“Consciousness” science?

(Note: this was originally posted – mistakenly – as ‘Semantic Schmemantic‘ in the static pages menu. The latter, also, has been corrected. Sorry about that!)


“In the past twenty years, consciousness has gone from being a taboo topic to being accepted as a ‘hard problem’ for science. However, too often the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness is interpreted as simply a tricky puzzle that will one day go away if we just do a bit more neuroscience. The next stage is for people to see consciousness not as something to be squeezed into the world we already know about from science, but as an epistemological starting point on a par with the epistemological starting points we get from observation and experiments.”
– Philip Goff, Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness


I once observed Robert Anton Wilson discussing “out-of-body experiences” (OBEs) with a young man who argued that OBEs provided evidence of brain-independent consciousness. RAW seemed to disagree with this.

(As an aside, I noticed that as the young man then responded, in a slightly agitated way, RAW made a sort of artificial reaching movement towards his own drink – Guinness, I think – as if it were just out of reach, even though it seemed to me well within his reach. At the time this “reaching” struck me as some kind of psychological device).

I was reminded of this episode while reading a book: ‘Holotropic Breathwork‘, by Stanislav Grof and Christina Grof. The Grofs appear to take a view similar to the young man’s. Here’s what they wrote on “veridical OBEs” (veridical means “corresponding to facts”, “non-illusory”):

“The consciousness of others left the building and observed the environment from above or traveled to some remote locations and observed the events there. […] These observations demonstrate without any reasonable doubt that consciousness is not a product of the brain and thus an epiphenomenon of matter. It is more likely at least an equal partner of matter, or possibly superordinated to it.”


What do we make of this? And why did RAW disagree with the young man? How does consciousness leave a building? Presumably brains were involved in remembering and reporting the experience? Does that mean consciousness “traveled” back into the building/brains at some point?

What seems like a matter of ‘substance’, or even a metaphysical issue, can sometimes appear clarified – more clear, transparent – when we adopt a different semantic grid (as RAW might’ve put it). Perhaps that’s what’s required here.

The same kind of questions apply just as much to “ordinary” everyday experiences of “consciousness” – the OBE example above just happens to highlight absurdities in our descriptions resulting from our standard subject-predicate type language limitations, etc.

From Grof to Goff

And it’s not as if science – with all the staggering advances it has brought us in technology – has yet provided useful “answers” to these questions on consciousness. At least not to the satisfaction of the scientists (and scientific philosophers) themselves (there are several factions looking at consciousness – see Philip Goff’s recent book, Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, for an interesting, up-to-date discussion on the various approaches. Goff’s particular interest is panpsychism).

We’ll return to this particular conundrum of “consciousness” as we continue in these modest blog posts…

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