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TUCoPS :: Wetware Hacking :: Others :: chconsc.txt

The Challenge of Consciousness Research


               Brian D. Josephson(1) and Beverly A. Rubik(2)

1)  Department of Physics, University of Cambridge, Madingley Road,
Cambridge CB3 0HE, U.K. (email:

2)  Center for Frontier Sciences, Ritter Hall 003-00, Temple University,
Philadelphia, PA 19122, U.S.A. (email:


The following article reports on ideas about how to study consciousness that
emerged during the course of the January 1992 Athens Symposium on Science
and Consciousness, one of the principal aims of the meeting being as far as
possible to escape from constraints on thinking about consciousness that
might be imposed by conventional modes of thought.  The first half of the
report discusses in general terms the question of opening up the mind to
wider ways of thinking, and this is followed by a more detailed compendium
of concepts and specific ways of proceeding.



Despite the great practical importance of consciousness, science has as yet
made little headway in understanding the phenomenon or even in deciding what
it is.  This article (based on a report that appeared in Frontier
Perspectives 3(1), 15-19, 1992 (published by the Center for Frontier
Sciences at Temple University)) attempts a synthesis of the variety of views
that emerged at a symposium attended by its authors that had as its aim the
exploration of some central issues concerning consciousness (the Athens
Symposium on Science and Consciousness, hosted jointly by the Athenian
Society for Science and Human Development and the Brahma Kumaris World
Spiritual University, held in Athens in January 1992).  Particular themes
utilised as focal points for discussion at the meeting included the nature
of reality and its relationship to consciousness, the adequacy of current
scientific approaches to consciousness, the role of intuition and
conditioning in scientific work, mind-brain interaction, the nature of human
identity, and the possible need for a new scientific paradigm and/or an
interdisciplinary science of consciousness. Disciplines represented among
the participants included physics, biology, chemistry, neuroscience,
psychology, philosophy, sociology, medicine, engineering, ecology,
parapsychology, mathematics, ethology and religion.  The meeting had as its
format five working groups reporting to a plenary session, as well as
plenary presentations by individual speakers.

The final sense of the meeting was that, given the difficulty of the tasks
placed before it, considerable progress had been made in terms of clarifying
the issues and in laying down a firm foundation for subsequent research.
One point on which there was general agreement was that the difficulties
that science seems to find when it attempts to address the phenomenon of
consciousness may be a consequence of the constraints that a restricted view
of scientific method imposes on any kind of investigations and analyses that
may be carried out.  Although there was a minority dissenting opinion to the
effect that quantum mechanics, if interpreted in the right way, might be
able to give an adequate account of consciousness, it was generally felt
that consciousness was so subtle that it would inevitably evade the forms of
description that conventional science provides. The results obtained by
other approaches would therefore have to be taken into account before we
could hope to achieve a full understanding of consciousness.

Studying Consciousness: General Principles

Consciousness itself consists of experience and reflection on experience,
which reflection amplifies an existing sense of being both agent and
experiencer, and permits the individual to construct a picture of reality,
as well as to develop concepts not only of the individual's own situation
but also of the corresponding experiences of reality of others.  From these
come in turn feelings of meaning and value.

The kinds of designations given in the above paragraph contrast noticeably
with those employed both in the neurosciences and in experimental
psychology.  The latter discipline refers to the category indicated in the
paragraph above as 'folk psychology', and does not accord it the same status
as it does data gained from a psychological experiment.  It cannot, however,
be denied that such descriptions have clear value, and are indeed
irreplaceable, within their own domain; consider, for example, how feasible
it would be to teach a person a difficult idea if we possessed no
folk-psychological concepts concerning other people.

To disregard such descriptions purely on account of their not being readily
accessible to the methods of science seems therefore to border on the
perverse. In a search for a more open concept of knowledge in general, it
was suggested at the symposium that an _insight_ might be an appropriate
correlate to a scientific fact.  In explication of this concept, insights
themselves come from experience and reflection upon experience, and given an
appropriate system of terminology can be communicated to others.  Moreover,
as with science, insights can be put to the test of experience in order that
their value can be ascertained.

There is one crucial difference, however, between the way that formal
science (as exemplified by specialities such as quantum mechanics) works and
the way progress occurs outside the scientific domain.  Within science, if
evidence is found against an hypothesis, there is a prevailing tendency to
call for its abandonment.  Outside science, an idea does not have to be
abandoned if it is found to be wrong once; it is simply noted that the idea
does not always work and that there are exceptions.  The idea may be a
valuable one nonetheless, a state of affairs that only the test of time can
tell.  Despite this loosening of standards, studies outside the domain of
science may be carried out systematically and in a way that involves
exposing them to the assessment of the general community concerned, just as
in science.  It was pointed out that clinical medicine exemplifies these
points well, in that it is a field where it is possible to draw conclusions
of great practical value from a collection of data that is ambiguous and
poorly controlled, and in addition encompasses experiential reports by

The idea that anything said about the natural world from outside the sphere
of science is less valuable than the results generated by science itself
seems to be a very deep seated one in our scientific culture.  Psychological
and sociological causes of this state of affairs, such as the value systems
imparted during the course of a scientific training, and fear of the
consequences if orthodoxy were to be left behind, were discussed.  It was
generally felt that much might be gained by a more broad-minded attitude,
integrating with science, to whatever extent may be possible, concepts that
have already been developed in other disciplines, and developing also new
syntheses both outside science and together with science.  But to engage in
such an endeavour in practice, as far as scientists and academics generally
were concerned, might necessitate very considerable changes in attitude on
the part of the participants, and the ability to put aside conventional
thought patterns that have come into existence in support of the standard
scientific method.  For example, science tends to be immediately critical of
new ideas and to demand, rather as in a court of law, clear formulation as
well as definitive proof of the ideas concerned.  An entirely different,
more empathetic attitude is indicated if the aim is to understand what there
may be of value in an insight that another person claims to have had.  It is
true that this alternative attitude is not totally absent from the
scientific process, but when present it has to fight hard against the
dominant adversarial posture. The ideal situation, but one hard to achieve
in practice, is for participants in a discussion to be in a spirit of
preferring to add to the ideas of others than to be critical of them and aim
to destroy them.

After this latter strategy for interaction had been conceived, attempts were
made to put it into practice at the meeting.  A notable change in style of
interaction followed as a result.  It became clear that participants to a
discussion could indeed, simply by changing their dominant style of
interaction, move into a mode where ideas focussing on an individual topic
could be accumulated without interruption, and synthesised into new
insights. It may be instructive at this point to include in illustration of
this theme extracts from an imaginary Socratic discourse, intended to convey
a feeling for the gradual change in the atmosphere of the meeting that
transpired as it progressed.  The discourse was written by one of the
participants, David Lorimer.

'Well, my friends, what have we learned?  I feel that a great metamorphosis
has occurred! We cannot erase our differences, and any attempt to do so
makes them more marked.  But we have seen the emergence of a deeper
collective intuition and intelligence from the silence that followed the
pain of our comparing our languages.  Language is a necessary tool of our
relationships, but we can easily become imprisoned in its constraints.  ...
We have discovered a new way of being together: a deepened awareness of
difference through entering into a relationship with each other for a while.
... We are faced with the challenge of developing these relationships,
rather than attempting to evade them either by asserting our own point of
view or by blurring the distinctions between us. No feelings of euphoria can
exonerate us from this responsibility. ...'

One factor that influenced the shift in the mode of interaction referred to
was discussion of the concept of complementarity, which may be rephrased in
the form, 'points of view that appear to be irreconcilable may in actuality
be perfectly consistent, and even conjointly necessary in order to do
justice to the phenomena'.  In such cases argument over who is 'right' may
well be unprofitable.  To take examples from the history of science, an
argument as to whether an electron is a particle or a wave would never have
led in itself to a satisfactory outcome since the truth is more complicated
than either.  Again, a dispute as to whether nature follows equations of
motion or principles of least action would be a fruitless one since the two
forms of description are mathematically completely equivalent.  The moral,
as far as discussions go, is that while one's own point of view may
sometimes seem to be clearly right and the other person's clearly wrong,
there may be nevertheless something to be gained by trying to understand
what underlies the point of view of the other person, and to try to
assimilate it to one's own.

One issue on which a certain amount of attention was focussed was that of
the connection between the scientist, the science that he or she does, and
the influence of the latter on society and on the environment.  Scientific
training tends to lead a scientist to see science as an activity integral to
itself, and accordingly isolated from everything else.  From this point of
view moral questions may seem to be irrelevant and only scientific ones
important.  The sense of separation of the scientist and his or her actions
from the wider world is reinforced by stating that others decide how
scientific discoveries will be used and that the consequences of scientific
discovery are in any case often quite unpredictable.  From this standpoint
of isolation the scientist can disclaim the relevance of moral issues to his
work.  It was felt that this attitude was misconceived.  In reality science
is not an isolated system, but a powerful force having profound influences
on both society and the environment. In view of this fact, science in
general and individual scientists in particular should concern themselves to
a greater degree than at present with the potential consequences of
scientific research to the individual, to society, and to the planet.

In the above, we hope to have given the reader a general indication of some
of the major issues discussed at the symposium.   Conventional science
relies exclusively on sensory channels for its informational input, and
therefore can tackle issues relating to consciousness only in a very
indirect manner, if at all while the humanities, on the other hand, deal
directly with conscious experience, and do concern themselves with its
subtleties and its meanings. These two approaches cannot be properly
integrated together if we try to preserve an absolute distinction between
science and non-science.  The discussions at the Athens symposium
demonstrated the degree to which distinctions made such as these are
conventional in nature, designed to suit particular purposes, rather than
absolute.  The concepts and working tools generated at the symposium,
leading to a perspective on knowledge which sees it as a unified whole of
which scientific knowledge is only a part (or a limiting case), provide an
escape from what may be regarded as an intellectual trap.

A Compendium of Conclusions

In the following, we have gathered together some of the main ideas discussed
in the group meetings and in the plenary sessions.  We hope that this list
will be useful both as a stimulation for those who have not been exposed to
these ways of viewing the problem before, and as a source of reference.

The main points on which there was fairly widespread agreement are the

(1)     The study of consciousness should be concerned not just with
definitions of consciousness but with descriptions of its mode of operation.
The phenomena of consciousness should be studied in the aspect of
subjectively lived experience rather than exclusively in terms of objective
data (as is most often the case with cognitive psychology).  As a result, an
extension is needed in the concept of what constitutes science, defined as
knowledge or the quest for knowledge.

(2)     The 'extended science' is envisioned as in principle a continuum of
activity ranging from science as it is currently practised to the humanities
and the arts, and possibly including insights that may be gained from
spiritual or religious practices.  It will explicitly include consciousness
in its many dimensions, including creativity; the use of symbol, myth, and
metaphor; the role of the feminine; the historical perspective; and
cross-cultural aspects.

(3)     There are many artificial dualities to be overcome by the extended
science.  These dualities or splits owe their origins both to contemporary
science and to the dominant paradigm, and include those between ourselves
and nature, mind and body, mind and matter, the feminine and the masculine,
the observer and the observed, science and values, inductive vs. deductive
logic, and philosophy and science.  In particular, science cannot be
divorced from philosophy, because one always brings some philosophy to bear
in one's thinking.

(4)       We need to move from the fragmentation that reductionism produces
to principles of complementarity and integration, from 'either/or' to
'both/and' thinking.  The conventional notion of causality as local and
physical needs to be broadened to take account of networks of causation,
non-local interconnectedness, and correlations.  The world has suffered from
the conventional fragmentary approach, its integrity violated by considering
only the parts and thus losing sight of the whole.  Again, it must be
recognised that no single language or approach can grasp the richness or
elusiveness of nature; thus the new science should be open to new and
multiple approaches.

(5)     While science has conventionally been regarded as an objective
endeavour leading to the truth about the nature of reality, we need to shift
our thinking towards regarding its insights as being context dependent, and
to recognising that all approaches to reality are value-influenced.  We need
actively to address the limitations of scientific approaches, verification,
and theories, and to find a place in our world view for personal knowledge
gained through introspection.  The importance of intuition as a contributing
factor in the process by which knowledge advances needs to be fully
acknowledged. Language itself can provide an effective means of exploring
quasi-objectively what has previously been characterised as being purely

(6)    The extended science will develop in its scope beyond the
conventional framework to the qualitative attributes of being and feeling,
and will stress the importance of quality as well as quantity.  The range of
scientific information will expand to include the anecdotal and the more
tenuous aspects of nature.  Ways of codification and utilisation of such
'soft' information need to be developed.  There is the recognition and the
acceptance that insights of the extended science occupy a domain that falls
in between ignorance and precise knowledge.

(7)     A radically different attitude needs to be cultivated in the new
science. The old humility (humus = the earth; hence humility = close to the
earth), awe,  wonder, and delight in the cosmos which is the beginning of
all science must be restored. These are critical to regaining a reverence
for nature.  We feel that the attitude that predominates in science at
present is arrogance, which has fostered dogmatism and scientism.  In doing
science, we should let the phenomena speak for themselves, rather than
forcibly imposing our hypotheses on the phenomena.  The importance of the
scientist's attitude towards his or her work, preconceptions, and deeper
motivations must be stressed.   Effects, however subtle, of the experimenter
on the experiment are to be anticipated and must be examined; thus
self-examination on the part of the experimenter must be included as part of
the scientific process so as to make the processes of description more

(8)     There is a novel role for the scientific collective in the new
science. A newly emergent group creativity, perhaps involving a 'group mind'
that exhibits camaraderie and cooperativeness in regard to solving problems
in addition to the creativity of the individual should be nurtured,
recognising that the power of the harmonious group is complementary to
traditional Western individualism.

(9)     Any studies on consciousness must acknowledge the inherent wholeness
and unity of the body/mind, and equally avoid losing sight of the total
person. The holistic point of view, contrasting with the admittedly highly
successful alternative of assuming a Cartesian split and operating under
largely reductionistic principles, seems essential in order to study
consciousness in its full subtlety, and to explore its deep
interrelationship with the realm of the physical.

(10)    The foundations of contemporary science, and its limitations, should
be taught to and understood by all scientific practitioners.  While the
uniqueness of both individuals and groups presents difficulties for the
formalising a science of consciousness, consciousness studies are to be
regarded nonetheless as having equal status to the physical sciences.

(11)    The new science, as science with both consciousness and conscience,
will concern itself with the consequences of science to the individual,
society, and the whole world: it is a science for the integrity of both
people and planet that should be translatable into action.  The potential
value to life of the discipline as a whole should not be compromised by the
pursuit of more limited goals. At a personal level, the new science should
help people be able to comprehend themselves and their place in nature,
facilitate the development of empathic processes which aid mutual
understanding, and enhance the meaning of life for individuals and for

These points call for a considerable change in the ideology and methodology
of contemporary science.  They presume a significant shift in consciousness
within both the community of scientists and society.

Fertile areas for future inquiry include the nature of reality and how best
to understand it, the nature of consciousness and relationship between mind
and brain.  Some participants argued that consciousness emerged from brain
processes, others that consciousness was intrinsically non-physical and
interacted with the body.  Human identity was defined by some in terms of
physical and biological substrates interacting with our sociocultural
background and conditioning; others preferred to see our intrinsic identity
as metaphysical, even if physically based and conditioned. Some participants
advocated an interdisciplinary science of consciousness extending beyond
that of the existing cognitive sciences, while others favoured a different
approach that would instead utilise the results of the sciences whilst
remaining outside the constraints of science itself.


We are grateful to David Fontana and David Lorimer for making available to
us their own written accounts of the symposium.  In addition, William Braud,
Deborah Delanoy, Nick Herbert, Robert Morris, Steven Rosen and Marilyn
Schlitz have provided helpful comments on preliminary drafts of the report.
The presentation of the ideas in this report to some extent reflects a point
of view developed in discussions in a subgroup in which the authors of this
report participated, the other members of this subgroup being Deborah
Delanoy, David Fontana, Rolf Sattler, Roger Taylor, and Danah Zohar.

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