By Christian de Quincey January 2006 We possess some innate capacities for learning: the scientist’s gift of the senses, the philosopher’s gift of reason, the shaman’s gift of alternative states of consciousness, and the mystic’s gift of transcendental experience. Why do some people get excited when discoveries in science appear to validate profound insights from the world’s great spiritual traditions? Why turn to science to bolster belief in essentially spiritual insights? One of the hallmarks of science – and the main reason for trusting scientific knowledge – is that it is both empirical and experimental. Science tests its theories and thereby produces reliable, predictable, and practical knowledge. Why should we trust that just because science says so, we are more likely to have a truer explanation of reality than we get from spiritual or mystical experience or insight? In certain ‘moods’ or more intuitive states of mind, I find myself deeply trusting and valuing spiritual wisdom, accepting that it offers a profound understanding into the ultimate nature of reality. Nevertheless, there is something reassuring in knowing that science also reveals a similar understanding of the world. One reason, I think, is that science is widely accepted in modern society as the legitimator, the ultimate arbiter, of what is real. Yes, we know that science has its limitations and blind spots, but overall it does a very good job of exploring our world and presenting us with usable and repeatable knowledge. But how? What is it about science that enables it to produce such pragmatic and practical knowledge – knowledge that empowers us to change our world (for good or ill)? Well, the most distinctive mark of science is not merely that it tests its theories, but that it tests by measurement. Science works because it uses a methodology that extracts information from the world by measuring it. And measurement removes guesswork. If done with precision and accuracy, it yields repeatable, reliable, reusable knowledge. What does it mean to measure something? Basically, it is a process of assigning numbers to physical quantities by using a standard for comparison (like a ruler, a scale – some metric). Science is a method for quantifying and measuring physical reality, and equipped with such data we are empowered to manipulate the world, to adapt it to our needs and desires. In short: we trust and value science because it works. Paradox of ScienceI think it comes down to this: We trust science because it possesses the tools to explore, measure, and explain happenings in the physical world – the world of things we need for surviving and thriving. From the perspective of day-to-day living, the physical world is the real world. It contains the objects that we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch – the world revealed to us by our senses. We have very good reasons for putting a lot of epistemological weight on what we learn and know through our senses. Knowledge not based on sensory input tends to be dismissed in the modern world as ‘speculative’ or ‘imaginary’. And if it is not tested, then why should we believe it tells us anything about the real world – why should we take it as ‘knowledge’ at all? Science makes sense because it is based on what the senses reveal, and is tested by rigorous experiments. But anyone involved in consciousness studies knows that the sense-world is not – and cannot – be the whole story. There is a curious paradox here. The only reason our senses can give us data about the world is because the process of measurement involves and requires a subject who experiences the sensory data. But the experience itself is not a sensory object or event that can be measured. Consciousness is not objective – its essence is subjectivity; it does not exist in the world as an object or a thing – and, therefore, it cannot be quantified. And so, ultimately, science relies on an aspect of reality that is beyond the reach of science. That’s the paradox. It’s what makes any scientific cosmology incomplete. In short, science is about the external objective world; but consciousness is interior, it is subjective. We turn to science for reliable knowledge about the external physical cosmos, but turn to spiritual traditions for knowledge and wisdom about the ‘inner’ cosmos of consciousness, mind, experience. To know how science knows anything, we need a different kind of ‘science’ – a science of consciousness, a ‘noetic’ science. All knowledge of the external objective world relies ultimately on non-objective consciousness. To develop a true science of consciousness – as distinct from a science of behavior or neural correlates of consciousness – we need to cultivate alternative epistemologies. We need to develop other ways of knowing beyond the senses and rational analysis. A ‘missing link’Another way to view this is to recognize that a science of consciousness will need to explore the profound and mysterious relationship between matter and mind, between energy and consciousness. One approach is to focus on information as the ‘missing link’ between energy and consciousness. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson left us with one of the most succinct and famous definitions of information: ‘a difference that makes a difference’ (Steps to an Ecology of Mind, University of Chicago Press, 2000). A ‘difference’ is, necessarily, a physical difference – whether it’s a difference in shape, color, texture, weight, length, sound, volume, temperature, altitude, and so on. All difference is physically instantiated, that is, in some way it involves changes in patterns of energy. Without difference in patterns of energy, there would be no distinction for us to perceive, and so no information. Even psychological differences – for example, differences in mood or emotion – are always correlated with some physical, typically electrochemical, substrate, whether hormonal or neuronal. Let me be clear, however: this is not to claim that neural events are, or produce, mental events. Brain or nervous (or endocrine) systems do not equal mind. Instead, I’m saying that mind or consciousness is always embodied in some form of matter/energy, and vice versa, matter is always ‘ensouled’. Matter is innately and intrinsically sentient. Matter feels. The Mystic’s Gift is beyond all expression in thought or language because it is not an object of knowledge. The point here is that mind and matter always go together – all the way down. Wherever there is matter, there is some degree or trace of consciousness, be it in single cells, molecules, atoms, subatomic particles, quanta, or superstrings – or whatever lies at the base of physical reality. And any difference registered in the mind is correlated with a difference in the world of matter. Again: all differences are instantiated in matter; differences involve changes in energy. But these differences alone do not yield information. For information to be present we need the added ingredient of a mind or consciousness. Information is perceived difference. And it is perceived because it stands out, is noticed, because it is significant – a difference that makes a difference. Without mind, without sentient beings, all the changes in the world, from the birth of time to the present moment, would never amount to one iota of information. Information is changes in energy read by the mind. So, in some curious way, information is generated at the ‘interface’ of mind and matter. It is neither wholly created by the mind (because it requires differences in energy), nor is it merely changes or differences in energy (because these differences must be ‘read’, perceived or experienced). Information requires both matter and mind. Perhaps we could say that information is differences in matter that show up as differences in mind. All information is, therefore, phenomenal – but not merely mental. Whereas neither mind nor matter can arise, evolve, or emerge from (or be reduced to) the other, information is emergent. It arises from the interaction of mind with matter, of consciousness ‘prehending’ (taking account of, or feeling) changes in the physical world. Along with consciousness and energy, information (as the reading by mind of differences in energy) is fundamental to the cosmos. Levels of learningHow do we ‘read’ patterns in energy to produce information about self and cosmos in such a way that we can overcome the seemingly contradictory or incompatible domains of scientific and spiritual knowledge? One way of dealing with this is to cultivate what I call the ‘four gifts of knowing’. I believe that we come into the world with different innate capacities or potentials for learning about ourselves and how we fit into nature. These capacities, or ‘gifts’, are: the Scientist’s Gift of the senses (and empirical methodology), the Philosopher’s Gift of reason, the Shaman’s Gift of participatory feeling and alternative states of consciousness, and the Mystic’s Gift of ‘transcendental’ direct experience, unmediated by the senses or conceptual processing, and often accessed via sacred silence. If we apply these four gifts to developing a science of consciousness, then the Scientist’s Gift opens the way for investigating what the brain is, how it works, and how it correlates with mind. It gives us data and descriptions. The Philosopher’s Gift enables us to talk about why we can know (or not know) what consciousness is, and why we can (or cannot) talk about it. The Philosopher’s Gift gives
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