Heaven only knows

Review of Approaches to Consciousness:
The Marriage of Science and Mysticism
by Brian L. Lancaster
Palgrave Macmillan, 2004

Times Higher Education Supplement, November 2004

This is the original version submitted. It was edited before publication.

The title Approaches to Consciousness has two meanings; one, the intellectual approach of experiment and theory, and the other the more personal endeavour found in spiritual and mystical traditions. Lancaster, who is Principal Lecturer in Psychology at Liverpool John Moores University, weaves the two together in various ways, but mainly by juxtaposing the findings of neuroscience and psychology with teachings from Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism.

His summaries of the competing scientific theories are well organised and clear. The main problem, however, lies in the way that Lancaster has chosen the mystical texts. He does not give his reasons, and one might suspect it is mainly a matter of personal preference. He argues that the mystical teachings have a common core, and his explorations into the notions of emptiness, contentless consciousness, and the self are very useful. Yet there remains a great danger here. There are so many ancient teachings, and so many of them are inscrutable or ambiguous to the untrained eye, that it is quite possible to take any current scientific theory and find mystical teachings to fit. If this is the case then such teachings cannot provide evidence for or against the theories. This problem is exacerbated by the inclusion of much psychodynamic theory which is notoriously open to multiple interpretations.

Lancaster himself ends up with a supernatural or dualist theory, proposing that a “transcendent reality” is needed to account for subjective experience. He gives two reasons. One is some weak evidence for the possibility of consciousness without a functioning brain, including examples of near-death experiences that have been adequately explained in other ways; the other is his contention that the famous explanatory gap between brain and consciousness “cannot be incorporated within the remit of cognitive science” (p 149). This highlights a serious omission in that he seems not to take seriously the major materialist positions in neuroscience held by such thinkers as Crick, Dennett and the Churchlands. They argue that when we understand enough about the brain and experience then the explanatory gap will simply disappear, just as the “problem of life” disappeared long ago.

Even so, this book provides a far better summary of current thinking than most of the many books about consciousness around today, and I can recommend it for that purpose, though it is by no means a conventional textbook.