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States of Consciousness, by Charles Tart

  States of Consciousness

    Charles T. Tart

        3.   Conservative and Radical Views of the Mind

An almost universal theory in Western scientific circles, sunk to the level of an implicit belief and thus controlling us effectively, is that awareness is a product of brain functioning. No brain functioning—no awareness, no consciousness. This is the conservative view of the mind. It is dangerous as an implicit belief for two reasons. First, many experiences in various altered states of consciousness are inconsistent with this theory, but implicit faith in the conservative view makes us liable to distort our perception of these phenomena. Second, parapsychological data suggest that awareness is at least partially outside brain functioning, a condition that leads to very different views of human nature. The radical view of the mind sees awareness as this something extra and postulates that physical reality can sometimes be directly affected by our belief systems. We must be openminded about the radical view to guard against maintaining too narrow and too culturally conditioned a view of the mind.
    Although in general speech we tend to use the terms awareness and consciousness to mean basically the same thing, I use them here with somewhat different meanings. Awareness refers to the basic knowledge that something is happening, to perceiving or feeling or cognizing in its simplest form. Consciousness generally refers to awareness in a much more complex way; consciousness is awareness as modulated by the structure of the mind. Mind refers to the totality of both inferable and potentially experiencable phenomena of which awareness and consciousness are components. These are not precise definitions because the three key words—awareness, consciousness, and mind—are not simple things. But they are realities, and we must deal with them whether or not we can give them precise logical definitions. Since logic is only one product of the total functioning of the mind, it is no wonder that we cannot arrive at a logical definition of the mind or consciousness or awareness. The part cannot define the whole.
    Awareness and consciousness, then, can be seen as parts of a continuum. I would use the word awareness to describe, for instance, my simple perception of the sound of a bird outside my window as I write. I would use the word consciousness to indicate the complex of operations that recognizes the sound as a bird call, that identifies the species of bird, and that takes account of the fact that the sound is coming in through my open window. So consciousness refers to a rather complex system that includes awareness as one of its basic ingredients, but is more complex than simple awareness itself.
    Few psychologists today would argue with the statement that consciousness is awareness resulting from the brain's functioning. But if you ask what is the basic nature of awareness, the simple basic behind the more complex entity consciousness, you meet the common assumption in Western culture generally and scientific culture in particular that awareness is a "product" of the brain. When psychology was fond of chemical analogies, awareness was thought of as a sort of "secretion" by the brain.
    I believe that seeing consciousness as a function of the brain is sound, but I think that explicitly or implicitly assuming that awareness is only a function of the brain, as accepted as that theory is, can be a hindrance, for two reasons.
    First, as psychology deals more and more with the phenomena of altered states of consciousness, it will more and more have to deal with phenomena that do not fit well in a conceptual scheme that says awareness is only a product of the brain. Experiences of apparently paranormal abilities like telepathy, of feeling that one's mind leaves one's body, of mystical union with aspects of the universe outside oneself, of supernormal knowledge directly given in altererd states, fit more comfortably into schemes that do not assume that awareness is only a function of the brain. I have nothing against competent attempts to fit such phenomena into our dominant Western scientific framework, but the attempts I have seen so far have been most inadequate and seem to work mainly by ignoring major aspects of these altered states phenomena. Thus the assumption that awareness is only a function of the brain, especially as it becomes implicit, tends to distort our view of real phenomena that happen in altered states. We dismiss their possible reality a priori. We cannot build a science when we start with such a selected view of the data.
    The second reason for questioning this assumption is the existence of first-class scientific data to suggest that awareness may be something other than a product of the brain. I refer to excellent evidence of parapsychological phenomena like telepathy, evidence that shows that the mind can sometimes function in ways that are "impossible" in terms of our current, physical view of the world. I review our knowledge of the paranormal in Studies of Psi {131}. "Impossible" means only that these phenomena are paraconceptual, that our conceptual schemes are inadequate because they exclude this part of reality. These same conceptual schemes underlie the belief that awareness is only a product of the brain, and if we question these conceptual schemes we question that assumption. This book is not the place for detailed argument, but I have discussed the subject at greater length in Transpersonal Psychologies {128}, which reviews the impact of the spiritual psychologies on the evolving science fo consciousness.
    This view that awareness is only a function of the brain—the conservative or physicalistic view of the mind—is diagrammed in Figure 3-1. The brain (and nervous system and body) are depicted as a structure that has hardware qualities on the one hand and software qualities on the other. The hardware qualities are those inherent in the physical makeup of the brain itself, as dictated by the physical laws that govern reality. This dictation of limitation is shown as a one-way arrow from the physical world to the brain. The software qualities are the programmable aspects of the brain, the capacities for recording data and building up perception, evaluation, and action patterns in accordance with programming instructions given by the culture. The arrows of influence are two-way here, for even though the programming is largely done by the culture to the individual, occasionally the individual modifies some aspects of the culture. Awareness is shown as an emergent quality of the brain, and so awareness is ultimately limited by the hardware and by particular software programs of the brain. Consciousness is the individual's experience of awareness diffused through a tiny fraction of the structure of the brain and nervous system.
    The radical view of the mind is diagrammed in Figure 3-2. Two changes have been made to incorporate the radical view. First, awareness is shown as something that comes from outside the structure of the physical brain, as well as something influenced by the structure of the brain (thus giving consciousness) and the cultural programming. In religious terms, this is the idea of a soul or life/mind principle that uses (and is used by) the body. This is a most unpopular idea in scientific circles, but, as I have argued elsewhere {129}, there is enough scientific evidence that consciousness is capable of temporarily existing in a way that seems independent of the physical body to warrant giving the idea serious consideration and doing some research on it.
    The second change incorporated in the radical view is shown by the two-way arrow from the physical world to the hardware structure of the brain. The idea, held in many spiritual systems of thought that have dealt with altered states of consciousness, is that physical reality is not a completely fixed entity, but something that may actually be shaped in some fundamental manner by the individual's beliefs about it. I am not speaking here simply of perceptions of reality, but of the actual structure of reality. Pearce {49}, for example, describes an experience as a youth where he accidentally entered an altered state of consciousness in which he knew he was impervious to pain or injury. In front of witnesses he ground out the tips of glowing cigarettes on his cheeks, palms, and eyelids. He felt no pain, and there was no sign of physical injury. The consventional view can easily account for the lack of pain: by control of the structures involved in sensing pain (nerve tracts and certain brain areas), pain would not be perceived. But a glowing cigarette tip has a temperature of about 1400F, and his skin should have been severely burned, despite his state of consciousness. From the radical point of view, his beliefs about reality in the altered state actually altered the nature of physical reality.
    To argue for or against the radical view of the mind would take a book in itself, and this is not the one. (I recommend Pearce's book and my Studies of Psi {131} for data on paranormal phenomena) I wnat to emphasize that the radical view of the mind, in various forms, is often reported as an experience from altered state of consciousness. If we are going to study states of consciousness adequately, we hall have to confront the radical view, not automatically dismiss it as an illusion or a product of inferior brain frunctioning, but take it as data. I would personally prefer not to: I do not like the radical view that our belief systems may actually alter the nature of reality even though I can comfortably accept parapsychological data that show that reality is more complex than our current physical world-view believes. But we should stay open to that view and make a decision for or against its probability on scientific grounds, not simply because we have been trained to believe that there is an ultimate, immutable physical reality. Don Juan put it pithily: "To believe that the world is only as you think it is is stupid" {10}.
    I sympathize with reader who finds himself rejecting the radical view of the mind. I suggest, however, that he honestly ask himself, "Have I rejected this view as a result of careful and extensive study of the evidence for and against it, or because I have been trained to do so and rewarded by social approval for doing so?"

Chapter 4

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