September 22, 2008

The Scientific Exploration of Consciousness

The Scientific Exploration of Consciousness: Towards An Adequate Epistemology

By Willis Harman

The scientific exploration of phenomena and experience relating to consciousness1 has long been hampered by two obstacles. One is that subjective experience does not meet the commonly accepted criteria for data in a scientific analysis, in that it is not public, objective, and replicable. The other is that many consciousness-related phenomena do not appear to fit comfortably into the accepted scientific worldview. For instance, the common-sense assumption that conscious volition is causal — that my desire can cause things to happen — conflicts with the assumption of mainstream science that the universe operates according to causal laws which can be objectively known.

Most scientists have improvised ways of dealing with these two obstacles, so that for much of practical science they don’t get in the way. For example, research on the effectiveness of analgesics, such as aspirin, goes on in spite of the fact that pain is basically a subjective experience; similarly, effective research has been accomplished on topics like imagery, emotions, dreams, etc. which depend for data on subjective self-reports. The conscious will of the experimenter would seem at one level to be a causal factor in the findings, in that he/she devises the experiment; nevertheless most scientists share a deep faith that volition can, in principle, be explained in terms of scientific laws, im-plying determinism (at least in a statistical or quantum-mechanical sense). “Paranormal” or anomalous phenomena, in which consciousness-related events appear to contradict both scientific and conventional pictures of reality, are typically explained away on the basis of non-replicability, assumed faulty observation, possible collusion or fraud.

Nevertheless, the situation can hardly be considered satisfactory. “Downward causation,” causation-from-consciousness, is for the most part considered unacceptable as a scientific concept in spite of the fact that it is one of the most impressive facts in our practical experience. Psychic phenomena, near-death experiences and insights of a spiritual or mystical nature have the power to change a person’s life; yet they tend to be explained away or otherwise disposed of when serious scientific investigation is proposed. The attention medical researchers give to the role of unconscious processes in placebo effects, psychoneuroimmunology, or spontaneous remission of life-threatening illness is curiously meagre considering how importantly medical practice might be affected by their thorough understanding.

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Originally published in Journal of Consciousness Studies 1 (1), 1994, pp. 140–148.
And reproduced in ANTIMATTERS 2 (3) 2008

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