|2010-07-13, by John Ringland|
I see two approaches to this issue and will introduce them by
briefly describing the context and development of each, showing how
one leads into the other. I have endeavoured to keep this as simple
and concise as possible for a subject of this depth.
1) Naïve Realist Approach
Naïve realism is a cognitive
habit operating in each moment of awareness that causes the mind to
assume that the subjective objects of experience are in fact
objective external objects. Thus when I see a chair in front of me I
simply assume that this is because there is a chair in front of me. I
do not question the perceptual forms that arise in the mind, nor the
conceptual categories that I habitually associate with those forms.
Hence this form of realism is called naïve, because it is an
unconsidered and merely assumed epistemological position. When it is
expressed as a consciously held philosophical belief it is called
direct realism. (Google Naïve Realism http://bit.ly/ckESDk
& see Naïve Realism, its Ramifications and Overcoming
We then look out from this perspective of "being me"
upon an "external physical universe". It may turn out to be
true, but at this point there has been no evidence whatsoever. There
has only been the accumulation of beliefs arising from naïve realist
assumptions about the contents of subjective awareness. Thus the mind
“conforms to a self-reproducing closed loop of hidden assumptions”
(W.D. Pedue http://bit.ly/bH5jmP
This keeps the cognitive and cultural discourses unwittingly bound
within a naïve realist framework.
What Is Consciousness?
From this stand point we claim that we are physical organisms and
that the brain implements consciousness via neural activity. Then we
ask ourselves "What is consciousness?"
From this perspective it is known to science as a 'hard' problem,
because nobody really has a clue how to answer it or even how to work
towards an answer. There are many working on the 'easy' aspects, such
as how do neural networks function and so on. But nothing from these
fields can address the 'hard' problem of experiential awareness.
“The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of
experience. When we think and perceive, there is a whir of
information-processing, but there is also a subjective aspect. As
Nagel (1974) has put it, there is something it is like to be a
conscious organism. This subjective aspect is experience. When we
see, for example, we experience visual sensations: the felt quality
of redness, the experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in
a visual field.” (David Chalmers http://bit.ly/aMlz6a)
Furthermore, the whole underlying paradigm is beginning to fall
apart. For instance, each attempt to locate and study 'matter' has
proven it not to exist.
"Let us now return to our ultimate particles and to small
organizations of particles as atoms or small molecules. The old idea
about them was that their individuality was based on the identity of
matter in them... The new idea is that what is permanent in these
ultimate particles or small aggregates is their shape and
organization... They are as it were, pure shape, nothing but shape;
what turns up again and again in successive observations is this
shape, not an individual speck of material..." (Erwin
“[Thus] modern philosophical materialists attempt to extend the
definition of matter to include other scientifically observable
entities such as energy, forces, and the curvature of space. However
this opens them to further criticism from philosophers such as Mary
Midgley who suggest that the concept of 'matter' is elusive and
poorly defined.” (Wikipedia – Materialism http://bit.ly/bHiIpB)
“To some degree skepticism manifests itself in the scientific
method, which demands that all things assumed as facts be questioned.
But the positivism of many scientists, whether latent or open, is
incompatible with skepticism, for it accepts without question the
assumption that material effect is impossible without material
cause.” (The Columbia Encyclopedia)
Empirical science only claims "that a good theory need only
provide an empirically adequate description of observable phenomena"
(Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Rationalism vs. Empiricism
It doesn't claim to be able to ascertain any kind of truth but
rather it only claims to have phenomenological adequacy regarding
descriptions of our perceptions of things. This means that empirical
science is fundamentally unable to address any questions of ontology
(what actually is) and it can only address questions of phenomenology
(that which appears to the human mind).
“Empiricists claim that sense experience is the ultimate source
of all our concepts and knowledge” (Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy, Rationalism vs. Empiricism http://bit.ly/9JZrtj)
Because of this reliance on the objects of sense perception, which
are unquestioningly assumed to 'be' external objects, empirical
science has succumbed to naïve realism and subtly devolved into
Scientism. See more on Materialism http://bit.ly/agvCGd.
This is because empiricists did not question the nature and
validity of sense experiences, or of the mind that is having them,
but merely took them as being representative of being a person in a
Naïve realism itself has been challenged by philosophy,
psychology and neuroscience, and now quantum mechanics has proven
beyond all doubt that naïve realism is a false epistemology that
provides false knowledge of reality. The Stern-Gerlach experiment
particular drives this point home.
Thus there is a paradigm shift happening!
“There is a major ’dangerous’ scientific idea in
contemporary physics, with a potential impact comparable to
Copernicus or Darwin. It is the idea that what the physics of the
20th century says about the world might in fact be true.” (C.
And quantum physicists are making startling claims that are backed
up by undeniable evidence.
“We have no satisfactory reason for ascribing objective
existence to physical quantities as distinguished from the numbers
obtained when we make the measurements which we correlate with them.
There is no real reason for supposing that a particle has at every
moment a definite, but unknown, position which may be revealed by a
measurement of the right kind... On the contrary, we get into a maze
of contradiction as soon as we inject into quantum mechanics such
concepts as carried over from the language and philosophy of our
ancestors. . . It would be more exact if we spoke of ‘making
measurements’ of this, that, or the other type instead of saying
that we measure this, that, or the other ‘physical quantity’.”
(E. C. Kemble http://bit.ly/9FSNJN)
“ “[W]e have to give up the idea of realism to a far greater
extent than most physicists believe today.” (Anton Zeilinger
http://bit.ly/dhwPE4). . . By
realism, he means the idea that objects have specific features and
properties - that a ball is red, that a book contains the works of
Shakespeare, or that an electron has a particular spin. . . it may
make no sense to think of them as having well defined
characteristics.” (P. Ball http://bit.ly/dgeHYd)
It is not just particles and atoms that are governed by quantum
“Quantum mechanics is increasingly applied to larger and larger
objects. Even a one-ton bar proposed to detect gravity waves must be
analysed quantum mechanically. In cosmology, a wavefunction for the
whole universe is written to study the Big Bang. It gets harder today
to nonchalantly accept the realm in which the quantum rules apply as
somehow not being physically real. . . Quantum mechanics forces us to
abandon naïve realism.” (B. Rosenblum and F. Kuttner
“If there is anything to be learned from the long history of the
epistemological debate, it is that the issue is by no means simple or
trivial, and that whatever is ultimately determined to be the truth
of epistemology, we can be sure that it will do considerable violence
to our common-sense view of things. . . In science, irrefutable
evidence triumphs over incredibility, and this is exactly what gives
science the power to discover unexpected or incredible truth.” (S.
And then there is also undeniable evidence coming from rigorous
experiments that “suggest that consciousness itself, unaided by
known physical mechanisms, can influence physical reality.” (PEAR
And the “results are unlikely by chance to the order of 10^−12
(one in a trillion).” (R.G. Jahn and B.J. Dunne
http://bit.ly/aZ7h45) That is more
rigorously proven than many commonly accepted scientific 'facts'.
Experiments have been conducted by the Princeton Engineering
Anomalies Research PEAR (http://bit.ly/d2y49v)
lab for over 30 years, using quantum random event generators (REG
machines http://bit.ly/aZVGXL). It
was shown that consciousness creates a field of ambient 'coherence'
that drives quantum processes away from randomness and towards order.
This can also be focused as intentional influence.
They found that bonds of love, meditation and so on strengthen the
measured deflection from randomness. Aligned minds merge into a group
field with greater influence. Influence can be projected without
attenuation regardless of separation in space or time between the
influencer and the influenced.
There is currently a network of REG's monitoring the coherence of
global consciousness, and collecting statistical data that shows
strong correspondences with world events.
"[Their] purpose is to examine subtle correlations that
reflect the presence and activity of consciousness in the world. We
have learned that when millions of us share intentions and emotions
the GCP/EGG network shows correlations. We can interpret this as
evidence for participation in a growing global consciousness. It
suggests we have the capability and responsibility for conscious
evolution. We make the world we live in, and if we Do No Harm, we can
help create a Planetary Smile.” (Global Consciousness Project
The PEAR project has ended but the International Consciousness
Research Laboratories ICRL are continuing and expanding the work.
Their “goal is to extend the work of PEAR into a broader range of
inquiry; to encourage a new generation of deeply creative
investigators to expand the boundaries of scientific understanding;
and to strengthen the foundations of science by reclaiming its
spiritual heritage. Ultimately, we seek to integrate the subjective
and objective dimensions of human experience into a self-reflexive
Science of the Subjective.” (ICRL http://www.icrl.org/home/)
Clearly the old paradigm cannot explain these phenomena. Thus
science is forced to shift away from a naïve realist, empiricist,
materialist foundation. Thus a new paradigm is needed! (Also see the
do the results of the PEAR GCP ICRL experiments say about
consciousness and how can we scientifically explain them?
Just as the phenomenon of the photo-electric effect marked the
dawn of the "quantum era" in science. These experiments and
others like them may mark the dawn of the "consciousness era".
See more on PEAR GCP ICRL http://bit.ly/bPbgPB.
Also see information about Remote Viewing http://bit.ly/bJ5hNn.
2) Non-Naïve Realist Approach
From a non-naïve realist
perspective, one remains staunchly sceptical (open enquiry, without
assumption or prejudice). What can be known for sure from this
“In reality there is no person, only the watcher identifying
himself with the 'I' and the 'mine'... you are not this, there is
nothing of yours in this, except the little point of "I am",
which is the bridge between the watcher and his dream. "I am
this, I am that" is dream, while pure "I am" has the
stamp of reality on it.” (Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, I am That
When "I am seeing a chair in front of me" this is
because "I am" and the content of awareness consists of
perceptual forms that the mind has come to associate with the idea of
a chair. Thus there is the interplay of sensory experiences and
associative (memory) experiences.
If I remain quiet and simply observe the contents of awareness I
find that there is ceaseless activity. If this activity is identified
with then awareness is carried off on some sequence of thoughts. By
bringing awareness back again to the space of awareness I can notice
that during that sequence, I was not aware of the space of awareness,
but only of the thoughts. Thus I was not aware of my self.
I can observe the structure of the contents of awareness and note
that some are associated with ideas such as me, body, mind, world,
chair, etc. As an experiment I can then cease bringing awareness back
into the space of awareness and I let it be carried off on one
sequence of thoughts after another, identifying with and
participating in the story of me, body, mind, world, chair, etc.
During this process I am wholly absorbed in the story of myself as
a person with a body and a mind, living in a world and sitting on a
chair. During this process I am not aware of the space of awareness;
the "I am", which is the only true certainty. Thus I have
lost sight of certainty and entered into a world composed entirely of
identifications with sensory phenomena and memory associations which
are interpreted through the lens of a “person in a world”.
"The person is merely the result of a misunderstanding. In
reality, there is no such thing. Feelings, thoughts and actions race
before the watcher in endless succession, leaving traces in the brain
and creating an illusion of continuity. A reflection of the watcher
in the mind creates the sense of 'I' and the person acquires an
apparently independent existence.” (Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, I am
There are other experiments that one could conduct as one's degree
of detachment increases, such as keeping awareness within the space
of awareness whilst the contents of awareness go through various
different processes (states of mind such as moods, ideas, sleep,
dreams, personalities, etc). In all these cases the contents of
awareness can change significantly, however the space of awareness
remains entirely unchanged. Just as a digital image leaves no trace
on a computer screen after it has gone. All kinds of phenomena can
play across the 'screen' of awareness, but awareness is not
influenced by the content.
"Go within, go beyond. Cease being fascinated with the
content of your consciousness. When you reach the deep layers of your
true being, you will find that the mind's surface-play affects you
very little... A ray of awareness illumines a part of our mind and
that part becomes our dream or waking consciousness, while awareness
appears as the witness. The witness usually knows only consciousness.
Sadhana (path leading to realization) consists in the witness turning
back, first on his conscious, then upon himself in his own awareness.
Self awareness is Yoga (union with existence).” (Sri Nisargadatta
Maharaj, I am That, http://bit.ly/bvBQYR)
What Is Consciousness?
By bringing awareness back to the space of awareness I can now ask
"What is consciousness?"
Whilst identified with the story of me, body, mind, world, chair,
etc it seemed as if consciousness was the mind with its personality,
perception, memory, intellect, etc.
However from the perspective of awareness within the space of
awareness, I realise that these are the contents of awareness and
that consciousness has its root in pure awareness, which "I am",
and it unfolds through myriad complex systems of perception, memory,
thought, etc into an elaborate cognitive memeplex that we call the
This however is not a form of solipsism, because although the only
thing that I am certain of is “I am”, at this level of awareness
there is a passage through to an expansiveness of universal
awareness. At this level of consciousness there is only one
consciousness, but its not 'mine' in a solipsist sense (the ideas
'me' and 'mine' are just contents of awareness) it is a universal
consciousness. See more on the relationship between individual and
universal consciousness http://bit.ly/9Ek6V6.
"When this supercontemplative state is reached, the Yogi
acquires pure spiritual realisation through the balanced quiet of the
chitta (thinking principle). His perception is now unfailingly exact
(or his mind reveals only the truth). This particular perception is
unique and reveals that which the rational mind (using testimony,
inference and deduction) cannot reveal. It is hostile to, or
supersedes all other impressions. When this state of perception is
itself also restrained (or superseded) then is pure Samadhi
achieved." (Yoga Sutras, Samadhi Pada, 47-51
To recap I'll summarise with a quote from the Lankavatara Sutra.
"So long as people do not understand the true nature of the
objective world, they fall into the dualistic view of things. They
imagine the multiplicity of external objects to be real and become
attached to them and are nourished by their habit energy. Because of
this system of mentation, mind and what belongs to it is
discriminated and is thought of as real; this leads to the assertion
of an ego-soul and its belongings, and thus the mind-system goes on
functioning. Depending upon and attaching itself to the dualistic
habit of mind, they accept the views of the philosophers founded upon
these erroneous distinctions, of being and non-being, existence and
non-existence, and there evolves what we call false-imaginations...
False-imaginations rise from the consideration of appearances;
things are discriminated as to form, signs and shape; as to having
colour, warmth, humidity, mobility or rigidity. False-imagination
consists of becoming attached to these appearances and their names...
The five sense functions and their discriminating and thinking
function have their risings and complete ending from moment to
moment... By setting up names and forms greed is multiplied and thus
the mind goes on mutually conditioning and being conditioned. By
becoming attached to names and forms, not realising that they have no
more basis than the activities of the mind itself, error arises,
false-imagination as to pleasure and pain arises, and the way to
emancipation is blocked...
By the cessation of the mind-system as a whole is meant, the
cessation of discrimination, the clearing away of the various
attachments, and, therefore, the clearing away of the defilements of
habit-energy in the face of Universal Mind which have been
accumulating since beginningless time by reason of these
discriminations, attachments, erroneous reasonings, and following
acts. Getting rid of the discriminating mortal-mind is Nirvana.
But the cessation of the discriminating-mind cannot take place
until there has been a "turning about"' in the deepest seat
of consciousness. The mental habit of looking outward by the
discriminating-mind upon an external objective world must be given
up, and a new habit of realising Truth within the intuitive-mind by
becoming one with the Truth itself must be established... With the
ending of pleasure and pain, of conflicting ideas, of the disturbing
interests of egoism, a state of tranquillisation will be attained in
which the truths of emancipation will be fully understood..."
(Lankavatara Sutra http://bit.ly/azCaUY)
How long will it take to get free of the discriminating mind?
“It may take a thousand years, but really no time is required.
All you need is to be in dead earnest. Here the will is the deed. If
you are sincere, you have it. After all, it is a matter of attitude.
Nothing stops you from being a gnani (knower of Supreme Knowledge)
here and now, except fear. You are afraid of being impersonal, of
impersonal being. It is all quite simple. Turn away from your desires
and fears and from the thoughts they create and you are at once in
your natural state." (Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, I am That,
then will you truly know what consciousness is. The answer is not a
description in words and ideas (which are just the content of
awareness) but a process by which to taste it and know it as your own
subjective space of awareness. Only then will the question “what is
consciousness?” be answered for you.
These words and others like them can guide one but only if one
realises that they are more than just words. All objects, people,
places and events are universal consciousness in action, and the
words of the sages are not just words to be read, remembered and
thought about – that is just playing with the contents of
awareness. They are symbols from spirit that carry the power of
realisation. As Daoism advises, to be nourished one must 'eat' the
words of the sages and bight through to the bright presence they
reveal, thus liberating awareness and nourishing the sage-mind. Don't
just look at the words, but look through them at yourself and your
"The light of any lamp
dispels in a moment the darkness of long kalpas (aeons); the strong
light of the Mind in but a flash will burn the veil of ignorance."
(Tilopa's Song of Mahamudra http://bit.ly/beaGM6)
So what can be said about consciousness? In words I can say
that consciousness is the ground of being from which all
manifestation arises. It is both universal and personal, and it
enlivens and animates all systems, including those thought to be
In reality: “That which permeates all, which nothing transcends
and which, like the universal space around us, fills everything
completely from within and without, that Supreme non-dual Brahman –
that thou art.” (Sankaracharya http://bit.ly/avLzfs)
"The real does not die, the unreal never lived. Once you know
that death happens to the body and not to you, you just watch your
body falling off like a discarded garment. The real you is timeless
and beyond birth and death." (Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, I am
"What is it that had birth? Whom do you call a human being?
If, instead of seeking explanations for birth, death and after-death,
the question is raised as to who and how you are now, these questions
will not arise... The body is born again and again. We wrongly
identify ourselves with the body, and hence imagine we are
reincarnated constantly. No. We must identify ourselves with the true
Self. The realised one enjoys unbroken consciousness, never broken by
birth or death - how can he die? Only those who think 'I am the body'
talk of reincarnation. To those who know 'I am the Self' there is no
rebirth. Reincarnations only exist so long as there is ignorance.
There is no incarnation,
either now, before or hereafter. This is the truth." (Sri Ramana
can this be scientifically understood? A useful analogy is virtual
reality simulation, where a single animating source creates worlds of
virtual phenomena, where evolving sentient minds experience
themselves as individual beings in a world of objects in space and
time. The animating thread that runs through all systems is the “I
am” awareness. All virtual phenomena lack a fundamental
self-nature, they are ephemeral forms without permanent substance,
they are 'sunnyata' (empty).
Quantum mechanics is compatible with this simulation analogy, for
example, “if we accept the
quantization of space and time as a basic fact of the structure of
our universe, then we may go on to consider how both of these
properties happen to be intrinsic to the operations of a computer”
(Ross Rhodes, Cybernetic Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics
http://bit.ly/9hxzvS). By thinking
of quantum mechanics in this way the seemingly paradoxical aspects of
quantum mechanics are seen to be common features of information
processes and virtual worlds. For example, the Planck frequency
(1.859 x 10^43 Hz) is analogous to the “frame rate” of a
simulated virtual reality.
“Wheeler labels the individual quantum phenomenon an elementary
act of creation. We as observers play a significant role in this
process since we can decide by choosing the measuring device which
quantum phenomenon is realized. Still, we cannot influence the
specific value obtained through the measurement. Finally, since we
are part of the universe, the universe, according to Wheeler, creates
itself by observing itself through us. .. (Quantum mechanics has)
gradually brought the role of the observer into the center of our
discussion, a role which is expressed by Clauser in his joint
analysis with Shimony of the present EPR-Bell situation as follows:
"perhaps an unheard tree falling in the forest makes no sound
after all". ” (Anton Zeilinger , On the Interpretation and
Philosophical Foundation of Quantum Mechanics http://bit.ly/dkz5Mt)
In this paradigm all systems are observers and have experiential
awareness, without which they could not interact; this is a form of
pan-psychism, in particular pan-proto-experientialism, Russellian
monism, Type F monism or Neutral monism. These are the view that
consciousness is constituted by the intrinsic properties of reality.
“On this view, phenomenal or proto-phenomenal properties are
located at the fundamental level of physical reality, and in a
certain sense, underlie physical reality itself.” (Blackwell Guide
to Philosophy of Mind http://bit.ly/apaaPe)
Also google these http://bit.ly/c947lG.
However just as there are degrees of complexity of 'outer' forms,
there are also degrees of complexity of 'inner' processes. The
simplest systems have only a simple stream of pure awareness by which
they experience and interact, they are not aware that they are aware,
they are just aware. However then there are systems such as
ourselves, with extremely complex internal feedback loops (e.g.
brains), that have come to know that they know that they know.
So whilst the mind and personality are a product of
bio-socio-memetic evolution, the innermost awareness within all
systems is the universal animating process, which is the true seer of
every sight and doer of every deed. Hence although the egoic mind
identifies with the seeing and doing, it is actually the case that
"events happen, deeds are done, but there is no individual doer
of any deed." (Buddha).
For some brief comments and many quotes see Virtual Reality
Analogy Alongside Science and Mysticism (http://bit.ly/appid4).
For a detailed mathematical, theoretical overview see System
Science of Virtual Reality: Toward the Unification of Empirical and
Subjective Science (http://bit.ly/9XhElB).
This book develops from first principles the foundations of a
mathematical science of information systems and virtual reality
simulation. Within this context it re-derives the foundations of
quantum mechanics and discusses naïve realism and the hard problem
This answer was given to the question “What is Consciousness?”
You can comment, read other answers or write an answer or question
of your own on this or some other topic.