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On the Nature of Consciousness

On the Nature of Consciousness: Cognitive, Phenomenological, and Transpersonal Perspectives

Copyright Date: 1995
Published by: Yale University Press
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  • Book Info
    On the Nature of Consciousness
    Book Description:

    What is the relation between mystical experience and ordinary consciousness, between the principles of modern physics and the patterns of perception in all moving creatures, between our human self-consciousness and the more primary sentience of protozoa? This book pursues an inquiry into consciousness that ranges from ancient Greece to empirical neuro-psychology to the experiential traditions of introspection and meditation. Harry Hunt begins by reviewing the renewed interest in ordinary consciousness and in altered and transpersonal states of consciousness. He then presents competing views of consciousness in cognition, neurophysiology, and animal psychology, developing a view of perceptual awareness as the core of consciousness potentially shared across species. Hunt next brings together the separate strands of neo-realist approaches to perception and thought, the phenomenology of imagery and synesthesia, and cognitive theories of metaphor. He develops an original cognitive theory of mystical experience that combines Buddhist meditative descriptions of consciousness and Heidegger's sense of Being. In relating both of these to James J. Gibson's views on perception, he avoids the various "new age" supernaturalisms that so often blight the transpersonal literature. Other themes include the relation between consciousness and time; the common perceptual-metaphoric rooting of parallels between consciousness and modern physics; and the communal basis of transpersonal states as reflected in a sociology of mysticism and a reinterpretation of parapsychological research.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14381-2
    Subjects: Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xviii)

    • [PART I: Introduction]
      (pp. 1-2)
    • 1 The Most Fundamental of Empirical Questions or the Most Misguided—What Is Consciousness?
      (pp. 3-25)

      What is consciousness? It is a “something” that is before each of us at this very moment yet not sought or noticed as such until questioned. Then, like the water in which the fish swims, it is everywhere and nowhere.

      Our immediate awareness is as clearly present as it is resistant to definite characterization. Consciousness — and not coincidentally, as we will see — is much as Augustine said of time in his Confessions: we seem to understand it quite well until we are asked about it, and precisely then do we find ourselves confused. While our own consciousness has...

    • 2 Cognition and Consciousness
      (pp. 26-48)

      Cognitive psychologists and neuropsychologists like Marcel (1983ab), Humphrey (1983), Baars (1988), Weiskrantz (1988), and Schacter (1989) now understand consciousness as a formal system or capacity involving the direction, choice, and synthesis of nonconscious processes. This movement, however, has also been answered with renewed versions of the traditional functionalist and behaviorist rejections of the study of consciousness as anything other than an incidental by-product of computational capacity (Dennett, 1991). Consciousness is seen as private and hence outside scientific scrutiny, confabulated and deluded in its pretended access to cognitive process, and ultimately nonfunctional. Such a rejection is in fact central to the...


    • [PART II Introduction]
      (pp. 49-50)
    • 3 Consciousness as Emergent: The Irrelevance of Specific Neurophysiology
      (pp. 51-72)

      There is a widespread agreement among those psychologists who see consciousness as a causal system in its own right that its qualitative features are somehow “emergent” from underlying neural processes. That said, however, all major questions remain. Is consciousness, in the sense of a primary or immediate sentience, only emergent at a particular level of central nervous system complexity, as most investigators certainly would agree for self-referential symbolic processes? If so, is primary awareness regionally localized? Or, with the artificial-intelligence (AI) community, would any computational system of sufficient “cross-reference” also perform the basic functions attributable to consciousness? On both views,...

    • 4 Consciousness as Localized: Neural Zones of Convergence and Consciousness Awareness System(s)
      (pp. 73-92)

      Even if we conclude that consciousness is an emergent property of neural connectivity, it soon becomes clear that certain areas of complex nervous systems show especially dense interconnections. These “zones of convergence” become the obvious candidates for any more specific neural localization of consciousness, especially in relation to its capacity for immediate synthesis. Before pursuing the various candidates for such zones, it is important to consider what such attempts can and cannot explain. I have stressed that both in the evolution of the nervous system and in ontogenetic neural development, functions seem to be nascently present before the appearance of...

    • 5 Animal Consciousness: The Emergence of Primary Sentience in Protozoa and Self-Referential Consciousness in the Higher Primates
      (pp. 93-112)

      If consciousness is always enacted behaviorally in a world and neuronal connectivity instantiates consciousness but does not necessarily explain it, there is every reason to hope that we might come to understand both self-referential consciousness and the primary sentience it reorganizes by studying their likely points of evolutionary emergence. Any attempt, however, to infer forms and levels of consciousness in the activities and sensitive attunements of organisms simpler than ourselves runs immediately into one of the most fundamental debates of modern science. The issue of animal consciousness clearly pits the basic criteria of theoretical parsimony and availability of methodological verification...


    • [PART III: Introduction]
      (pp. 113-114)
    • 6 William James and the Stream of Consciousness: Metaphor Without, Mirror Within
      (pp. 115-138)

      William James, in his chapter in The Principles of Psychology (1890) entitled “The Stream of Thought,” was probably the first western thinker and scientist to address ordinary lived consciousness as an empirical phenomenon in its own right. How curious that it is this recent. In so doing, he also addressed the relationship between consciousness and physical reality in ways which have not yet been fully assimilated. James’s work informed subsequent schools of thought that are generally held to be antithetical — in psychology, functionalism and behaviorism as well as the Gestalt tradition; in philosophy, Wittgenstein as well as Husserl, Heidegger,...


    • 7 Synesthesia: The Inner Face of Thought and Meaning
      (pp. 141-160)

      The idea that synesthesias show the inner side of a cross-modal translation capacity at the base of symbolic cognition offers a solution to one of the oldest disagreements in cognitive psychology — the Würzburg controversy over the underlying nature of thought. The debate is still very much with us in the contrast between those who understand thought as a propositional logic (Pylyshyn, 1984) and those who posit its basis in abstract visual-spatial imagery (Shepard, 1978; Lakoff, 1987; Johnson, 1987).

      The story is well known — perhaps a little too well. The two most prestigious introspectionist laboratories of the early twentieth...

    • 8 The Multiplicity of Image: Phenomenology and Some Limitations of Laboratory Research
      (pp. 161-178)

      Before proceeding further in exploring the varieties of presentational states and their relation to cognitive theory, we must consider the more ordinary forms of visual-spatial imagery and their place in that wider context. After all, it was the initial attempts at empirical laboratory research on visual imagery that were heralded as a “return of the ostracized” (Holt, 1962) — the beginning of modern psychology’s renewed interest in consciousness. Holt, among many others, hoped for a cognitive theory that would include the full range of phenomenological and clinical studies of imagistic states along with a laboratory science of imagery. That is...

    • 9 Sensus Communis: A History of the Cross-Modal Theory of Mind
      (pp. 179-196)

      The major alternative to a computational theory of mind has always been the view that self-referential consciousness emerges out of the dynamic synthesis of the senses. We can trace this alternative history of mind from Aristotle’s coeno-aesthesis, as common ground of the senses and source of imagination, to the Roman sensus communis, closer to our common sense, to Romantic accounts of imagination, aesthetics, and ethical “truths of the heart,” and even to Freud’s system unconscious. It disappears and reappears periodically, based always on the placing together of the unity of the senses, self-consciousness, intuition, empathy, and creative imagination — in...


    • [PART V: Introduction]
      (pp. 197-198)
    • 10 A Cognitive Psychology of Transpersonal States
      (pp. 199-219)

      We can now undertake a more formal cognitive psychology of the developed forms of transpersonal experience — for the ancient Greeks, the vertical axis of psycheaion, in contrast to what I have termed the horizontal sensus communis. Just as psyche-aion was described in terms of the same processes of fluidic dynamics as the “thought of the heart,” it also seems entirely plausible from a contemporary cognitive perspective to understand the range of experiences emerging with deep meditation and psychedelic drugs as cross-modal synesthetic translations across the more abstract or formal stages of perceptual microgenesis. In other words, these states manifest...

    • 11 Heidegger, Mahayana Buddhism, and Gibson’s Ambient Array: A Logos of Sentience
      (pp. 220-238)

      We have been dealing with the cognitive processes that underlie experiences which we have variously termed higher states of consciousness, transpersonal experience, or presentational states. These have been understood as a reconstitution on the level of symbolic cognition of presence-openness as the basic structure of perception in motile sentient creatures. Horizonal openness and the flow gradients of the ambient array are “real,” “existent,” and inherent to the structure of sentience, but would only be realized as such, as felt meaning for its own sake, on the human level. Presence-openness emerges into presentational symbolic cognition through the synesthetic translation of the...


    • 12 Consciousness as Time
      (pp. 241-256)

      We have begun to consider consciousness in terms of its “with” — as the socially shared forms of awareness in self-referential symbolic beings. In addition, since symbolic cognition reuses the here-there, whence-whither dimensions of the array, this human “with” extends into the envelope of flow shared by all sentient motile beings. It remains to turn our attention back toward the “in” of consciousness. Human consciousness is inseparable from a being-in-the-world. The life worlds of sentient creatures are also “in” the physical universe as understood by modern physical science. Accordingly, we would expect the being of sentient creatures to be broadly...

    • 13 Consciousness as Space: Physics, Consciousness, and the Primacy of Perception
      (pp. 257-276)

      A number of investigators from both sides of the interface between physical theory and consciousness have called attention to some intriguing parallels between various aspects of modern physics and eastern meditative traditions (Bohm, 1980; Capra, 1975; LeShan, 1969; Grof, 1980; Wallace, 1986; Wolf, 1990). Vedanta and aspects of Buddhism picture a “unified field” comprising physical reality and consciousness, both of them based on minute particle energies in vibration. The difference, of course, is that even the most speculative of physicists, who understand consciousness as a subatomic quantum reality, are nonetheless deriving mind from the principles of the physical universe. This...


    • 14 Consciousness as Society
      (pp. 279-296)

      Throughout the twentieth century social scientists have portrayed western civilization as in fundamental crisis. The foundational figures of both psychology (James, Freud, and Jung) and sociology (Durkheim and Weber) built their disciplines around the assumption of such a crisis in value or spirituality — a crisis to be understood both in its own right and as offering the beginnings of a revised conception of humanity. The dilemmas of modernity, and now postmodernity, have, however, been conceived in very different terms.

      From the perspective of psychology, the crisis is in our sense of personal meaning and purpose in living. The sociological...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 297-312)
  13. References
    (pp. 313-348)
  14. Index
    (pp. 349-358)