Prospects for a theory of consciousness, chapter 11 in Owen Flanagan’s book Of Consciousness Reconsidered, is an attempt to explain a most controversial subject. Flanagan sketches the field of philosophy of consciousness. He defines the different positions (consciousness is mysterious, consciousness does not exist, consciousness does not matter, consciousness is unintelligible, consciousness is miraculous, etc.) and argues for naturalism and the adequacy of science to take on the job, as our sketchy but maturing understanding of how the brain works blossoms. I think that a person should have a little context on this subject before reading this, because it is somewhat difficult to navigate.
About the only thing that you could get a majority of people to agree upon where consciousness is concerned is that humans possess it. Even this seemingly innocuous statement does not enjoy universal acceptance. Some feel consciousness is an illusion or at best a by-product of the physical actions taking place within the brain.
After a century in which relatively little attention has been paid to the study of consciousness, we are now in the midst of a tremendous renewal of interest in the topic. Approaches to the subject are highly varied. Across the contributing disciplines-psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, physics, computer science, biology, anthropology, religion, and more-researchers are attempting in various ways to get a handle on the phenomenon, ranging from developing cognitive models to exploring quantum processes in microtubules to defending the logical possibility of absent qualia to practicing meditation( 1).
Much disagreement stems solely from the lack of a clearly delineated, standard definition of the term. What singular definition of the term could embrace so many seemingly different ideas about what constitutes consciousness? Any definition that does not satisfy basic scientific prerequisites would quickly run into objections from those whose theories agree that consciousness has a wide and varied placement in the universe, and that consciousness extends beyond the physical boundaries of the individual.
For instance, consider the role of consciousness in quantum physics. The role of the observer in quantum mechanics has been a thorny issue leading to all manner of attempts to try to formulate the theory in such a way that does not imply that the observer has an effect upon the observed. When humans take on the sole role as observer, the universe becomes a whole sequence of meta-events upon meta-events that do not actualize until humans arrive to witness them. In fact, the universe as a whole can be seen as conscious by its progression through time from a highly chaotic system with maximum entropy to a less chaotic system with a higher informational content.(3)
William James, considered by many to be the father of American psychology, stated that the scientific method will never be sufficient to explore thoroughly the depth of human consciousness.(2) Research must include the spiritual dimension. Human experience is subjective and cannot be weighed, measured or duplicated on demand. Yet human experience is appropriate and essential data for a comprehensive understanding of consciousness, despite the matter of “scientific proof”. James urged that science should be based only on experience, and that nothing within the totality of human experience would be excluded from being a potential topic of scientific investigation. “To be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its construction any element that is not directly experienced, not exclude from them any element that is directly experienced” (James, Radical Empiricism, 1896).
More than a century later, his view is still viable in the investigation of consciousness. The question remains: is conscious awareness merely the result of biochemical process in the brain? Or, is it the essence of creation? This exploration makes for fascinating speculation, yet the answers are elusive. The present avenues of scientific inquiry will fall short. The solution to these speculations does not lie within the three-dimensional time continuum.
The continuing exploration of human consciousness may uncover anything. Moreover, much of what will be uncovered could be rejected by science. This is where my dilemma lies; so much of human experience lies outside the parameters of scientific ideals. In our western civilization, science and spirit parted company around the end of the nineteenth century. Metaphysical and spiritual phenomena are subjects of belief and faith and therefore unempirical. They’ve been relegated to the corner of pseudoscience. I see this as a great loss, because more and more people continue to have mystical and spiritual experiences. I do not pass this off as mere pseudoscience or mass delusion.
For all of the reasons stated above, I am not presently a scientifically oriented investigator. I embrace philosophy of mind, and the related areas of philosophy, cognitive science, and quantum physics. I am keenly interested in exploring consciousness, and philosophical issues about meaning and possibility. I believe that each of us is a conscious being, an eternal point of consciousness.