TWM

Noetic Sciences Review, Spring 1993, page 14-16
Two Liberating Concepts for Research on Consciousness 
Willis Harman 

Editor’s note: The Institute’s Causality Project, in which several dozen scientists and philosophers are re-examining the metaphysical foundations of modern science, has generated a number of papers and reports. This note is based on contributions by Max Velmans, Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths’ College, University of London, and Eugene Taylor, Associate in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. 

The scientific exploration of our experience of consciousness 1 has long been hampered by two obstacles
Of course scientists have improvised ways of dealing with these two obstacles so that for much of practical science they don’t get in the way. For example, research on the effectiveness of analgesics, such as aspirin, is accepted in spite of the fact that pain is a personal, subjective experience. Similarly, effective research has been accomplished on topics like imagery, emotions, and dreams which draw from data on subjective self-reports. The conscious will of the experimenter is assumed to be explainable in terms of scientific laws viewed in a larger framework. And "paranormal" phenomena are typically explained away on bases of non-replicability, assumed faulty observation, or probable collusion and fraud.

Still, the situation has hardly been satisfactory. Causation-from-consciousness, unquestioned in our everyday experience or in a court of law, is mainly unacceptable as a scientific concept. And psychic phenomena, near-death experiences, insight of a spiritual or mystical nature–experiences which have the power to change persons’ lives–tend to be explained away or otherwise disposed of when serious scientific investigation is proposed. 

Two concepts have recently come to light which may help resolve this predicament–one new, the other revived from the respected writings of William James. The first involves a different model of perception; the second a different criterion for admission of scientific data

Re-perceiving Perceiving 2
In the conventional model of perception by a Subject (S), as viewed by an Experimenter (E), light rays from a physical object stimulate S’s eye and activate various nerves and regions of the brain associated with sight. The result is the experience of perception by the Subject. The Experimenter infers that S has an experience because the Experimenter can turn to the same physical object and have an apparently similar experience. From the Experimenter’s perspective, the object is public, objective and observable–hence the scientific investigation of the object being observed, and S’s neurophysiology, is straightforward. But S’s experience is not public, objective and observable–and thus scientific research on S’s experience is held to be difficult and questionable. 

In a recent paper Max Velmans claims this apparent problem is simply the result of a confusion rooted in the assumption that we know something about the "real world out there". According to Velmans, we never actually know anything about the "real world" other than our own experience of perceiving it. He proposes a different model of perception

Consider again the Experimenter (E) viewing a situation in which a Subject (S) is perceiving an object. But let us take a more sophisticated view. Research on perceptual illusions and "virtual reality" has demonstrated that the world we ourselves experience is a projection based on clues from "out there". Representations of external events do actually form within the subject’s mind, but the mind models the world by projecting its own experiences out to the judged location of the events they represent. With this "reflexive" model of perception, the phenomenal world is a representation in the mind which only seems to be "out there". Being part of consciousness, the phenomenal world cannot be thought of as separate from consciousness. The phenomenal world, the experienced world, is just a representation; it cannot be the "thing itself". 

Standard science assumes that the things it studies are objective and public. Max Velmans’ reflexive model reminds us that the individual’s phenomenal world is private to each human being. Privately experienced "things" may also be "public" to the extent that they can be generally shared. And to the extent that an experience can be shared, it can form part of the database of a communal science. Such shared–inter-subjective–agreement is a proper objective for science, rather than some illusory observer-free "objectivity". 

If the observation is sufficiently repeatable, inter-subjectivity can be established by agreement. For example, scientists experience no difficulty in agreeing upon the characteristics of a rainbow, despite the fact that every observer sees a different rainbow formed by a different set of raindrops. 

Within this model, the phenomena we call "physical" are just a subset of the things we experience. Within this model the traditional gulf between perspectives of Subject and Experimenter is narrowed. In reductionist science the perspective of Experimenter has dominated. This in effect denies the legitimacy of S’s experience while asserting the legitimacy of E’s experience of S. In the reflexive model the experiences of Subject and Experimenter are equally legitimate: Subjects’ experiences can form a database for science if they are potentially sharable, inter-subjectively validated, and in some sense repeatable. 

The "Radical Empiricism" Of William James 3
James’ work has been honored by intellectual historians, but little noted by empirical scientists. However, with his concept of "radical empiricism" he may have come closer than any other scholar to defining the appropriate epistemology for research on human consciousness. 

In James’ view, every explanation about reality is undergirded by a metaphysical system, whether overtly stated or simply implied. Even in the most air-tight system, as he said, "the juices of metaphysical assumptions leak in at every joint". He anticipated our growing realization that the positivism that has dominated science up to the present should not be viewed as a "given", free of philosophic bias, but rather should be seen as a presupposition, to be tested by its fruits. Its uniqueness rests in the fact that it implies a metaphysics of physicalism; that is, it assumes a relationship between consciousness and the material world which excludes all explanations not cast in physical terms.

James’ radical empiricism, on the other hand, implies a metaphysics of experience. It admits data from the senses, and thus includes within its purview the experience of the physical world. But it also encompasses the broad spectrum of inner realities found within the subjective life of the person. In his Essays in Radical Empiricism James defines his term thus: "To be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced." 

Radical empiricism deals both with reality and how we take it. Nothing within the totality of human experience is excluded from being a potential topic of scientific investigation; however not all claims may be ultimately verified as being scientifically validated and having a direct effect on the physical world. How widely James meant this to be applied is indicated by the fact that he was involved for 25 years with exploration of psychic phenomena, spiritism, and religious experience. He did not buy into the doctrines of enthusiasts in these areas, but he did insist that the experiences are appropriate data for a complete science.

Radical empiricism is ultimately pragmatic. There must be some sorting mechanism which differentiates and weighs the value of a variety of experiences, and that standard in the radical empirical view is always outcome–which occurs in the actual arena of living. Experiences, ideas, and consequences all contribute to the emerging understanding which comprises science. Persons’ descriptions may differ from one another, so consensus is always partial. Science’s accounting of nature is always incomplete and tentative; scientific models and theories tell only a partial story.

James put forth his ideas with the assurance that human factors eventually had to be figured into any scientific endeavor. However, his arguments were not persuasive enough to stand up against the enormously successful results of the scientific mind set in creating a single–and thus by James’ definition limited and incomplete–conception of reality in modern culture. James died before he could articulate the details of his metaphysical system, and few other scientists took up the same concern. His arguments may fall on more accepting minds these days, when the shortcomings of a materialistic worldview are more widely apparent.

The metaphysic of radical empiricism has important implications for the process of science-making, especially the problem of consciousness. As James argued, science and the systems of mathematical laws that allegedly govern causality can hardly have an existence independent of the human mind. Thus it is a fundamental illusion to think that we can know about the world of matter with a system of science which essentially omits, and seems even to deny, consciousness.

At the core of his radical empiricism, James resolves the dualism of the mental and the physical by asserting that one should not be subsumed under the other. Rather, he believed that no external world of objects can exist except as a function of some consciousness. This means that there can be no objective science without human consciousness to create it; no world of causal mathematical laws except insofar as they are a product of human thought. If this is true, then what contemporary definitions of objective science do is clearly not to banish subjectivity, but to hold the discussion of consciousness in abeyance. When the conscious awareness of the scientist is conditioned by training to look outward only, the present form of science may seem to offer a reasonable worldview. But when consciousness turns back upon itself and attention turns inward, not only is another realm of experience added to the picture, but a new order to external reality may be seen. The observer is changed in the process; never again can certainty be placed in the articulation of absolute laws that leave this factor of consciousness disregarded.

• First, our experience is personal (subjective) and therefore does not meet the commonly accepted criteria for data in scientific analysis–it is not public, objective, and replicable. 

• Second, much of subjective experience does not appear to fit comfortably into the accepted scientific worldview. (For instance, the common-sense assumption that conscious volition is "causal"–that my choosing can cause things to happen–conflicts with the scientific assumption of a deterministic universe in which consciousness plays no role.)

Of course scientists have improvised ways of dealing with these two obstacles so that for much of practical science they don’t get in the way. For example, research on the effectiveness of analgesics, such as aspirin, is accepted in spite of the fact that pain is a personal, subjective experience. Similarly, effective research has been accomplished on topics like imagery, emotions, and dreams which draw from data on subjective self-reports. The conscious will of the experimenter is assumed to be explainable in terms of scientific laws viewed in a larger framework. And "paranormal" phenomena are typically explained away on bases of non-replicability, assumed faulty observation, or probable collusion and fraud.

Still, the situation has hardly been satisfactory. Causation-from-consciousness, unquestioned in our everyday experience or in a court of law, is mainly unacceptable as a scientific concept. And psychic phenomena, near-death experiences, insight of a spiritual or mystical nature–experiences which have the power to change persons’ lives–tend to be explained away or otherwise disposed of when serious scientific investigation is proposed. 

Two concepts have recently come to light which may help resolve this predicament–one new, the other revived from the respected writings of William James. The first involves a different model of perception; the second a different criterion for admission of scientific data. 

New Promise For The Exploration of Consciousness
With these two concepts of (a) recognizing the uniform way of dealing with all experience/data, whether it be "objective" or "subjective", and (b) the criterion of "radical empiricism" to govern the data admitted, two main obstacles to a comprehensive exploration of consciousness would appear to have been removed. Subjective experience can be given its place of honor alongside the experience of an "objective" world. No reported phenomena need be written off because they "violate known scientific laws". Because all subjective experience is included in the exploration, the researcher must be willing to risk being transformed in the process of exploration.

There is good reason to believe that such a study of consciousness is the next and most exciting frontier of science. Liberated from the two obstacles that have plagued such attempts in the past, it can transcend the limitations of present psychology and cognitive science. 

Notes
1. We are here using the word "consciousness" to connote the totality of consciousness and potentiality; conscious states of mind, not in the limited sense of "conscious awareness" only.
2. This discussion is based on Max Velmans, "Consciousness, brain and the physical world", Philosophical Psychology,
Vol. 3, No. 1, 1990; 77-99.
3. This discussion is based on Eugene Taylor, "Radical empiricism and the conduct of research", The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, Jane Clark (ed.) to be published by the Institute of Noetic Sciences in 1993.


 
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