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 (pamelablotner.com).

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. ...

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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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