‘The last great mystery of science’; ‘the most baffling problem in the science of the mind’; this is how scientists talk about consciousness, but what if our conscious experience is all a grand illusion?
Like most people, I used to think of my conscious life as like a stream of experiences, passing through my mind, one after another. But now I’m starting to wonder, is consciousness really like this? Could this apparently innocent assumption be the reason we find consciousness so baffling?
.. says Dr Susan Blackmore in a 2002 article for New Scientist. (read the whole article here). What is so difficult about consciousness?
Since Francis Bacon first suggested that to find the number of teeth in a horses mouth one should consult not scripture, but an actual horses mouth, the age of science has objectively studied the natural world around us, with ever increasing invention. But ‘objective’ science means that the observer is removed from the equation.
If you are studying the diet of rats for instance, you get two or more groups in identical environments and change just one variable – the diet. And measure the effects.
But consciousness is something different. It can not be easily measured. In fact, we have so little idea of what it even is, that until the last decade it was barely even a topic of research. Consciousness is pure subjectivity.
Wilhelm Wundt, the grandfather of psychology, suggested that we can examine consciousness by asking people about their experience. But the mind is too slippery, and often the last one who can accurately report on their motivations and behaviour, is the person themselves. Another way is to measure an animals behaviour, as an indicator of internal processes. A third approach is to form theoretical models – as Freud did. He came up with the conscious, the sub-conscious and the un-conscious – not as real physical entities, but as a working model by which one can make predictions and formulate therapies. Other than this we are left with MRI and other brain scans, which produce a good map of the physical layout of the brain, but little more.
The Buddha also tackled this problem. Instead of the idea of a continuous consciousness into which things come and go, Indians of the time had the idea of a continuous and permanent Atman, around which accumulated past experience in the form of Karma. But the Atman itself, was immortal. The ideas are similar. Afterall there is a sense of ‘self’ that seems to be always present. At least – every time you ask the question ‘who am I’ or even ‘am I’, the self appears there.
The Buddha’s method of research was to purify the mind to get down to its base essence. Just like it is hard to examine or utilise the properties of gold when it is alloyed with other metals, but easy when it is in its pure state, so too the Buddha set about finding that Atman, or base of consciousness.
He found that the Atman, and the sense of ‘self’ is an illusion. This is not to deny existence, but rather an observation that ‘self’ arises with cognizing something. And when you stop cognizing things, the ‘self’ vanishes also. It leaps up and dies away from moment to moment. He also claimed that behind all this activity is a field of experience he called the ‘Unconditioned’, the attaining of which, is enlightenment. He distinguished it from the consciousness that arises with cognition, and sometimes called it ‘mind without an object’ (anarammana).
His experiment is replicable. Purportedly anyone who purifies the mind in the right way can attain to this knowledge, but like many fields of research, it takes quite a lot of committment and dedication.
This coming Saturday 28th Nov, we will take a look at Dr Susan Blackmore’s talk on this topic. She has an easy style of delivery which should hopefully, make the issue much more clear. Amongst her many fields of interest and research, she is also a Zen style meditator. Her talk was to an audience of self-styled ‘skeptics’ and academics rather than to meditators, so you won’t need a background in Buddhism to follow.