Methodologies for the Study of Consciousness:
A Few Cursory Remarks

(Afterthoughts on the Fetzer Institute meeting, Kalamazoo, September 4-8, 1996)

Ivan M. Havel

Center for Theoretical Study, Prague
November 1996

In the stimulating and cosy environment of the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo two dozen scholars spent four days in lively discussions on various aspects, views, and approaches to the study of consciousness. In the following notes I am offering a few personal reflections on the topic of the conference.

1. My first remark concerns the word methodologies in the title of the meeting. It is customary in sciences to make a clear distinction between investigating a certain subject and studying the investigation itself, eg. working with meta-theories instead of theories and assessing methods instead of their results. However, when the subject of the study is consciousness, the situation seems to be different: any progress in the study of consciousness is at the same time progress in the methodology of studying consciousness, and vice versa.

This may be related to the fact that the very concept of consciousness is ambiguous, with several different meanings, each meaning very much dependent on many things, beginning with the area or discipline from which we start and ending with the worldview we assume. Thus, without a close Cupertino of representatives of various approaches and various disciplines it would be difficult to start any inspiring study. At the same time, however, mutual disputes between representatives of too many distinct, even antagonistic worldviews seldom achieves more than recognition of lack of a common language.

I believe the Kalamazoo meeting was an example of an optimal selection of participants. Scholars in cognitive sciences, psychology, anthropology, neurophysiology, physics, analytic philosophy, phenomenology, transpersonal psychology, Eastern approaches etc. created lively, stimulating, and productive discussions. The meeting as a whole was actually a successful experiment in methodology -- the very issue it was intended to discuss.


2. As I mentioned above, consciousness (in its preliminary and slightly circular ‘definition’ -- as the inner experience, or capacity for inner experience, of individuals) admits several different paths of investigation. (I leave aside various attempts to eliminate the very concept of consciousness, whether on the grounds of non-existence or inaccessibility for study.). Let me mention three such paths.

The first path can be called phenomenological (in a wider sense). It builds upon our natural and subjective immediate experience. There is no need to prove the existence of such experience because we all have it -- at least those of us who happen to be neither zombies nor robots. Phenomenal aspects of consciousness have a subjective character and cannot be easily treated within the prevailing scientific paradigm requiring objective descriptions. I understand the phenomenological path in a wide sense, including that part of psychology which takes personal experience as existing (eg. W. James), as well as philosophical phenomenology (eg. of E. Husserl).

The second path could be called (somewhat inaccurately) psychological. Consciousness here becomes the realm of scientific studies and even experiments. It is examined, eg., the difference between the states when a person does, says, perceives, feels and thinks consciously and when subconsciously or unconsciously. This approach deals with "being conscious of something" rather than with consciousness in general and it makes it possible to talk about consciousness in third-person singular. Consequently, it is perfectly legitimate to ask whether animals have consciousness.

The third path is biological. "The language of the brain is the language of neurones" writes Crick. There is no question that until now we certainly know much more (based on the volume of accumulated data) about man at the level of neurones than at the level of moods. Very little is yet known, however, about the nature of the ”language” used by neurones and about the content of their communication. Recent speculations about physical sources of consciousness extend this path of study as deep as to the quantum level.


3. I have listed three paths to understanding consciousness and we can clearly see that each concerns something different. What we cannot see, however, is whether these paths converge at some point or whether they run parallel and eventually diverge. A certain degree of convergence may be expected for the second and third paths: it is quite possible that the questions asked in the language of objective psychology will be answered by the language of neurobiology.

Indeed, one can imagine other paths as well (some to be mentioned later). Some methodological issues can be, however, exposed beforehand. The heritage of scientism (a belief in the uniqueness of ”truth” and its ultimate knowability through objective scientific methods), once the prevailing attitude which is currently falling from grace, is its unfortunate side-effect, namely the mutual hostility of defendants of different approaches, methods, views, and disciplines. Just recall the already outdated behaviourist ideology in psychology, or reductionism still persisting in biology.

Too much energy is thus wasted on debates about who is right and who is not. I do not claim that such debates are completely fruitless, but I would more strongly support attempts to learn from others, to listen each to each other, to try to understand other people’s language and to look for possible matches across disciplines. (The atmosphere of the Kalamazoo meeting should be applauded once more.)


4. There is a deeper difference (which does not mean a contradiction) between the first (phenomenological) path and the other two (psychological and biological) paths. From the scientist’s view the former is much harder since it does not offer objective statements. Quite aptly, problems posed along the first path were recently nicknamed hard by D. Chalmers to distinguish them from problems posed along the latter two paths, considered to be easy. The same distinction is often made by referring to the first-person perspective in the first case as opposed to the third-person perspective in the latter case.

Indeed, most of the confusion in today's discussions rest on improper distinctions between the "light" and "hard" problems. It may be noted (along with Chalmers) that authors of specialised studies on consciousness usually begin with contemplation on the mysterious and incomprehensible nature of subjectively experienced consciousness and continue, without a trace of hesitation, with their original theories and solutions which, (as revealed by a more careful reading) are nothing more than a contribution to the field of "light" problems.

Perhaps one day we will learn, and maybe even simulate, what really occurs in our brain when we feel happy or sad. I doubt, however, that it would make any difference to anybody who himself never laughs or cries.


5. There is a certain paradox behind the first-person perspective, namely, the impossibility of observing and reporting actual inner experiences. I am not concerned here with the issue of verifying another person’s reports (treated, eg. by D. Dennett, who introduced the term ”heterophenomenology” for this purpose) but with the act of observing myself. A soon as I turn my attention to myself, I take the third-person view as if I jumped outside of myself to be able to look inside. Introspection is more like that. On the other hand, the first-person view proper should have the orientation, so to say, from inside to outside. It can be experienced, ”lived through”, but not inspected.


6. Is scientific inquiry into consciousness possible? This question happens to be increasingly fashionable: many books have already been published -- about consciousness itself as well as about the problem of whether it may be a subject of legitimate scientific interest. There are new specialised journals, numerous conferences and symposia. Thus it seems that a new discipline has emerged; whether it is a scientific one depends on our definition of consciousness and our definition of science.

In the following I shall mention one or two directions that are not too alien to scientific approaches and yet not widely recognised as throwing some light on the issue of consciousness, including its first-person perspective. Some of them appeared during the discussions in Kalamazoo.


7. Penetrating the discussions on the physical/biological basis of consciousness is the consideration of the multiplicity of levels of descriptions. However, up to now only few authors (among them A. Scott) have taken the hierarchy of such levels in its entirety seriously enough as relevant to the phenomenon of consciousness (3rd person type). I argued elsewhere that restricting ourselves to a particular level, whether lower or higher, may hardly contribute to understanding consciousness, but that we should také a more ”scale-holistic” attitude.


8. Another lesson can be learned from the research of collective systems. A well-known special case is connectionism, but here I heave in mind the interaction of conscious entities within collectives of such entities, and moreover, their interaction with the collective as a whole. I expect, therefore, more attention to be paid in the future to the first-person-plural perspective. Several contributions at the Kalamazoo meeting provide relevant material for this way of approach which may become, in our differentiation, a fourth path of investigation. Perhaps works by social scientists, anthropologists, and transpersonalists can be found to be relevant.


9. Until recently an essential part of (Western) science preferred to consider consciousness only as a by-product, an over-shoot of brain processes, or even as a subjective delusion which is of no concern for sciences. Entirely different are views of various indigenous cultures, both in the East and in the West. For instance, in south-western United States live Zuni Indians (famous for their beautiful animal-like amulets and fetishes). They believe that an all-encompassing, fully self-conscious and internally interconnected Life system encompasses everything -- the Sun, Moon, stars, sky, earth and oceans, all elements and natural phenomena, all inorganic matter as well as all plants, animals and humans.

When comparing the world according to Zunis with the scientific conception of the world, it becomes clear that the key difference is in the way they approach consciousness, or the conscious experience. In contrast to the modern Western scientific attitude, for Zunis consciousness is of utmost importance: they view the process of understanding the world as inner identification with it, a conscious experience of it.


10. For me a particularly interesting experience in Kalamazoo was the lecture, or better to say a performance, by the anthropologist, philosopher, and sleight-of-the-hand magician David Abram. Skilful magical tricks remind us of the essential participation of our senses in understanding the perceived world. Our eyes fill in everything that is missing, often in the way that is foisted on us by the context. Thus the sensual world, which is traditionally considered as passive and unaware of our presence, appears to be active, receptive, alive, and in a sense conscious. Following Husserl’s and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, Abram subscribes to the ”perception as participation” idea. This view, extended to consciousness as such, might lead to the conception of the all-encompassing interconnected consciousness -- a view not alien to views of Zunis and other archaic and indigenous cultures.