Consciousness Studies and a Transformation of the Western Worldview

Rays of light

Creative Commons/DigitalBobb.

In the mid-1990s, fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging devices) enabled researchers to begin mapping correlations between real-time brain activity and specific cognitive functions, thereby providing an empirical basis for the study of consciousness. Though it was a commonsense fact that we were conscious long before the invention of fMRIs, the lack of empirical proof meant it was taboo to speak or write of it as a scientific fact, and to do so was to jeopardize one’s career by garnering unflattering labels like irrational, flaky, New-Agey, etc.

For decades, humanities departments had been openly exploring subjective perspectives, inner voice, psycho-social dynamics, and altered conscious states, but in a culture that looks to physics and religion for its ultimate truths about reality, these explorations were regarded as mere entertainments. Discovering a consciousness-related physical effect that could be observed, measured, and tested in repeatable trials finally sanctified the subject of consciousness and, in the wake of these empirical blessings, a new interdisciplinary field arose with the enthusiastic character of the Wild West. From physics, biology, cognitive neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, computing and artificial intelligence, health and medicine, religion and spirituality, and from literature and the arts, adventurers have come to stake their claims in the wide-open territory of consciousness studies.

Staking Claims in the New Field

Adventurers have come to the field of consciousness studies bringing a variety of skills, ideologies, and intelligence types, and they have come for many reasons. Some with empirical intelligence have come to prove or maintain the superiority of science, to uphold the honor of empiricism in the face of the science-resistant mysteries surrounding consciousness. Some from this camp go so far as to assert that the rich, perspectival, interrelational aspects of conscious experience are an illusion, because neither brain imaging nor the rules and maxims of empirical science can fully account for them. Some with spiritual intelligence have come to the field to reinvigorate their religious wonder. They use the interrelational nature of our conscious condition and its unusual resistance to empirical reduction to reconfirm their faith in a higher power. To enter the field is to step into an explanatory turf-war between science and spirituality. The science camp defends the study of consciousness from those who would muck it up with the irrational mysteries of faith and the interpretive vagaries of spiritual dogma. The spiritual camp defends the subject matter from the meaning-stripped tests, measurements, and physical reductions of the godless empiricists.

Mule with consciousness

Some consciousness studies scholars seek to prove the specialness of human cognition, ignoring signs of awareness and intention in other species. Credit: "Mad Mule" (pencil and mixed media, 2004) by Pamela Blotner (

Some members of both camps have come with either the conscious intention to prove the special-case self-image of humankind or with a subconscious intuitive defensiveness regarding the superiority of human cognition over the cognitive capabilities of other living systems, intentionally or inadvertently focusing the whole of their analytical fervor on humanity’s many miraculous and inexplicable cognitive achievements, particularly in comparison to other primates. Some of these humans-as-a-special-case asserters regard the brain as the centerpiece of the field of consciousness studies. They focus exclusively on the physical, chemical, electrical, and quantum processes within the human brain, asserting that these represent entirely sufficient explanations of our conscious condition. Special-case asserters exclude important details from their inquiry: they neglect manifestations of awareness and intention in other living systems; overlook the cognitive capabilities relevant to participation in the complex social structures of other species; disregard the inter-accommodative exchanges between species; and, even closer to home, ignore the vital manifestations of intercommunication and inter-accommodation that take place in other parts of our own bodies—exchanges in and between cells and tissues and organs, for example, not all of which are regulated by the brain. As important as it is to our self-understanding and in the treatment of brain-related illnesses, focusing exclusively on the human brain obscures the relevance of our socially embedded condition and discounts the interrelational nature of our conscious characteristics.{{{subscriber|2.00}}}

Many adventurers have come as concerned operators of a conscious mechanism, hoping to better understand the vagaries and complexities of their own minds, their own startling behaviors, the interpretive and sometimes deluding nature of their own perception, as well as the unpredictable, unknowable minds and behaviors of others. They seek answers to the mysteries of conscious and subconscious processes within themselves and bear the well-defended ideological claim that the subjective nature of conscious experience is all we can ever know (about consciousness or about anything else). Theirs is an ideology in stark counterpoint to empirical method, which explicitly and categorically excludes subjective perspectives in the pursuit of objectivity.

And still others come to the field with the pragmatic and heartfelt spirit of reconciliation, asserting the need for creative compromises, either between the divergent ideologies of distinct fields of interest, or between opposing beliefs within themselves (professional ideologies often conflict with private beliefs). Most of these creative compromises force science into a relationship with religion. Yet ultimately, any approach that allows for the notion of eternal mystery proves unsatisfying in the scientific sense, and deferring even in part to physical proofs reduces the ecstatic texture of spiritual wonder. Some ideologies do not mix very well. And the fact that consciousness manifests in such unique qualities, characteristics, and dynamics makes it all the more elusive and resistant to crossbred ideologies, particularly when the ideologies being combined were designed for other purposes (for control and certainty in the physical realm; for faith, inspiration and ethics in the spiritual realm). Unfortunately, despite a universal impulse toward cultural relativity (i.e., the notion that all beliefs are sacred to those who hold them, which thus compels us to respect one another’s ideological differences), the reconciliation contingent has provided the field neither unity nor explanation.

New Efforts to Unify the Field

The field of consciousness studies has emerged as a giddy mix of belief assertions all protected by a code of cultural relativity. This exuberance, while marvelous in its own right, frustrates those wishing to develop a distinct ideology unique to the subject matter, prevents the field from coming together in ideological unity, and forestalls its manifestation as the self-and-world transforming field of endeavor we all know it can be. We are at an important tipping point in which an alternative approach to the problem of unifying the field must be considered. Some see the need for a significant conceptual reorientation, rather than forcing reconciliations of existing ideologies designed for other purposes. Many are coming to the conclusion that what we are talking about when we talk about consciousness is a cognitive dynamic that precedes and supersedes our beliefs and ideologies—a cognitive dynamic that is integral to the formation of any belief about anything.

Even among physicists, who have been the staunchest defenders of their discipline’s explanatory supremacy and of its right to describe reality to the masses, important voices are admitting that cognition is more primary than physical models, and thus more important in an explanation of reality. In The Grand Design (2010), Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow write: “There is no way to remove the observer—us—from our perception of the world, which is created through our sensory processing and through the way we think and reason. Our perception—and hence the observations upon which our theories are based—is not direct, but rather is shaped by a kind of lens, the interpretive structure of our human brains.”

The admission that cognition is fundamental to conceiving physical models of the world, coming as it does from our top physicists, provides the opening we need in order to explain our subject matter on its own terms rather than in the language and metaphors of the physical sciences. This admission opens a space for a new explanatory scenario in which consciousness can be understood as a world-modeling dynamic—a scenario in which cognitive processes are understood as inherent to modeling a self/world relationship, and in which cognition would therefore be understood as an integral aspect of being a living thing. This echoes and reinforces what radical biologists were attempting to convey long before the advent of fMRIs (and who were thus dismissed as New Age flakes for failing to provide empirical proofs). In Autopoiesis and Cognition (1979), Humberto Maturana writes, “Living systems are cognitive systems, and living as a process is a process of cognition.”

Ultimately, relinquishing the primacy of physics from our analysis of consciousness bodes well for the field of consciousness studies. But clearly this is not an easy ideological leap to make while holding firmly and habitually to the Western belief that reality is a physical manifestation and/or a spiritual representation. The corresponding beliefs about consciousness (that it emerges from physical processes in the brain or that it is a numinous spiritual attribute, a sign of our unique relationship with the divine, an exclusively human capability, etc.) prevent us from comprehending a cognitive dynamic of awareness and intention that is ubiquitous throughout nature, and which is neither physically reducible nor divine in origin. Our culture’s currently held physical and spiritual beliefs about the world do not help us identify and map a realm of cognitive dynamics in terms that are relevant to its unique qualities and characteristics. And without a subject-appropriate map of the cognitive realm, we cannot expect to build a cohesive and effective field of consciousness studies.

Consciousness as a World-Modeling Process 

Fortunately, an increasing number of researchers are recognizing the primacy of consciousness and are entertaining the notion that awareness and intention are at the center of forming an internal perspectival model of an external world, and that this modeling process is essential to functioning as a living system. Awareness and intention (and therefore consciousness and cognition) are at the service of modeling a creature-appropriate version of the world (a model appropriate for successful biological engagement). Living systems model a version of the world for specific life purposes. We too are living systems caught up in the same process—not a special-case species in that sense. Under the influence of this unfamiliar ideological approach, the belief structures of the Western world can be understood as refined articulations of the same world-modeling scenario found throughout nature. Our human beliefs show up as world-modeling tools with finer language, a more articulated sense of self-reference (and self-importance), more explicit and complex concepts, and more elaborate cultural institutions and architectures. Unlike the world models of other life forms, ours is more fully and widely accessorized with the fruits of our handiwork—the countless physical and meaningful manifestations of our individual and cultural belief investments. Yet ultimately, the human model, though far more elaborate, is not so very different in basic structure or purpose from the simpler world-modeling formulations of other living systems.

Figure with chakras

Many scholars come to consciousness studies to explore the mysteries of their own interior experience. Compromises between those who bring different motivations and ideologies to the study of human consciousness often force science into an uneasy relationship with religion. Creative Commons/The British Library (Sapta Chakra, 1899).

In order to function, a living thing must shape and invest in a unique conceptualization of the world, a conceptualization that allows for the organism’s own volitional success. It must orient its unique morphology in a physical format suitable to its own volitional capabilities. In every living example this physical configuration of space is elaborated with self-attributions of meaning and value sufficient to allow an organism to successfully maneuver not only within a theater of physical action but also within a theater of meanings and dynamics unique to its own needs and purposes. Each organism operates in a theater scaled to its own cognitive and strategic capabilities, a theater of interrelations unique to the socio-environmental circumstances of a specific species. All organisms, humans included, participate in the formulation of a configuration space that has both physical and meaningful dimensions. The process of meaning attribution occurs when the physical objects and circumstances an organism encounters are value-tagged (judged positively or negatively in relation to its own biological survival) in order for the organism to form life-promoting (extinction-avoiding) reactions and behaviors. (For the simplest of examples: toxins and predators are value-tagged bad; prey, nutrition, and mating situations are value-tagged good.) The values and meanings required to successfully maneuver the living world do not require linguistic representations to be useful, and despite eluding the empirical reductions to physical, measurable, observable, testable proofs, the uses of values and meanings are nonetheless vital to the dynamic process of being a living thing and must be included in a fuller explanation of our condition.

Because the ideologies behind physics and religion were designed for other purposes, they prevent a clear understanding of even the most common and widely shared cognitive characteristics: awareness and intention. Adhering to our culture’s predominant beliefs while attempting to analyze the uses and manifestations of consciousness prevents us from comprehending and describing the process of belief formation itself (a process in which awareness and intention are deeply implicated, a process that produces physical and spiritual beliefs as pragmatic world-modeling orientations). When physical and/or spiritual precepts are held firmly in our minds as absolute truths, we are prevented from formulating an explanatory perspective that would be based upon the logic of cognitive dynamics itself—a logic incorporating beings and their awareness of their environment; beings and their awareness of the cognitive and strategic attributes of other beings; beings and their awareness of socially embedded meanings; and so on. Neither religious teachings nor the empirical reductions of science were designed to account for this uniquely cognitive dynamic. This dynamic accounts for life-appropriate interrelationships rather than only focusing on distinct objects, causal forces, and divine interventions as holding firmly to the precepts of science and religion causes us to do.

An Origin of Cognition Narrative

A perspective that can account for cognitive characteristics requires its own central narrative along the lines of the story used to illustrate biophysical logic (the evolution of species narrative) or the stories used to illustrate spiritual logic (creation narratives). An understanding of the logic of cognitive dynamics can be greatly enhanced by formulating a version of an origin narrative similar to the familiar biophysical evolutionary narrative, but which emphasizes incremental cognitive adaptations. Such a narrative is needed to illustrate how cognitive characteristics developed incrementally from configurations of awareness and intention supporting life-processes in the primordial soup to the configurations of cognitive complexity supporting and shaping human life. In the course of that long adventure, awareness and intention are shaped and reshaped into ever newer cognitive structures that suit the world-modeling needs of a particular species in a particular niche. These are not physical structures but rather the scaffolded uses of adaptively upgraded awareness types (awareness of a self/world boundary, awareness of a one-after-the-other linear order of events, awareness of specific volitional capabilities, etc.) that by logical necessity must accompany all biophysical developments. In fact, it is the presence and use of cognitive characteristics (awareness and intention) that make all physical adaptations possible. Without some modest form of cognition (an awareness of the environment and an intention to do something about it), there would be no physical adaptations in the living world.

An origin of cognition narrative is a necessary step in the development of the field of consciousness studies and should prove an invaluable tool for illustrating an ideology unique to this field—thereby uniting and organizing the various academic and scientific interests around a common theme and purpose. The story of biophysical evolution has shaped our understanding of biology, genetics, anthropology, paleontology, and psychology by providing the ideological structure around which such distinct and varied fields have organized themselves. Similarly, a story of our biocognitive evolution can shape our understanding of awareness, intention, cognitive dynamics, the mind, the psyche, social dynamics, learning, and brain function. An origin of cognition narrative can be used to organize the otherwise disjointed, chaotic, ideologically contentious areas of interest currently clashing around the subject of consciousness. And an origin of cognition narrative can flesh out areas of biology and evolutionary theory that, under the thrall of empiricism, have remained denuded of the cognitive dimension. By including our cognitive inheritance in our origin narrative we can understand ourselves and our condition—as well as the condition of other living things—in a new way.

A clearer explanation of cognition emerges by recognizing the uses and applications of awareness and intention in all living systems and then drawing some commonsense conclusions regarding the evolutionary emergence of more complex cognitive phenomena in nature and in ourselves. The conclusions will not necessarily be familiar or comforting as humanity is once again knocked from its self-idolizing pedestal of universal specialness. Yet an origin of cognition narrative, by illustrating a logic inherent to the evolution of our conscious condition, can provide commonsense solutions to the conundrums that so plague the founding of this promising new field. Of all our current endeavors, the field of consciousness studies has the greatest potential to change the course of the human adventure, and to do so in an astoundingly positive direction.

The process of mapping the interrelational, inter-accommodative characteristics of beings and meanings can provide us with a more objective and durable view of ourselves and our condition. We are an integral aspect of a holistic inter-accommodative living system—a system that includes all life on the planet and that encompasses every order and scale of biological organization, from cells to individuals to social structures to species to ecosystems. We are a living system held in interrelationship by grace of cognitive characteristics (awareness and intention).

Toward Greater Equality, Justice, and Sustainability

Conscious characteristics and dynamics, when cogently described, provide a new understanding of our condition and can thus form the basis of a viable and objective belief system. In addition to elucidating the evolution of cognitive dynamics, embracing the truths of our conscious condition can provide a firmer foundation for fairer and more sustainable political and economic structures—polities and economies that better support and reflect the new and daunting interrelational, inter-accommodative responsibilities of humankind. Despite its attractions and comforts, the Western worldview has serious explanatory deficits and is increasingly perceived as psychologically, emotionally, intellectually, economically, politically, ecologically, and spiritually unsustainable. Thus, to form this new field of endeavor (requiring, as it does, a shift in our beliefs) is equivalent to forming a commonsense interrelational view of self and world based on the qualities, characteristics, and uses of consciousness throughout nature. A well-reasoned and well-articulated explanation of our conscious condition that illustrates our inter-accommodative interdependence can ease the transition into what has quickly become humanity’s daunting new responsibility: to create and inhabit an ethos of global and ecological justice, a code by which we can all live equitably and sustainably.

The field of consciousness studies is in the position to provide our global culture the explicit knowledge that all living things are related, not only by a common biophysical and biocognitive ancestor in the primordial soup, but also via the commonality of awareness and intention amongst all living things in the here and now. A view of ourselves as part and parcel of the larger empathic, interrelational entity called life (rather than as part of a mechanical universe as described by physics, or of a human-centered cosmos as described by religion) can help us to normalize behaviors that reflect this altered and expanded notion of reality. This would perhaps result in a fairer distribution of rights and resources and enable otherwise distinct cultural self-interests to unite behind the impulse to protect and steward ecological resources in a way that is equitable to all of life’s varied manifestations. In a universe of mostly inanimate matter, the unusual emergence of what are our most common biocognitive traits (awareness and intention) is something extraordinary—something to be focused on and celebrated. Empiricism and spiritualism obstruct our vision of the cognitive realm and prevent us from acknowledging, much less celebrating, the biocognitive traits that animate life and propel the survival narratives of all living things. The prevailing beliefs of the Western world prevent us from seeing ourselves as inheritors of cognitive characteristics or as part of a unified whole (as integral aspects of the interrelational dynamic of the living world, the likes of which we have been unable as yet to find anywhere else in the universe).

In order to formulate an ideology in which consciousness can be properly explored and explained, the field of consciousness studies is obliged to contradict Western cultural beliefs. In so doing, consciousness studies can provide our global community the revised worldview it requires in order to transform itself into an interrelational, inter-accommodative entity capable of saving the living world and advancing the human adventure with sustainable beliefs and behaviors.

(To return to the Spring 2012 Table of Contents, click here.)

Christopher Holvenstot writes about science and consciousness and champions ongoing theoretical developments in the field of consciousness studies. He is currently finishing a book, The Origin of Cognition: The Evolution of Sentience from Single-Cell Organisms to Human Brains.

Source Citation

Holvenstot, Christopher. 2012. "Consciousness Studies and a Transformation of the Western Worldview." Tikkun 27(2): 40.

tags: Consciousness, Culture   
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