Heaven only knows

Approaches to Consciousness
November 26, 2004

The title Approaches to Consciousness has two meanings - one, the intellectual approach of experiment and theory, the other, the personal endeavour found in spiritual and mystical traditions. Brian Lancaster weaves the two together, mainly by juxtaposing the findings of neuroscience and psychology with teachings from Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism.

His summaries of competing scientific theories are well organised and clear. The main problem lies in the way that Lancaster has chosen the mystical texts. As he does not give reasons, one suspects it is mainly a matter of personal preference. He argues that the mystical teachings have a common core, and his explorations into notions of emptiness, contentless consciousness and the self are very useful.

Yet there remains a great danger here. There are countless ancient teachings, with so many of them inscrutable or ambiguous to the untrained eye that it is possible to take any current scientific theory and find mystical teachings to fit. This problem is exacerbated by the inclusion of psychodynamic theory, which is notoriously open to multiple interpretations.

Lancaster ends up with a supernatural, dualist theory, with “transcendent reality” accounting for subjective experience. He cites evidence for the possibility of consciousness without a functioning brain (including near-death experiences that have been adequately explained in other ways) and contends that the explanatory gap between brain and consciousness “cannot be incorporated within the remit of cognitive science”.

This highlights a serious omission in that he seems to dismiss the major materialist positions in neuroscience held by thinkers such as Francis Crick and Daniel Dennett. They argue that when we understand enough about the brain, the explanatory gap will disappear, just as the “problem of life” disappeared long ago.

Even so, this book provides a far better summary of current thinking than most books about consciousness, and I recommend it for that purpose, though it is by no means a conventional
textbook.

Susan Blackmore is visiting lecturer in psychology, University of the West of England.

Approaches to Consciousness: The Marriage of Science and Mysticism. First edition

Author - Brian L. Lancaster
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 341
Price - £52.50 and £17.99
ISBN - 0 333 915 6 and 916 4

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