The science of consciousness is a subject that has repercussions for various academic disciplines including, but not limited to the physical and medical sciences, mathematics, philosophy, ethics, psychology, sociology, history, and theology. The reason consciousness studies transcend nearly every academic discipline is because its definition is linked to every aspect of human awareness.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1980) defines consciousness as “the state or condition of being conscious; [or] the essence or totality of attitudes, opinions, and sensitivities held or thought to be held by an individual or group” (p. 283). While broad and encompassing definitions to the concept of consciousness exist amongst various academic fields, a clear understanding of consciousness itself has escaped academic inquiry into its fundamental nature. This is why Freeman (2003) labeled the subjects of science and consciousness as “strange bedfellows,” and a “contradiction in terms” (p. 1).
Because scientific endeavors seek to remain objective, detached, and impartial of the subject matter that is studied, science assumes an oppositional position to the experience of consciousness, which is directly linked to the subjectivity of the experiencing being present in the moment. Therefore, a science of consciousness is an oxymoron. Although the concept of consciousness escapes a truly cohesive definition, the spirit of human inquiry continues to drive modern critical analyses into the fundamental nature of consciousness by many academic disciplines.
The medical model of neuroscience finds consciousness within the structures of brain’s anatomy through a process of studying the physiological anomalies that occur throughout the body as a direct response to neural stimuli (see Freeman, 2003). Western philosophy tends to view consciousness as being a split, dichotomized entity that acts as a determinant of the moral, ethical, and social values a person or society adapts (Rao, 2002; Freeman, 2003). As a field, psychology attempts to bridge the gap that exists between the mechanistic, Newtonian constructs of the physical sciences, and the subjective, philosophical underpinnings of the human sciences by offering a semi-scientific explanation of what occurs objectively and subjectively when a person acts in a manner both consistent with, or in opposition to one’s personal, social, and familial ethics, morals, and values. While experimental psychology has attempted to gain the scientific validity of its physical science counterparts, it has not escaped the scrutiny of the more objective and mechanistic methodology approaches to the sciences that would discount the human psyche as being a construct of bio-physiological adaptation and feedback. In part, this is due to the reliance experimental psychology has on probability and statistics as a primary means to validate its findings.
Two problems exist with utilizing probability and statistics as the sole means to draw conclusion regarding the validity and reliability of a phenomenon that is studied. The first lies within the definition of a statistic itself. Thorne and Giesen (2003) showed that the term statistic is utilized in two separate, but equally influential ways within an empirical study. A statistic is first utilized to “refer to the summary numbers, or indices, that result from an analysis of data (numbers);” the term statistic is also utilized to “refer to all the procedures and tools used to organize and interpret facts, events, and observations that can be expressed numerically” (Thorne & Giesen, 2003, p. 2).
One can logically deduce from these two separate, but equally influential definitions that a statistic is subjectively reliant on the parameters a researcher utilized to set up his or her experiment. The second issue that arises in statistical analysis concerns the sole reliance on observable phenomena as constituting what represents the true nature of consciousness (Shavelson, 1996). There is much evidence regarding phenomenon that lie outside the empirical awareness of consciousness. Because these phenomena lie outside the conscious awareness of the individual it would be simple to say that they simply do not exist. The causal laws of physics would cease to exist, and the tree that fell in the woods would not make a sound, because no one would be around to hear it happen? This is the basis of an empirically guided scientific paradigm that would attempt to make sense of the infinite levels of consciousness. However, at the quantum level, these simplistic models begin to shift, evolve, and overlap one another, as we delve deeper into the recesses of the human mind.
While experimental psychology represents only one perspective of a broad academic discipline, other non-experimental theories explore the nature of consciousness as it develops throughout the lifespan by focusing on specific developmental patterns (See Erikson, 1963, 1982; Johnson, 1993). While these theories do not necessarily have the same validity and reliability base that measurable models of behavior have, they offer insight into the nature of human consciousness by including fundamental values of human nature such as spirituality, religion, and the philosophy behind moral reasoning and ethical living. While the study of consciousness incorporates nearly every academic endeavor, in this series of articles, I will focus primarily on the philosophical, religious, and etiological tenets associated with the subjective nature of consciousness as it has been studied by both Western and Eastern models of psychology.
Erikson, E.H. (1963). Childhood and Society. New York: Norton.
Erikson, E.H. (1982). The life cycle completed: A review. New York: Norton.
Freeman, A. (2003). Consciousness: A guide to the debates. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO Inc.
Johnson, R.A. (1993). Transformation: Understanding the three levels of masculine consciousness. San Francisco: Harper Collins.
Morris, W. (Ed.). (1980). The American heritage dictionary of the English language. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Rao, R.K. (2002). Consciousness studies: Cross – cultural perspectives. London: McFarland and Company.
Shavelson, R.J. (1996). Statistical Reasoning for the Behavioral Sciences (3rd Ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, A Simon & Schuster Co.
Thorne, B.M., & Giesen, J.M. (2003). Statistics for the behavioral sciences (4th Ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.