What one of the problems we have in discussing
consciousness scientifically is that consciousness is irreducibly subjective. This is a point
that many philosophers have made – Thomas Nagel, John Sorrell, David Chalmers. While
I don’t agree with everything they’ve said about consciousness I agree with them
on this point that consciousness is what it’s like to be you. If there’s an experiential
internal qualitative dimension to any physical system then that is consciousness. And we
can’t reduce the experiential side to talk of information processing and neurotransmitters
and states of the brain in our case because – and people want to do this. Someone like
Francis Crick said famously you’re nothing but a pack of neurons. And that misses the
fact that half of the reality we’re talking about is the qualitative experiential side.
So when you’re trying to study human consciousness, for instance, by looking at states of the
brain, all you can do is correlate experiential changes with changes in brain states. But
no matter how tight these correlations become that never gives you license to throw out
the first person experiential side. That would be analogous to saying that if you just flipped
a coin long enough you would realize it had only one side. And now it’s true you can
be committed to talking about just one side. You can say that heads being up is just a
case of tails being down. But that doesn’t actually reduce one side of reality to the
other. And to give you a more precise example, we
have very strong third person “objective measures” of things like anxiety and fear
at this moment. You bring someone into the lab, they say they’re feeling fear. You
can scan their brains with FMRI and see that their amygdala response is heightened. You
can measure the sweat on their palms and see that there’s an increased galvanic skin
response. You can check their blood cortisol and see that its spiking. So these now are
considered objective third person measures of fear. But if half the people came into
the lab tomorrow and said they were feeling fear and showed none of these signs and they
said they were completely calm when their cortisol spiked and when their palms started
to sweat, these objective measures would no longer be reliable measures of fear. So the
cash value of a change in physiology is still a change in the first person conscious side
of things. And we’re inevitably going to rely on people’s subjective reports to understand
whether our correlations are accurate. So the hope that we are going to talk about consciousness
shorn of any kind of qualitative internal experiential language, I think, is a false
one. So we have to understand both sides of it subjective – classically subjective and
objective. I’m not arguing that consciousness is a
reality beyond science or beyond the brain or that it floats free of the brain at death.
I’m not making any spooky claims about its metaphysics. What I am saying, however, is
that the self is an illusion. The sense of being an ego, an I, a thinker of thoughts
in addition to the thoughts. An experiencer in addition to the experience. The sense that
we all have of riding around inside our heads as a kind of a passenger in the vehicle of
the body. That’s where most people start when they think about any of these questions.
Most people don’t feel identical to their bodies. They feel like they have bodies. They
feel like they’re inside the body. And most people feel like they’re inside their heads.
Now that sense of being a subject, a locus of consciousness inside the head is an illusion.
It makes no neuro-anatomical sense. There’s no place in the brain for your ego to be hiding.
We know that everything you experience – your conscious emotions and thoughts and moods
and the impulses that initiate behavior – all of these things are delivered by a myriad
of different processes in the brain that are spread out over the whole of the brain. They
can be independently erupted. We have a changing system. We are a process and there’s not
one unitary self that’s carried through from one moment to the next unchanging. And yet we feel that we have this self that’s
just this center of experience. Now it’s possible I claim and people have claimed for
thousands of years to lose this feeling, to actually have the center drop out of the experience
so that you just rather than feeling like you’re on this side of things looking in
as though you’re almost looking over your own shoulder appropriating experience in each
moment, you can just be identical to this sphere of experience that is all of the color
and light and feeling and energy of consciousness. But there’s no sense of center there. So
this is classically described as self- transcendence or ego transcendence in spiritual, mystical,
new age religious literature. It is in large measure the baby in the bathwater that religious
people are afraid to throw out. It’s – if you want to take seriously the project of
being like Jesus or Buddha or some, you know, whatever your favorite contemplative is, self-transcendence
really is at the core of the phenomenology that is described there. And what I’m saying
is that it’s a real experience. It’s clearly an experience that people can
have. And while it tells you nothing about the cosmos, it tells you nothing about what
happened before the Big Bang. It tells you nothing about the divine origin of certain
books. It doesn’t make religious dogmas any more plausible. It does tell you something
about the nature of human consciousness. It tells you something about the possibilities
of experience but then again any experience does. You can – there’s just – people
have extraordinary experiences. And the problem with religion is that they extrapolate – people
extrapolate from those experiences and make grandiose claims about the nature of the universe.
But these experiences do entitle you to talk about the nature of human consciousness and
it just so happens that this experience of self-transcendence does link up with what
we know about the mind through neuroscience to form a plausible connection between science
and classic mysticism, classic spirituality. Because if you lose your sense of a unitary
self – if you lose your sense that there’s a permanent unchanging center to consciousness,
your experience of the world actually becomes more faithful to the facts. It’s not a distortion
of the way we think things are at the level of the brain. It’s actually – it brings
your experience into closer register with how we think things are.