What is Consciousness Studies - A brief explanatory note

By Prof. R. Gomatam, Director

Date Written: February 13, 2007

1.0 Introduction

We conceive the field of "consciousness studies" not as being directly about the study of consciousness, but as, rather, "consciousness (based) studies (of matter)".  That is to say, for Consciousness Studies to remain a scientific field, the objective study of the external world of matter would continue to form its agenda, but only now matter would be studied by conceiving its properties in analogy to the properties of consciousness. This approach is in contrast to the way matter has been studied so far in science, in and of itself, i.e. independent of the nature of consciousness. In doing so, the field of consciousness studies would seek to extend at the foundational level, not only physics but also the other sub-fields involved (such as neuroscience, biology, artificial intelligence, psychology etc.) and eventually expect to see correspondingly new developments on the technological front.

2.0 Quantum Physics and the need for a new notion of Matter and its properties

To briefly further describe this proposed, radically new approach to studying matter by analogy to the structure of consciousness, let us take a closer look at physics. As already mentioned above, in the era of classical (i.e. pre-quantum) physics, 'matter' has been conceptualized and studied in and of itself, independent of the nature of consciousness, in terms of primary properties. With the advent of quantum theory, however, it has become clear that the notion of primary properties is fundamentally inadequate to understand the world underlying the new phenomena. So far, no clue has been found to devise an alternative conception of matter appropriate to understand QT that is compatible with everyday intuitions of matter. As a result, physicists have continued to think of the properties corresponding to the quantum mechanical observables, such as position, momentum, energy and even spin, in a quasi-classical vein. That is to say, while they recognize that an actual observation is required to assign definite values to these properties, they are taken to belong to the quantum object in the primary sense once they are measured.

We cannot hope to alleviate this contradiction by seeing it as yet another instance of the need for an 'operational' view of physical properties, which gained entry with relativity theory.  For, unlike relativity theory, it is not the case in quantum theory that without specifying the conditions of observation we have no description of the physical state and the properties at hand. We do! It is the feature of superposition. In other words, if we retain the primary notion of properties, the formalism seems to give two different conceptions of the physical reality, one at the point of measurement, and another in-between measurements. Since the two stand connected at present only via the process of an actual observation, there is the famed "measurement problem". Many interpretive solutions to this measurement problem have been proposed, all compatible with QT, but none of them is entailed by QT.  Even more seriously, these solutions generate more conceptual difficulties than the original problem(s) they were designed to illuminate. None of the interpretations leave one with the feeling that the quantum physical situation has been understood. As a consequence, at present there is no single universally accepted interpretation of quantum theory. 

3.0 The Relational-Property Approach at the B.I.

The Bhaktivedanta institute is developing, through both published and ongoing research work, an alternative approach to interpreting quantum theory that primarily through the work of our present director. This approach, tentatively named the relational-property viewpoint (RPV), aims to altogether avoid the measurement problem, by eschewing the view that the properties corresponding to the quantum observables are primary properties.

The RPV instead proposes that we can conceive a new set of properties for matter called relational properties, which are in-between primary and secondary (or subjective) properties. The states of matter described by these properties would still be objective, and hence primary-like, yet more "consciousness-like" than "classical matter-like" and thus congenial to understand the quantum observables. The reason the investigation of such new properties falls under consciousness studies is the expectation that only by studying the various models for the plausible structure of consciousness and identifying certain "necessary but not sufficient" (NBNS) attributes of consciousness we can make scientific headway in formulating these new kind of relational properties of matter within physics. Thus, the RPV presupposes the need for working with models of consciousness within science, but the scientific content of these models of consciousness would lie, not in giving us an understanding of consciousness itself, but in giving us clues for conceiving matter in new ways. In this sense, we see the new field as "consciousness (based) studies (of matter)".

To the (quite a large) extent to which other sciences (such as chemistry, biology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence etc.) are based on physics, both at the conceptual and practical level, any conceptual changes in physics in relation to consciousness will also presage the entry of consciousness-based investigations of physical phenomena in these other fields too. The status of "symbol" in artificial intelligence, the "binding" problem as well as the problem of qualia in neuroscience, the notion of "substance" in chemistry, the "form versus function" debate in biology, the felt need to develop a scientific alternative to behaviorism in psychology these are but a few examples of already recognized outstanding foundational problems that relate to consciousness in these different fields. In fact, we expect investigations in these fields from the relational-property viewpoint to aid the progress of ideas within physics, due to the very complicated and inter-related nature of the problems in these fields.   This would explain why the new field of Consciousness Studies should be expected to remain a broad-based inter-disciplinary field.

The Institute thus very much stresses our own research program, as any good graduate program must. Indeed, our doctoral candidates and post-doctoral fellows in different fields are selected specifically for their ability/willingness to critique/develop the relational-property viewpoint within their field of study in science. Nevertheless, our M.Phil. curriculum content remains broad-based, teaching all contemporary approaches within this new field of consciousness studies, while also presenting our own in-house research initiative.

4.0 Other contemporary approaches to consciousness studies™

Historically, the Bhaktivedanta Institute has played a substantial and pioneering role in the emergence of the very field of consciousness studies (see, About the Institute) and thus it is but natural that the Institute has new ideas to contribute to defining the research agenda of this new field. This is not, however to deny that the field of Consciousness Studies can be or is conceived elsewhere in other campuses differently. In the West, especially in the USA, a number of universities do "consciousness research" (see for example, U of Arizona, Tuscon site) and they all more or less treat the field as an effort to study the phenomenon of consciousness itself. Even so, there are a number of different approaches here. 

  • consciousness can and must be entirely studied within current science (Penrose & Hameroff, Dennett, Churchland, Baars etc.)
  • the study of consciousness requires developing a new scientific approach (Chalmers, Searle, Stapp etc.)
  • Consciousness cannot be studied within science at all (McGinn).

As should be evident from the above, we at the B.I. take the fourth approach, that even the very assessment of the possibility for the study of consciousness within science must be preceded by first enlarging our study of matter in relation to consciousness. The relational approach thus assumes methodological, though not necessarily ontological, dualism. So, in the M.Phil. program, a student will fully and adequately study all the different approaches to the new field of Consciousness Studies taken at present by other researchers, and also side-by-side develop an understanding of the relational approach and the possibilities for its application.  

5.0 Conclusion

We should perhaps add, as a cautionary note to any prospective student of our program, to kindly not expect to study meditation, yoga, subtle energies, psychic energies etc., in this program. Ours is a contemporary scientific program to study matter in a new light, by drawing analogies from models of consciousness. It is, however, not a conventional science degree program either, being centrally connected to consciousness, as should be amply evident from the above brief discussion.

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