Consciousness and the Current Scientific Model


One question that has always fascinated me is what exactly is ‘consciousness’ and where does it fit into reality? I know that consciousness is the underlying ‘awareness’ we all have inside our minds and out of which everything we experience arises. Smells, tastes, colours, emotions, thoughts.

Our attention, which arises out of our consciousness, determines everything we do – the direction of our lives, and what we focus on. Have you ever asked yourself how much of your reality is experienced internally (subjectively) and how much is sensory perception of the external? It must be at least half and half, right? And yet we know almost nothing about what consciousness is that carries all this out.

Are humans the only ones with consciousness? Our pets certainly seem to have a level of consciousness too. Perhaps also plants, trees, and the natural world, – not conscious as we are but conscious in a less developed sense. Something that enables change and growth. Has consciousness evolved along the lines of Darwinian theory? And does this mean it will continue to evolve beyond where humans are right now? It’s the only thing we have which is with us permanently from birth to death throughout our lives. That sense of awareness that I am, an “I”. A “subject” that is looking out at all other ‘objects’ in the world – people, places, things etc. That “I” is the centre of our own reality.

The funny thing about that though, is that most long term meditators, mystics or great philosophers like Aristotle, Plato or Plotinus and also modern teachers like Eckart Tolle or Sadgaru tell us that time spent looking within, directly at our own consciousness, or doing any form of self-inquiry (“who am I”?) will eventually lead to that sense of “I” completely disappearing. All that’s left then, is awareness or pure consciousness which is demonstrably “there” but has no physical qualities we can describe.

Paradoxically that process of disappearing yourself has the capacity to produce bliss, peace, and wellbeing. The health benefits of meditation are well documented. How odd that losing your sense of self could create such a feeling? And all the while, this experience is completely internal, completely subjective, unseen, and unknown to anyone else. We know from history and from ancient and modern writings, that there is a kind of inner journey you can go on, when you explore your own mind and consciousness. A series of steps starting with the bliss feelings most of us can easily reach in mediation. With more practice, this then deepens further into sensations and feelings of being one with nature (“I was looking at the mountain then suddenly I ‘became’ the mountain”). The final stage of this process is a complete dropping away of all sense of subject and object (me and everything else) altogether. The “I” or the witness inside your mind completely disappears and yet consciousness and awareness still remains. No longer am I an “I” or a ‘subject’ experiencing other ‘objects’. I am just pure awareness. This seems to come with the unshakable knowledge for those who experience it, that everything and everyone is actually just one thing! Sounds quite ridiculous doesn’t it! And yet this internal experience is well documented by many people over the course of human history and through many cultures all over the world.

What is this all about? Eckart Tolle describes his own experience of this as a young man who was deeply unhappy and who, out of nowhere had what he called an ‘awakening’ experience which involved his self-identity dropping away to reveal what he describes as an internal nondual experience of reality. So we know extreme suffering can trigger this state of human consciousness. We also know deep meditators achieve it.

It’s clear too, this phenomenological (inner, personal, subjective) experience of expanded consciousness is not limited just to religion or spirituality as we understand those words. Dr Martin Ball has made an extensive study into the use of psychedelics, in particular, 5 Meo DMT which seems to switch off parts of the brain that create the sense of self, taking a person from normal consciousness to a non-dual conscious experience just like the great mystics. Like the Buddha and Jesus both describe.

Interestingly, we know that when Jesus was asked by the people of the time when God was coming, he told them, “Behold! (look), the kingdom of heaven is within you”. When you strip away the accumulated hardened religious dogma that’s built up over time, and take a look at the founders of nearly every world religion, most of them appear to have had one or more altered states of consciousness experience that started the ball rolling. This all happened long ago, before the birth of modern science was available as a tool of understanding. Simply ignoring these experiences as moderns just deprives us of a piece of the puzzle of reality.

Dr Ball also reports that when subjects fight the trip experience, they can generally still hold on to their own sense of self and normal consciousness, suggesting there is an element of personal desire, will or surrender involved in these subjective experiences. The point I’m making here though, is that it does seem that this state of consciousness is latent within all human beings, an undiscovered aspect of our consciousness. A glimpse of our evolutionary future. Religion has attempted to interpret these experiences. Perhaps they are a part of a still undiscovered reality. Something we haven’t yet fully explored because access involves a turning inward, emptying the mind of all surface activity and chatter. Something we find hard to do. Plus, our formidable gaze has been primarily focussed for the last 300 years on the external world.

The current state of science is the purely external examination of the world (no subjectivity involved) and this has operated wildly successfully to date by only considering observable physical phenomena. Science can’t easily study consciousness because it’s a subjective internal affair. Our current scientific tools aren’t designed to study subjective consciousness. It’s why some scientists tell us that consciousness can’t actually be ‘real’ because it doesn’t fit within that scientific model (i.e., can’t be directly studied or observed so therefore cannot actually exist, – except as an unexplainable byproduct of physical matter). But look closely – this is just more magical thinking for something we can’t explain.

Neuroscience can now map certain brain synaptic neural correlations to certain states of consciousness like say hunger. And this is very valuable information but again completely external data. We’re still not getting close to it. This is quite different from “knowing” what consciousness is. We don’t know if these correlations are a cause or are an effect? We have no clear scientific model or explanation of what consciousness is. We can’t find any direct “cause” of consciousness anywhere in the physical brain itself. Scientists call this ‘the hard problem’ of science. It is the new frontier.

A further interesting question is that in quantum physics, science has bumped up against the fact that at the smallest level of reality, consciousness seems to play a role in physical outcome (Schrodinger’s Cat experiment). Our consciousness appears to be controlling an external outcome in this thought experiment! We also don’t really know what matter is made of at the smallest level. We know how the smallest particles behave, (what they do) their spin, mass, volume, etc by observing them but not what they are. We also know that like everything else in our world, they are primarily made up of empty space or “nothing”. Not disimilar perhaps to the nondual ‘nothing’ of the deepest internal meditative experience.

This is not a nothing as we understand that word to mean, but rather a nothing that holds ‘potential’. A nothing that seems to be a container for everything, just as our own consciousness is the nothing out of which all our personal experience arises. We know that without this ‘nothing’, there would be no conscious person even here to observe anything. That means this ‘nothing’ is in some way fundamental to reality.

So, sitting right at the very heart of physics is this unknown nothing that we know nothing about! We just talk of fundamental particles or strings and leave it at that. Is it possible that consciousness and matter are two aspects of the same thing and that this ‘no thing’ sitting inside atoms and molecules and quarks has something to do with it? I’m going to ask if this nothing might actually sit outside of spacetime as we understand it? Those people who have had a non dual experience describe it as sitting outside of the concept of space and time.

A deeper understanding of a human state of consciousness which collapses itself into non duality, may produce a clear link between the subjective and objective aspects of reality. In other words exposing a link between the human individual and everything else. That knowledge would completely change the way we view and understand reality, other people, other things. It would change the way we view the world and handle problems. Right now, we run around believing we are all separate beings, separate units of matter that somehow developed self consciousness. That’s where we are up to with the current world view.

But this isn’t what the world’s great mystics or many of the great thinkers and philosophers have said about the true nature of reality. It doesn’t hurt for us as modernists to stop for a minute and remember that all science, all knowledge, all our achievements have ultimately arisen directly out of the conscious subjective non observable realm of the human mind.

I am not suggesting we step back in time to magical thinking or to pre enlightenment days when we believed in a loving or a wrathfull God to explain reality. But rather a move forward. A process of including but also transcending previous ideas. Including the gains in knowledge while at the same time overcoming the need for everything to fall inside current concepts (I.e only objectively observed data is real, only rational thought can problem solve). We’ve lopped off at least half of our own experienced reality with the current approach.

We are now starting to turn our gaze to the unexplored inner subjective world of pure consciousness. That will create tools to understand how the subjective realm of consciousness fits into reality. We ourselves are made up of a subjective and an objective component (a physical body and a non physical consciousness). Does it not make sense that ultimate reality might be like this too?

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Source by Kristen Claire Jones

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