The role of personal inquiry in a science of consciousness

Workshop – Buddhist Inspired Models of the Mind
Stirling University, Scotland, 11-12 June 2004


Calls for first-person approaches are common in consciousness studies today, but what do they mean? The idea of “first-person science” is nonsensical, partly because science is necessarily a collective endeavour, and partly because any data collected must, by being written down or shared, become third-person data. However, there may still be valuable roles for first-person practice in a science of consciousness. One possibility is that personal practice can help scientists and theoreticians to escape from the everyday illusions that keep them trapped in false ideas of subjective experience.

Most theories of consciousness, although their proponents deny it, are forms of Cartesian materialism (as defined by Dennett). This is revealed in such phrases as “the contents of consciousness”, “enters consciousness”, “in consciousness” and more explicitly in the popular Global Workspace theories. While consciousness is conceived of as a container, through which a stream of experiences passes, we remain stuck with (a) the hard problem and (b) a “magic difference” between similar physical brain processes some of which are said to be “in conscious” and others not. Why are these theories so popular in spite of such serious problems? I suggest that it is only because they fit with the illusions of ordinary experience.

Perhaps the key is to change our experience, and this is where personal practice comes in. With practice it is possible to drop the intuitions that fuel these impossible theories of consciousness, including the metaphors of the stream of consciousness, the theatre of the mind, and the idea that there cannot be experiences without an experiencer.

I have been practicing Zen for over twenty years and have recently worked on a number of questions that directly address the issues discussed above. I shall discuss three of them:

  1. Am I conscious now?
  2. What was I conscious of a moment ago?
  3. Who is asking the question?

I shall describe the changes that take place through asking these questions, and suggest that long practice with them destroys the appeal of most contemporary theories of consciousness.