Welcome to my world

The View from Within

October 15, 1999

When I look out at the world two things seem obvious - at least superficially. First, there is a real world out there. You and I can agree about what is happening, and make scientific measurements of it. Second, there is my private and personal experience of this world. This we can never share or measure scientifically. Or can we?

People have tried. A hundred years ago the great American psychologist William James laid the groundwork, and arguably we have made little progress since then. Early this century the introspectionists tried and failed. Then for decades behaviourism swamped psychology with its insistence on dealing only with measurable behaviour and rejecting all talk of consciousness. Only recently has the scientific study of consciousness begun again, and this book is one of many that try to push it forward.

The View from Within is a reprint of a special issue of the popular and eclectic Journal of Consciousness Studies . It consists of an editors' introduction and several papers each on introspection, phenomenology and contemplative traditions, followed by about 20 brief commentaries by psychologists, philosophers and therapists. This is very much an academic book, but a wide-ranging one. Its aim is to explore methodologies for tackling consciousness from the inside.

The least useful of these methods seems to me to be phenomenology. What these chapters left me with was the thought that Husserl's followers have not done justice to Husserl's own "reduction", to the "epoch ", to his systematic method for suspending judgement and returning to immediate experience. Perhaps he really did train himself to drop conceptualisation and experience phenomena directly. If so, as Piet Hut points out, this is a move that is ubiquitous in contemplative training. Yet nothing his modern proponents say suggests to me that they have trained themselves this way. Perhaps their task is something else, but if so I am not sure what. Most frightening to me are the psychiatrists who write about the use of Husserlian reduction in psychiatry without apparently ever considering whether the patient has benefited in any way.

The effect on the person is precisely the point of the arduous training of the contemplative traditions. Alan Wallace describes how the gradual cultivation of samatha in Tibetan Buddhist training leads through nine attentional states, culminating in blissful, non-conceptual, one-pointedness. Although the aim of this training is personal transformation, this scheme lends itself to the kind of scientific investigation of consciousness advocated by this book. We can ask: what happens when people seriously practise paying attention to what is going on in their minds? Does the method always lead through the same stages? Can they be detected physiologically? Are different people's descriptions similar? And these questions can potentially be answered by research. One stumbling block is that the research needs people who have undergone, or are prepared to undergo, a rigorous and long-term training. Fortunately there are many, and their descriptions of wordless experiences are recognisably similar.

This makes the wordy hermeneutic objections seem all the more vacuous. Jonathan Shear and Ron Jevning discuss the experience of pure consciousness or contentless awareness. Such experience cannot, by definition, be dependent on culture or words. Obviously those who think they can argue it away have never had it.

I disagree fundamentally with Gregory Nixon's view that nothing universal or of scientific value can emerge from one's self-study, or that spiritual revelations are based in the conceptual imagination and can bring us no new knowledge. When he argues that any experience which does not separate an inner subject from an outer world is non-conscious, or that undertaking deep abstract cognition must either make us non-human or involve creating a new version of self and more symbol processing, I just think "try it".

The dispute really amounts to this. Some people think that if we practise dropping concepts, being fully in the present and paying attention, we will all come to different experiences - dependent on our culture, words and prior concepts. In other words the exercise is pointless and logic can reveal it to be so. Others think that we will all end up at the same place,acquiring valuable skills and knowledge along the way, and probably going through a series of recognisable stages in getting there. Put this way, it is clearly an empirical question. And that is the whole point of first-person approaches to the study of consciousness. I agree with those who think that we can do science this way, that we shall find out consistent facts about experience, and that we already have the beginnings of methods for doing so.

But is this really so different from other "third-person" approaches in science? Max Velmans thinks not. He points out that all observations rely on someone's experience. Events can be objective in the sense of being inter-subjective - but so can people's descriptions of their inner states and experiences. There is no real dividing line here but only a false dualism. As the editors finally conclude, the supposed sharp boundary between subjective experience and the objective world may be as misleading as the sharp boundary between "dead" and "living" matter once was.

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

The View from Within: First-Person Approaches to the Study of Consciousness

Editor - Francisco Varela and Jonathan Shear
ISBN - 0 907845 30 4 and 25 8
Publisher - Imprint Academic
Price - £.00 and £15.00
Pages - 313

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