A guest essay by David Stang: Posted in conjunction with Dave’s five favorite reads for 2023

What did the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates mean when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”? In that declaration, Socrates implies that those who have neglected to examine themselves end up strolling through life with blinders on and therefore experience a very limited and constrained existence. A more beneficial life examination process involves asking penetrating questions such as: Who am I beyond my physical self? How broad is my spectrum of consciousness? Do I have a passionate purpose? People who throughout their lifetime ask introspective questions such as these tend to enjoy more meaningful lives.

This review discusses five books that provide information useful for answering the above three questions. In these books, the authors discuss the function of our consciousness as the central focus of their investigations. Our individual consciousness plays a central role in both the formulation of introspective questions and the methods utilized in seeking answers to such inquiries.

At this point, it would be useful to ask what the term “consciousness” means. Allan Combs, in his book Consciousness Explained Better (2009), offers a helpful definition: “Consciousness is the background, or simply the ground, of all experience. Whatever experience you have, whether it is a highly mystical rapture, an abysmal depression, an explosive sexual ecstasy, the sight of a bright twinkling star in a dark night sky, the sound of thunder, the taste of honey, or the scent of sandalwood, it all unfolds in an already dimensionless field of perfect emptiness that is the shining ground that lurks behind and permeates all of experience. It is consciousness.”

The developmental psychologist, Jenny Wade, who wrote the foreword to Combs’ book, stated “…What makes solving the problem of consciousness so compelling is essentially personal: it would bring meaning for each one of us. It would answer those gnawing existential questions about who we are, how the world works, and what is ‘real.’ It would therefore tell us how to live and make sense of our lives.”

David Lorimer, editor of Thinking Beyond the Brain: A Wider Science of Consciousness (first published in 2001, reissued in 2023), observed in his introduction to that book that there are two different orientations related to the discussion of consciousness. The first orientation pertains to “those who follow the traditional Western method of looking from the outside in as detached observers — the third-person perspective,” and the second involves “those who look from the inside out — the first-person perspective — who are interested in exploring the nature of their own consciousness.”

Our spectrum of consciousness contains many dimensions, many of which are explained in the books discussed in this review. Lorimer’s book contains a splendid compendium of the views of various authorities on the nature of consciousness. One such contributor is Peter Fenwick, a well-known British neuropsychiatrist and author. From an academic perspective, Fenwick asserts that a comprehensive “explanation of consciousness must include three vital components: A detailed role for brain mechanisms [in contrast with the operation of the mind], an explanation for the action of the mind outside the brain, and an explanation of free will, meaning, and purpose.”

All three of Fenwick’s criteria are extensively investigated in Stephen Aronson’s book The Search for Meaning and The Mystery of Consciousness: A Psychologist’s Journey Through Gurdjieff and Jung (2022). This book is almost wholly based on the first-person perspective; it could have also been entitled Who Am I Beyond My Physical Self? (the first of the above questions of self-examination). Aronson’s book is a personal odyssey of the author’s life experiences, stretching back to his earliest years, spanning his professional career, and dipping into recent events of his life. Peppered with compelling personal encounters, psychological insights, and spiritual discoveries, the book draws a map of the invisible reality that governs our lives, shapes our nature, and perhaps determines our fate.

Aronson, a retired psychotherapist, does not regard science and spirituality as conflicting perspectives, but as complementary views of the common reality, each looking at different sides of the same equation. He does not doubt that the two can be reconciled by direct experience of a higher quality of awareness, one which can look simultaneously inward and outward. In his words, “Moving in this direction can lead to an experience of oneself as part of the Universe, and the Universe is a reflection of oneself. When this happens, there may appear a profound sense of participation in the mystery of existence through a Consciousness that seeks to know Itself and Its purpose in existing.”

While Aronson’s perspective is grounded in the teachings of psychology, it could, in philosophic parlance, also be characterized as phenomenological. The primary objective of phenomenology is the direct investigation and description of phenomena as conscious experience, without theories about their causal explanation and as free as possible from unexamined preconceptions and presuppositions. Aronson describes his continuously shifting mind states as if he were producing a phenomenological video of the kaleidoscopic shifting of his conscious attention. Coupled with this are his analytical, scientific descriptions of what is occurring in his feeling and thought processes. Aronson’s manner of talking about consciousness in such detailed experiential variations can easily result in the reader’s perception that he too has walked along similar mental pathways. In sum, Aronson’s Search for Meaning and Mystery of Consciousness contains all the necessary elements for an understanding of consciousness as prescribed by Peter Fenwick.

Returning now to David Lorimer’s Thinking Beyond the Brain, we can explore what he meant by his subtitle A Wider Science of Consciousness. He grouped into four categories his collection of 16 essays written by leading scholars in the field of consciousness studies.

The first is “The Need for a New Science of Consciousness,” whose message is that more emphasis should be placed on the look from the inside out or the first-person perspective, featuring the perceptions of those who are interested in exploring the nature of their own consciousness. Lorimer’s second grouping, entitled “Consciousness and Parapsychology,” includes essays that pertain to eyeless vision in the blind, meditation, dreams and altered states of consciousness, children’s memories of past lives, transpersonal psychology, and other parapsychological topics. The emphasis of his third grouping, “Frontiers in Consciousness and Healing,” provides examples of how psychotherapists can utilize altered states of consciousness as a means of healing mentally and emotionally stressed clients. His final selection of commentary, “Wider Perspectives on Consciousness,” is related to the development of transcendental mind states and trans-physical identity. Reflecting upon the essays contained in each of these four subject matter groupings can contribute to an expanded comprehension of what is meant by the term “spectrum of consciousness.”

Another book entitled Why? The Purpose of the Universe (2023) was authored by Philip Goff, a philosophy professor at Durham University. His research over the years has focused on consciousness and the ultimate nature of reality. He is convinced that Western thought has been dominated by the competitive juxtaposition of traditional religion and secular atheism. He contends that the time has come to move on from both long standing concepts of God and atheism and believes that there is a legitimate alternative perspective in exploring purpose in both a personal and a universal sense. Through an exploration of contemporary cosmology and cutting-edge philosophical research on consciousness, Goff argues for cosmic purpose: the idea that the universe is directed toward certain goals, such as the emergence of life. In contrast to religious thinkers, Goff argues that the orthodox God is a poor explanation of cosmic purpose. Instead, he explores a range of alternative possibilities for accounting for cosmic purpose, from the speculation that we live in a computer simulation to the hypothesis that the universe itself is a conscious mind. Goff scrutinizes these options with analytical rigor, laying the foundations for a new paradigm of philosophical inquiry in the middle ground between a common understanding of God and atheism. He outlines a way of living and a hope that cosmic purpose is still unfolding, involving political engagement and a non-literalist interpretation of traditional religion.

Goff’s diverse sources range from well-established traditional thinking to more contemporary perceptions which appeal to empirical scientists. In essence, Goff’s research explores the history of how serious, profound thinkers, ancient and modern, have regarded the notions of meaning and purpose, including cosmic purpose.

The four books discussed above pertain to human consciousness. A near synonym for the term consciousness is “awareness.” Take, for example, perception of the existence of features of the natural environment. That kind of cognizance applies not only to human consciousness but also to that of other living creatures. The brains of humans and intelligent species of animals have many similarities, both at the molecular and cellular levels.

Nevertheless, human conscious awareness has unique features based on powers of conceptual thought, aesthetic appreciation, premonitions, dreams, and other machinations of the unconscious mind, as well as the ability to design new technologies. Historically, Aristotle and later philosophers of the Judeo-Christian tradition made distinctions between the consciousness of humans and the sensory awareness of other species. With the rise of science over the past few centuries, many academics expressed the view that truly authentic, full-blown consciousness is possessed only by humans. Therefore, they contended that the cognizance of animals and other life forms has never reached the stellar levels of human consciousness. In recent years, many scholars engaged in consciousness studies have decided that although each species has its own mechanisms driving its capacity for being aware, the operating sensory mechanisms of all species can be referred to as consciousness.

Some philosophers of mind and neuroscientists strongly believe there is a continuum of consciousness that extends from bacteria to human beings. For instance, the neuroscientist Christof Koch believes that “consciousness is … probably present in most of metazoa, most animals, [and] may even be present in very simple systems like a bacterium.” Once we recognize the huge diversity of sensory mechanisms among all living species, we can easily comprehend that a bee utilizing its sensory apparatus to detect pollen is in many ways similar to renowned scholars utilizing their highly evolved sensory mechanisms, including their capacity for rational thought.

The Atlantic magazine’s principal science writer, Ed Yong, wrote a fascinating book entitled An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us (2022).It pertains to the consciousness of non-humans ranging from viruses, bacteria, and bugs to the consciousness of animals higher up the food chain. Our human consciousness is shaped in large part by our five senses: touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste. The sensing organs associated with each sense send information to the brain to help us perceive and understand the world around us. However, in addition to the five basic senses, there are other human senses that you couldn’t live without, including spatial awareness and balance. These senses put us in touch with our environment. Many people believe that most non-human beings have similar senses to ours and that they function in the same or similar environment we do. However, that is a mistaken belief, because each species has its own unique set of sensory mechanisms and its perceptions of what constitutes the ambient environment also differs.

In 1909, the Baltic-German zoologist Jakob von Uexküll invented the term Umwelt (plural Umwelten), the combination of each species’ sensory faculties that empower it to be aware of and relate to its environment. That is, each species has a set of sensory capabilities that enable it to sense and experience its perceptual world. In his book, Yong explains that a multitude of creatures may occupy the same space yet have different Umwelten. For example, the Umwelt of a tick consists of a hunger for mammalian blood, an awareness of body heat, a recognition that what it touches may be hair, and a perception of the odor of butyric acid that emanates from skin. Accordingly, a tick’s consciousness or Umwelt consists of the combined functioning of these four component levels of awareness.

Yong points out that insects, butterflies, and other creatures have built-in photoreceptors which substitute for eyes. In explaining how they function, Yong provides the example of the Japanese yellow swallowtail butterfly which has photoreceptors located on its genitals. The male uses the photoreceptor cells to guide his penis over the female’s vagina, and the female uses them to position her eggs when laying them on the surface of a plant.

Another example of differing Umwelten can be found by moving up the evolutionary scale from bugs to serpents. We next consider the consciousness of a snake enabled by its own sensory mechanisms. To the human observer, a snake rapidly flicking its tongue is a fascinating sight, but Yong points out that when it darts its tongue, a snakeis smelling the world; each flick is the equivalent of a sniff. With such a highly developed capacity for smell, the snake does not need the sensation of taste. Seeing is a different matter; a snake has eyes that enable it to see. More importantly, snakes have small pits located just below their nostrils through which they can detect heat or infrared radiation. The 7000 nerve endings in these pits enable the snake to detect the slightest rise or fall in temperature. Using this faculty, a snake can detect a rodent from more than three feet away. Snakes can integrate the ability to see visually with their capability to detect heat to construct a picture of nearby objects. Using these two faculties in combination, they can sense the exact presence of their prey, including birds flying nearby.

Snakes also enjoy another powerful sensory mechanism which operates through thousands of touch-sensitive bumps on the scales of their head. This capability enables snakes to detect minuscule changes in air pressure caused by moving objects. As we have just learned, a snake’s Umwelt consists of the ability to smell with its tongue, see with its eyes, detect subtle emissions of radiation, and sense tiny changes in air pressure, thus forming mental pictures of its nearby vermin prey.

In each chapter of An Immense World, Yong concentrates on a particular component of Umwelten;he describes different sensory mechanisms for seeing, detecting color, hearing, touching, tasting, feeling pain, sensing surface vibrations, locating objects by echoes, and detecting electric and magnetic fields, and indicates how each species uses them in combination in its own Umvelt.   

Although the case has been convincingly made by Ed Yong for the existence of consciousness in various animals, there is one basic difference between animals and humans: animals apparently lack the capacity for introspective reflection. When Socrates challenged us to examine our lives, he was addressing human beings, not animals. Hence, it would be appropriate to return to the matter of how we as humans can best examine our lives. At the outset of this review, Jenny Wade was quoted as indicating that exploring individual consciousness would enhance our sense of meaning and how to live and make sense of our lives. In that same commentary, she stated that we are compelled to wonder about our lives because we are conscious.

Wade further informs us that “Consciousness is fundamentally about what’s out there as what’s in here, and what’s in here is, so far as we know, uniquely ours: the private, idiosyncratic, historical world of our own endlessly fascinating subjectivity. As we unfold to ourselves and the world unfolds to us, we experience ourselves as conscious.” She suggests that in our search for meaning as we delve into the core of our being, we need to be constantly mindful of whether what we are perceiving is “real, illusory or possibly related to the experience of any other being we perceive.” She reminds us that the quality and depth of our lifelong introspective journey will be influenced by the degree to which we are conscious. Contemplating in depth the above life-examination questions (Who am I beyond my physical self? How broad is my spectrum of consciousness? Do I have a passionate purpose?) requires a higher degree of consciousness. If you choose to follow the directive of Socrates and do a creditable job of examining your life, these five books provide useful tools to help guide your self-examination.