means of segregation and performance. Distinct performances of 'consciousness' are taken and these are labeled as 'conscious experiences' and their origin, function and localized area (neurophysical and neurochemical) identified as the problems to be solved. The understanding of 'consciousness' is essentially the understanding of neuronal functions, cognitive or sensory-motor. The major trend beholden by this trend is the 'building block approach' (Searle, 2000) which explains the conscious field as consisting of a series of building blocks each being a conscious experience. The knowledge about any one conscious experience would contribute to the understanding of other kinds of conscious experiences. The mystery of consciousness would finally be solved by the understanding of the interconnections between the causal mechanisms of different conscious experiences. Questions about continuity, uniqueness and nonphysical attributes of consciousness, by this approach become auxiliary or even redundant.
The building of consciousness from fewer characteristics to more number of characteristics is certainly an approach that would favor the Darwinian evolutionary advantage. This approach would also be able to forsake the need for a specific working definition of consciousness. Eventually the method (instrument, design, measurement etc.) for investigation becomes the crux of the study. The means to understand becomes the subject for analysis and focus. But 'what' is to be understood, in the process, is either not defined, or ontologically reduced and pushed into an epistemological oblivion.
3. Is Consciousness Unknown Like Any Other Unknown?
3.1: A neighbor unnoticed and the 'puzzle of consciousness'
Obviously it is the 'why' of 'consciousness' that has made it so interesting for us to know more about it. Why should discrete neuronal functions and neurochemical reactions 'generate' a unified feeling of having physical sensations such as pain, or even mental dispositions such as sorrow, happiness etc.? Why should quantitative phenomenon have qualitative co-relates? These two questions form the basis of the 'puzzle of consciousness' distinguished as the 'easy' and 'hard' problem of consciousness (Chalmers, 1995). The 'unknowablity' of consciousness, which is centered around the 'hard' problem of consciousness, is not just about the subjective and qualitative nature of consciousness but also about the prior distinction between subject and object that precedes any theory formation or metaphysical discussion.
The distinction between the subject and object, that is, something which is near to me/part of me and something which is far away from/other than me, is fundamental to human thinking and experience (See Drg-Drsya Viveka of Adi Sankaracharya) whether physical, mental or socio-cultural. The mystery about consciousness is the mystery about the gap between two distinct 'entities' namely the objective and the subjective. Can one be reduced to the other; or can the existence of one be caused by the other: explaining one in terms of the other seems to be also the way to solve the 'disturbing' duality.
3.2: The changing and the abiding
The discussion on the 'hard problem' of consciousness has generated a consensus on identifying the 'puzzle of consciousness' as involving a qualitative duality. Whether this duality is apparent or real is the intractable question eluding neurobiologists and philosophers. If the ontological nature is taken as the defining and demarcating factor, the duality involved in consciousness could be seen as ontological too. The neurophysiological function and the sensory-motor response caused/triggered by an external stimulus are two distinct reals from a physical point of view of the brain/consciousness. From a personalistic/non-physical point of view the picture is different. It is ME having an experience of pain; whether I am cognizant of the neuronal functions or not is not a deciding factor on which MY EXPERIENCE is dependent. I may or may not be having the knowledge about the neuronal functions responsible for my specific conscious experiences. But for sure, I have the knowledge of/am aware of distinct conscious experiences relating to and abiding in ME. The neuronal reactions and the sensory-motor responses are also not the significant signs of 'my conscious experience'; but it is the unified 'identity feeling' of 'me having such an experience' which is the significant sign of my conscious experience. Even if we look at the duality involved from this perspective it is that which is initiated by the identity of 'me' (I AM having an experience) and 'mine' (MY EXPERIENCE).
The duality problem of consciousness is of two kinds: one is of the 'easy' and 'hard' problem; and the other is within the hard problem. The duality within the 'hard problem' is a phenomenological puzzle and raises a 'harder problem' (Menon, 2001). The duality of the 'easy' and 'hard' problem is a neurobiological problem.
There are three distinct 'features' known of 'consciousness'. At every instance of physical pain (physical-conscious experience), mental pain (non-physical-conscious experience) or any (conscious) experience there is a 'gestalt' meaning brought out by a union of three units such as
The first two: 'experience of pain' and 'me in pain' are ontologically of a transient nature. Just as the 'experience of pain' I can have many other distinct experiences. Correspondingly the 'experiencer' also changes.
The third unit that is of a meta-experiential nature ('me HAVING such an experience') is changeless, since it accrues to a continuing and abiding 'I-ness'. It is this unit that integrates both the distinct conscious experience/s and the conscious experiencer/s and presents a meaningful continuity.
3.3: The other-ness and near-ness of the unknown
Experiences are mostly characterized by their 'distance' and broadly divided as objective and subjective. We can have a range of experiences, a certain type pertaining to outside objects, and a certain type pertaining to inside objects. When my toe hits a stone, the pain I feel is 'inside', but the stone, which has triggered the pain, is an object outside, which has its own distinct physical properties. The experience of pain is nearer to me than the experience of the existence of the stone. 'Is the perception of the stone nearer to me and belong to the same class of the pain' is another question to be looked into. At this juncture of our discussion, what is attempted is to see the broader classification of that which is outside the subject and that which is inside the subject.
Whether it is the existence of the stone, or the pain, both are given meaning, by relating them to a personal identity:
The feeling of pain is nearer [to me] than the existence of the stone. At the same time the pain as well as the stone are recognized as other than me. There is something unknown about both the pain as well as the stone. The stone as well as the pain are also 'felt' as other than me.
Is consciousness 'unknown' like the 'other' unknown-s? This question once again focuses on the 'harder problem' of consciousness. The stone (object which has physical properties) or the pain (object which has mental properties) is experienced as other than me, changing and having meaning when related to an experiencer. They are unknown because they are OTHER than me.
Consciousness is not totally unknown, since it is possible to know about it through the distinct experiences and also through the distinct experiencers. What is unknown and mysterious about consciousness is threefold:
The unknown-ness of consciousness is about, the 'harder problem' of consciousness, the distinct and unique I-ness performing two functions different by their ontology: There is an intentional 'outward' movement of consciousness; There is also an integral 'inward' movement of consciousness.
4. Two Faces of Consciousness
4.1: How does consciousness 'look like'?
Like causality, attributing a name and limiting to a form, are also ways of human mind to know the 'unknown'. It is also interesting that our minds (and institutions of knowledge creation) use history as a tool (may be because, we essentially deal with relative time: past, present and future) to understand and classify new objects of knowledge, and therefore comparison is as important as uniqueness. To know something new, we first compare it with classified and validated knowledge (by the accepted tests, measurements etc.) and then allocate them under a category. Therefore the 'new' is always relative to the 'old'. In other words, the 'unknown' is relative to the 'known'. It is this basic structure of duality embedded in our thinking that helps us to know, to relate and to have meaningful interactions and institutions.
In consciousness studies, we look for measurable physical correlates of qualitative non-physical conscious experiences. The contention is that discrete conscious experiences could be localized and identified by their neural correlates. Whether the neural correlates are also the neural causes of conscious experiences is an issue debated within this camp. This method also helps to trace the evolutionary path of consciousness starting from its primordial beginnings (in terms of functions).
How much of a conscious experience could be identified and localized by its neural correlate is an important question. The discussion on this question would bring forth the quantitative and qualitative distinctions vivid in a conscious experience. Do brain need to be the center of focus for understanding consciousness, might also emerge as a question to be looked into. At the same time, unless we identify cortical areas and limit to neuronal functions, a matching of cognitive abilities and degrees of consciousness cannot be possible. To match brain functions and degrees of consciousness is a major step towards understanding the complexity of not only human behavior and intelligence but also life as a whole. But then, how far can we reach by such a ladder of linear and hierarchical steps? Will we be able to find all the missing links? Will we be able to understand the qualitative jumps made and the vast differences between kinds of consciousness (such as: waking, dream, deep sleep; conscious, unconscious, subconscious; attitude, personality traits, identity)?
4.2: Ways to Knowledge and Ways to Transformation
There seems to be two kinds of pursuits: The first kind is that which attempts to generate, classify and categorize knowledge for building institutions and understanding various levels of complexities in human behavior. The second kind is that which does not follow a structured database, but which attempts to transform existing patterns of thinking and experience. The distinction between ways to knowledge creation and ways to transformation is well spelt out in the area of consciousness studies. Therefore, understanding consciousness in terms of degrees of intelligence and thereby degrees of self-awareness (based on cognitive and social functions) is as important as practices and philosophies that focus on the transformation of states of mind and experiences. Neural mechanisms and even their artificial simulations to cause specific experiences are indeed significant to be understood. Their understanding is considered significant since it leads to the removal of myths created about the ethereal continuity of consciousness. Reducing conscious experiences to their neural mechanisms, causes and cortical areas, according to this camp, is tantamount to reducing something (self) mistaken as qualitative to quantitative.
This reductionism is good enough to have the focal understanding about consciousness and, based on which, to have a better classification of intelligence ranging from humans to other animals to machines. But is the problem fully grasped and accounted for by that attempt? If we look a bit closer, the answer is 'No'. The problem about consciousness is not just about having different kinds of conscious experiences and their explanation in terms of neural causes and correlates. Had been the case reductionism would have solved the mystery underlying the phenomenon.
The problem of consciousness is less about conscious experiences and more about the conscious experiencerR. Based on brain, we might be able to map the history of life and evolution of human intelligence. But, unfortunately, this mapping will not be sufficient to understand the principal nature of consciousness namely self-orientation (Menon, 1999). The problem of self is not even the problem of degrees of self-awareness (which is accounted by cognitive abilities and social intelligence) but is the problem of self in and by itself. Ways to understand neural mechanisms underlying conscious experiences and ways to transform states of mind and experiences are distinct by method as well their ultimate goals. The goal of the first being scientific knowledge about life and intelligence and the second being spiritual inquiry. The distinction between these methods and goals also brings forth two levels of complexity in consciousness, of the 'I' and of the 'experience'.
4.3: The 'who am I' question
Since it is not in accordance with the usual norms of scientific thinking, the question relating to the nature of consciousness pertains to its phenomenological functions (neural and cognitive) and physico-chemistry which can be specified and quantified, and not to its ontology. The ontology of consciousness necessarily involves qualitative factors and understanding, which would then emphasize not the many-ness of conscious experiences but the uniqueness of the conscious experiencer or what is easily available to us as our 'I-ness'. The 'who am I' question (See Saddarsanam of Sri Ramana Maharishi) could open new avenues to the understanding of consciousness, and herald a different approach (from locating conscious experiences) to spiritual enquiry and transforming states of mind.
4.4: The One Face and Two Looks
If the question about 'I-ness' is significant to understand consciousness, then what is the meaning of neurobiological and other locus-specific approaches to consciousness? Are they opposed to self-approaches or even redundant? We can say that the answer is negative. The two approaches, though distinct by their very nature and method, are equally meaningful. We might even consider that the complexity of consciousness would see some light of unraveling only in the corridors where the two approaches would meet and be complementary to each other.
The complexity of consciousness is such that it is simple in the context of the experiencer, but intricate when the experience is analysed. Therefore it is likely that the first person approaches would contribute to the growth and transformation of the human self and third person approaches to the generation and application of knowledge about human intelligence and life as a whole. In both the cases, we should remember that the complexity about consciousness lies not in its nature but in understanding its two distinct and different expressions of the 'experiencer' and the 'experience'. The 'Face' is simple. The two 'Looks' are complex and difficult to understand.
4.5: Intention, Integration and the Irreducible I-ness
It is difficult to understand the two varied expressions of consciousness because they are different in terms of their production, function and evolution. Much of the discussion in the circles of philosophy and science is centered on the intentional mode of consciousness (Varela, 1999) and its production (or qualitative nature). For some reason it is forgotten that many a times human lives are guided by the habitual (social and psychological) ways of responding to situations and unintentional consequences of human actions (See Brahmasutra Adhyasa Bhashya of Adi Sankaracharya). The intentional act and thinking and the non-intentional act and thinking: both have meaning, when we look at the human mind, since they are co-coordinated, structured (Menon, 2001) and given a continuity by their belonging to an 'I-ness'. This 'I-ness' is irreducible.
Intentional and non-intentional acts and thinking could as well come under the purview of philosophical and neurobiological analysis. But the 'irreducible 'I-ness' is transcendental to even a meta-level of understanding and is purely experiential and self-oriented.
Our conscious experiences could be the product of our intentional or non-intentional acts and thinking. Analytical knowledge about them also is the product of the intentional mode of consciousness. What is often missed in attempts to understand consciousness is the categorization of the 'irreducibility' of consciousness in terms of 'I-ness'. Reductionism could work only in the level of intentionality. The irreducibility of 'I-ness' could be appreciated better if we introduce the 'integral' mode of consciousness (See Bhagavad Gita Ch.13 Bhasya of Adi Sankaracharya). We not only (intend to) know and experience. We also integrate that which is known and experienced to a larger self. What is beside both the intending and the integrating is (yours and mine)'I-ness'.
4.6: Self-exploration and the unavoidable mystery about consciousness
The mystery about consciousness is the mystery about its 'belonging' to a self. This mystery is unavoidable to the extent we try to understand the integral mode of consciousness and the simple given-ness of your 'I-ness' and mine. We can understand consciousness as far as it is represented and reported. It would be equal to saying that the story is complete at it introduction, if we conclude that the problem of consciousness is answered by its representations. Representations cannot replace the original. And therefore the reported cannot be confused with the original. However intricate and interesting the reported is it would be unwise to think that the original has nothing more to it than its representations.
Understanding consciousness is continuous self-exploration. Knowledge about consciousness does not work in a linear and causal fashion. Self-knowledge is transcendental. Therefore understanding consciousness would be also by exploring the many possibilities of human self and mind, than the convenient addressing of it as a figment of imagination. What is interesting and worthy of exploration is to look at what is beside both the intending and the integrating mode of consciousness. Focusing on the duality (intentional and integral mode) of consciousness might result in epistemological circularities until and unless we look at what is 'beside' both the modes, which is the 'I-ness'. To see the 'wave' is to see the 'sea'. To see the 'sea' is to see the 'wave'. To see what is beside both is to become one with the non-dual.
What was attempted in this discussion was to look whether the duality involved in the understanding of consciousness is basic. Intentional and integral mode of consciousness could be better explained and the epistemological circularity involved in duality-approaches could be avoided if we include a third factor of 'I-ness' which is non-linear, alocal and acausal, and hence metaphorically described as 'beside' in this paper. The mystery about consciousness is that it is self-oriented. Breakthroughs in consciousness research could happen if we encourage self-exploration and spiritual enquiry as well along with third person approaches.
My Pranaam to H.H.Swami Bodhananda* for many insights without which this paper would not have been possible.
I am grateful to Dr. Matthijs Cornelissen for inviting me to the Second International conference on 'Integral Psychology' at Sri Aurobindo Ashram**, Pondicherry where I had presented the first draft of this paper.
* For more details See www.sambodh.org
** For more details See www.sriaurobindoashram.org
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Sangeetha Menon, PhD
National Institute of Advanced Studies
Indian Institute of Science Campus
Bangalore 560 012