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Can Science Understand Consciousness?

Meditations (Spirituality) - From Martin LeFevre in California

Can Science Understand Consciousness?

The study of human consciousness is all the rage in scientific and philosophical circles lately. Only a few years ago people who delved into the questions of consciousness were relegated to the fringe.

Most theories of consciousness begin with feigned veneration at how mysterious the phenomenon of subjective experience is, and how difficult a problem consciousness is for science to solve. To my mind, the notion of consciousness being an impenetrably enigmatic problem indicates a misunderstanding of both science and subjective experience, resulting from an overvaluation of both.

When philosophers and scientists talk about consciousness, they are almost always obsessing over the question: How and why is there the ‘I’ that experiences the redness of a rose, the smell of earth after a rain, or the notes of a Mozart concerto?

The privileging of both the self that experiences things, and the science that is studying how the self does so, sustains mysteriousness--the counterfeit idea of mystery. Ironically, that’s the antithesis of science, which decries and resolves mysteriousness. There is a mystery about subjective experience that needs to be solved, to be sure, but there is no wonder in it.

There is something infinitely regressive, if not humorous, about researching consciousness, since the same instrument that is the object of research is doing the research. The inherent circularity of the problem of studying consciousness does not seem to occur to most philosophers and neuroscientists however.

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Science is the study of objective phenomena through observation, experiment, reason, and evidence. Making an objective phenomenon out of subjective experience means either that subjective experience is an illusion open to objective study, or that the study is hopelessly circular, or both.

Subjectivity presents a scientific and philosophical conundrum. As philosophers say, information processing doesn’t just happen ‘in the dark;’ it happens with conscious experience. (Given the toxic levels of darkness human consciousness has produced, outwardly and inwardly, that is also an ironic way of putting it.)

The first question, it seems to me, is: Can consciousness, as we usually know it (that is, symbolic mediation of experience through the program and conditioning of the self), be scientifically studied and understood? To a significant degree yes, but there must first be a sound philosophical explanation of consciousness. Otherwise the right questions cannot be asked, and experiments and observations will remain circular, simply confirming the implicitly or explicitly held ideas scientists have about consciousness.

I read recently where one philosopher said, “to make progress on the problem of consciousness…I first isolate the truly hard part of the problem, separating it from the more tractable parts.” He goes on to describe, with no hint of self-awareness, how he “divides the associated problems of consciousness.” This is an example of what I mean by circularity, and unawareness of implicitly held assumptions about consciousness.

‘Higher thought’ is the basis of consciousness as we usually know it. The function of thought is to separate, store, and manipulate ‘things’ in the environment. Therefore to speak of ‘dividing’ and ‘isolating’ one part of consciousness from another is to fail to understand the essential nature of thought-consciousness.

The entirety of consciousness cannot ever be understood through ‘separating’ and ‘isolating’ its various factors. And since there is no science without doing so, we are confronted, in studying consciousness, with the intrinsic (though not extrinsic) limitations of science.

Consciousness is more than the sum of the performance of functions, and awareness is more than the totality of the contents of consciousness. As anyone who knows an unaware person realizes, it is quite possible to be functionally capable without having awareness of what one is doing.

But just as it is possible to have consciousness without awareness, it is possible to have awareness without consciousness. There is an experiencing without the mediation of self, symbols, and memories. Can such awareness be studied objectively, dissected and reduced, or combined and completed? Obviously it cannot.

Negating the observer through passive watchfulness, the observation of consciousness leads beyond the subjective experience of the self, to the capacity of the brain for timeless awareness of the sublime. As Einstein said, “Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature, and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable.”


- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: The author welcomes comments.

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