The primacy of consciousness

I would like to share with you some philosophical reflections on consciousness, initially from an epistemological point of view, and subsequently from the perspective of a critical assessment of the different ontological perspectives about this controversial issue.

First of all, let me ask you a simple question:

“Just now, are you sure that you exist and are aware?”.

I suppose that, after a short pause, your answer will be a doubtless “Yes”.

The question and the answer were thoughts made of words, but what happened in the short pause between them, when you were checking in your direct experience whether you exist and are aware, or not?

Did you need to ponder on the answer, or rather was the evidence of your aware presence already there, before any thought?

How could you even think, if you are not already present and aware?

The sense of being—which the mind translates into the sentence “I am”—is the very precondition for everything else to appear, because if, first of all, I am not here, then no perception nor thought can appear.

So whenever you ask, “Do I exist? Am I aware?”, in the short pause between the question and the answer “Yes” (which are two thoughts), your aware presence recognizes directly itself—via an immediate, intuitive and non-transitional certainty—as a self-shining evidence that is not made of thought: it is not an object to be known by consciousness, but rather a non-conceptual awareness that, like light, doesn’t need to be lighted from outside in order to shine.

So consciousness is an irreducible reality prior to any perception, sensation or thought. Of course, here the primacy of consciousness is referred only to the epistemological and experiential domain and does not convey any ontological stance. Yet its evidence is doubtless, for at any time anybody can verify with absolute certainty (through one’s own direct experience) that he/she exists and is aware.

The ‘hard problem’ as an epistemological loop

Over the last years, several schools of neurobiology and cognitive science have turned into the study of consciousness. However, as already pointed out by some researchers (Bitbol, Luisi, Thompson, Bergonzi), their approach may be quite problematic and in the long run indecisive.

In fact, most of the explanations or interpretations of consciousness tend to regard it as something ‘out there’ that can be studied objectively—for example an emergent property of the brain, or a quantum state, or a particularly complex brain resonating structure.

To some extent, it is possible to inquire experimentally some correlations between the brain activities and the contents of consciousness, i.e. the experiences which we are aware of (like perceptions, bodily sensations or thoughts): this is what Chalmers refers to as ‘the easy problem’.

However, consciousness as such—namely the very fact of being aware, a sort of ‘awakeness’, or ‘first person aware presence’ which allows every experience to appear and as such should not be confused with its own specific ‘contents’- is a basic principle which cannot be consistently explained as the end result of any physical or mental cause, since no ‘explanation’ nor ‘cause’ could appear without consciousness already being there as a precondition.

Therefore, since all phenomena can be observed, studied or explained if and only if consciousness is already there, it is impossible to regard consciousness as the end product of any other phenomenon without stumbling upon an epistemological paradox. This is what Chalmers refers to as ‘the hard problem’.

Going back to the general question of the scientific study of consciousness, as presented mostly by neurobiologists and cognitive scientists, we can notice that, despite the variety of theories and interpretations, all these scientific views generally rely on one basic principle: that consciousness is a ‘secondary’ property that ‘emerges’ from an organic support of biological matter, namely the brain (once that it reaches a critical level of complexity).

However, this hypothesis looks epistemologically weak in many respects.

Firstly, due to some lack of philosophical accuracy, neuroscientists often confuse the objects or contents of consciousness—thoughts, sensations, perceptions, images or memories which can be observed and studied experimentally in connection with the functions of the brain—with the very fact of being aware (‘consciousness as such’). The latter, as said before, cannot be observed as an object by science, since it is the source itself of any observation.

Secondly, the theory of emergence can only ascertain that from complex interactions between multiple components some new ‘properties’ can appear that were not previously owned by the original components and that can be detected by the observation of new qualities or behaviors of the observed system. However, consciousness as such is neither a ‘quality’ nor a ‘behavior’: it is the ‘first person’ awareness that observes the emergence of any possible quality or behavior, and as such it eludes the entire range of the observable objects: it eludes the very phenomena that are consistent with an emergentist interpretation.

Thirdly, the cause/effect theory that regards consciousness as derivative from the brain presumes a hierarchical causal order ranging from biological matter (the primary factor) to consciousness (the secondary factor). According to this theory, the brain is the primary substance, and from it consciousness would emerge as a new property of matter: so x(consciousness), in order to exist, must rely on y(brain).

But how can we assert the priority of the brain over consciousness if it is only through the medium of consciousness that it becomes possible to perceive, know and study the brain? Brain can only be seen, observed, and studied in consciousness, because, without consciousness already being there, we couldn’t perceive, observe, analyze, or study the brain at all!

So, since the brain, in order to appear in experience, must rely on consciousness, I definitely question the scientific and epistemological validity of asserting that x depends on y (i.e. consciousness depends on brain), when it is also true that y depends on x—unless we acknowledge that they are only two sides of the same coin, namely that they are just two different descriptions of the same mysterious reality.

A ‘blind spot’ for science

Furthermore, in order to preserve its own objectivity and coherence, the standard scientific method must resort to the conventional artifice of studying what is observed as if it were really independent and separate from the observer: so the observer must always be kept out of the picture.

However, the price of this unavoidable abstraction is a self-evident epistemological limitation: its resulting world-view will always be incomplete, exclusively confined as it is within the range of the observable objects, from which the observer (i.e. consciousness) remains in any case excluded. In order to preserve its own validation, any procedure of scientific investigation can only occur inside the boundaries of consciousness, which is always epistemologically prior to any possible objectification carried out by the scientific research.

In other words, any observation or theory about the so called ‘objective’ reality can never include consciousness, that is the very background of all observing and theorizing activity: consciousness can never be ‘observed’ or ‘known’, because it is always prior to whatever object is observable and knowable.

To quote Max Planck:

Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are a part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.

Since we are able to observe the universe whilst we can never be apart from it, saying we observe the world would be the equivalent of asserting that the universe watches itself via our observation. So the universe can be regarded as a self-observing unified system: it sees itself through our eyes.

However, as G. Spencer Brown properly remarks, in order to observe itself, the universe must split itself up into at least two parts: the observer and the observed. Consequently, since the observer cannot be observed while observing, there is always a part of the totality that remains unseen, outside the field of observation: this unknowable remainder is consciousness itself:

Let us then consider, for a moment, the world as described by the physicist. It consists of a number of fundamental particles which, if shot through their own space, appear as waves […].

Now the physicist himself, who describes all this, is, in his own account, himself constructed of it. He is, in short, made of a conglomeration of the very particulars he describes […].

Thus we cannot escape the fact that the world we know is constructed in order (and thus in such a way to be able) to see itself. […]

But in order to do so, evidently it must first cut itself up into at least one state which sees, and at least one other state which is seen. In this severed and mutilated condition, whatever it sees is only partially itself. We may take it that the world undoubtedly is itself […], but, in any attempt to see itself as an object, it must, equally undoubtedly, act so as to make itself distinct from, and therefore false to, itself. In this condition it will always partially elude itself.

Here lies the paradoxical mystery of consciousness: the very source of any knowledge is unknowable.

To some extent, even the simple act of thinking about consciousness (which is not an object), by involving words that are always ‘object-oriented’, unavoidably engenders a misrepresentation of it as an object.

However, to say that consciousness cannot be known as an object (since it is the knowing subject) does not mean that subject and object are two separate things, because both of them entail each other and appear always together in experience.

The notion of the primacy of consciousness is not yet very popular in our scientific world. The main reason is probably due to the fact that in such a case, consciousness is not accessible epistemologically to an objective scientific knowledge, and becomes actually a ‘blind spot’ for science, as M. Bitbol sharply noticed.

Already many centuries ago, the Indian philosopher Ṡaṅkara asserted with keen philosophical arguments that, just as fire cannot burn itself nor a sword cut itself, so consciousness cannot know itself as an object, since it is always on the side of the subject.

It appears then, that science may be unable to study consciousness ‘objectively’ (i.e. by describing it in ‘third person’), because it is always given to us in ‘first person’, and this is precisely its only distinctive feature: inevitably, whenever science tries to study consciousness, it is obliged to force it into the range of observable objects, so as to falsify its very essence of observing subject through an epistemological inconsistency.

So the scientific study of consciousness seems to be not even a ‘hard problem’, but actually an unsolvable problem. And, following Wittgenstein, we could add that an unsolvable problem is not a problem at all: it is a mystery.

Unlike the mainstream of the current scientific thought, this unfixable epistemological loop has led some researchers to regard consciousness as a primary datum of reality, developing different and often contrasting theories about it (like for example panpsychism, or the idea that consciousness should be considered a fifth fundamental force of physics, on a par with the other four).

Time does not seem mature enough for science to accept this. However, strangely enough, some authoritative thinkers of quantum physics have been more willing to take seriously this hypothesis into consideration—and already several years ago.

For example, M. Plank (1931) said:

I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.

E. Schrödinger (1931) was in total agreement with him:

Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else.

The ontology of consciousness: a critical appraisal

Now let’s turn to the philosophical debate about the ontological status of consciousness.

Roughly speaking, there are three prevailing philosophical stances on this issue:

1) Cartesian dualism—reality is made of two ‘halves’, two opposite and irreconcilable substances: consciousness and matter. It is a restatement of the well-known dualism between spirit/matter or mind/body, that has been prevailing in the mainstream of western philosophical tradition since the time of Plato. Its weak point is how to reconcile and connect these two opposite ontological principles.

2) Monism of matter or materialism—reality is made only of matter, and consciousness is just reduced to a material derivative. It is still the prevailing stance in contemporary science. Its weak point (besides the above-mentioned epistemological loop) is how to explain the ontological leap from an originally non sentient matter to an aware matter that is able to feel pain and pleasure.

3) Monism of consciousness or idealism—reality is made only of consciousness, and matter is just reduced to perceptions that appear in it as mere contents of awareness, without any external objective referent. Albeit considered somehow ‘uncool’ in the contemporary philosophical landscape, this ontological stance is the most coherent of the three, since at least it is consistent with the epistemological primacy of consciousness. Its weak point is that it sounds counter-intuitive to our ordinary perception of matter as a solid and concrete stuff.

The endless, deadlocked debate taking place among these different philosophical stances could be a sign that there is some semantic opacity in the concepts that are employed.

Experience is the source of all our knowledge about reality. No aspect whatsoever of what we call ‘reality’ can appear apart from experience. As far as it concerns us, reality is not separate from experience, which, in turn, is not separate from consciousness. So ‘reality’, ‘experience’ and ‘consciousness’ could be three different terms for the same, nameless actuality.

In its attempt to figure out experience, thought can choose two opposite ways: to describe it either in terms of the third person, as a set of objects (sounds, smells, colors, etc.) or in terms of the first person as a subject (hearing, smelling, seeing, etc.).

If we analyze abstract terms—the ones we mostly use to describe the true structure of reality—we find that each of them has a specific opposite and all of them, according to a logical perspective, are arranged in pairs of mutually exclusive opposites: right/wrong, good/evil, freedom/slavery, up/down, true/false, short/long, and so on. According to the rules of logic, opposite concepts are mutually exclusive because, of course, from a logical point of view, if something is true cannot be false at the same time; if it is long cannot be short, and so on.

The problem is not that we employ this ‘either/or’ simplification—quite useful, indeed. The problem arises only when we transfer the mutual exclusiveness of opposites from the logical plane to reality itself, and begin to believe that reality works exactly in the same way, while in it the opposites actually imply each other, since they cannot be separated.

If you draw a vertical line on a piece of paper, you divide it in two halves: the right and the left side—two mutually excluding opposites: something is either right or left, and cannot be both of them at the same time. But if I ask you: “Please, draw only the right side, I don’t want to see the left one!”—how could you? When you draw that line, both opposites appear altogether, because the very line that creates and divides them is the same line that makes them inseparable: it is just one, and it resides only in our mind.

Among all these polarities, the most relevant for our description of experience is the one that contrasts subject and object, observer and observed, consciousness and matter. Again, the mind projects these polarities onto reality as mutually exclusive opposites.

For example, now you are listening to my voice. You can describe it as ‘sound’, meaning something coming to you from outside, or you can describe it as ‘hearing’, meaning something inside you that is receiving the sound. And this is a couple of opposites, of course—an object ‘outside’ (sound) and a subject ‘inside’ (hearing).

And since two opposites cannot logically refer to one and the same thing, we easily tend to believe that reality is made of two separate ‘halves’: the external ‘half’, i.e. the sound (object), and the internal ‘half’, i.e. the hearing consciousness (subject).

Is it really so?

Please check your direct experience and see whether you can find the precise edge, the precise borderline where the sound ‘out there’ ends and your hearing ‘in here’ begins.

Can you find it?

No, you can’t, because that borderline is only in your mind.

During the actual experience, there is no ‘sound’, nor ‘hearing’: there is just one, indivisible, nameless experience. Only afterwards, when your thought describes what happened and says: “I heard a sound”, then the duality between subject and object begins, positing on one side the subject—the ‘I’ as hearing consciousness—and on the other side the object—the sound. But this is a rule of grammar, it is not a rule of nature!

So there is just one, indivisible experience. In order to know it, because of its own limitations, our thought must resort to two mutually exclusive descriptions: either as ‘consciousness’ in terms of the first person (subject), or as ‘matter’ in terms of the third person (object). Any philosophical attempt to reconcile them by reducing one to the other (like materialism or idealism) is doomed to fail, because of its logical weakness.

In fact, when we say ‘consciousness’, we mean all the experience, described in terms of the first person, as subject. No room for matter.

When we say ‘matter’, we mean all the experience, described in terms of the third person, as object. No room for consciousness.

So the ‘boundary line’ that splits experience into two apparent ‘halves’ (subject and object) is not ‘out there’, but only in our minds: the terms ‘consciousness’ and ‘matter’ are just two different descriptions of one and the same indivisible experience (respectively in terms of the ‘first’ or of the ‘third’ person), while the alleged separation between ‘subject’ and ‘object’ appears rather as a mere mental construct, just like ‘ascent’ and ‘descent’ are only two different words for the same slope, depending which way one is going. The slope is just one, it’s not divided in two ‘halves’—from here to there is ascent, and from here to there is descent. The whole slope is described either as ‘ascent’ or as ‘descent’, according to the direction you choose.

Similarly, the logical incompatibility between the mutually exclusive concepts of ‘matter’ and ‘consciousness’ concerns only two descriptions of reality, and does not apply to reality itself, that is always one and the same.

Therefore, any attempt to find a connection between matter and consciousness, or to trace one back to the other, is futile, since there can be no ‘relationship’ whatsoever between two different terms for the same reality.

E. Schrödinger expresses this revolutionary idea as follows:

The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived. Subject and object are only one. The barrier between them cannot be said to have broken down as a result of recent experience in the physical sciences, for this barrier does not exist.

Just as an eye can see everything but itself, so consciousness is the very source that sheds light on any cognition, but it cannot perceive itself as an object: here lies the deep mystery of its objectless nature.

Mauro Bergonzi taught Religion and Philosophy of India at the Università degli Studi di Napoli for thirty years. He is author of academic essays and articles on Oriental Philosophies, Comparative Religion, Psychology of Mysticism and Transpersonal Psychology. Since 1970 he has practiced meditation and after a natural and spontaneous fading out of both seeking and the seeker, only a radical non dualism prevailed. In this respect, his long-standing familiarity with the teachings of Nisargadatta Maharaj, Jiddu Krishnamurti and Tony Parsons was crucial. In the last ten years, he has been invited to give regular satsang in Italy.



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