The experience of consciousness is entirely subjective. The joy of meeting someone you love, the sadness of losing a close friend, the richness of a vivid dream, the serenity of a walk through a garden on a spring day, the total absorption of a deep meditative state—these things and others like them constitute the reality of human experience. And all of these experiences—from the most mundane to the most elevated—have a certain coherence and, at the same time, a high degree of privacy, which means that they always exist from a particular point of view.
But despite this reality and thousands of years of philosophical examination, there is little consensus today on what consciousness is. Neuroscience, which employs an objective perspective—looking at the brain as an object of study—has made strikingly little headway in this understanding, despite having tremendous success in observing close correlations between parts of the brain and mental states. A comprehensive scientific study of consciousness must therefore embrace both objective and subjective methods: It cannot ignore the reality of first-person experience but must observe all the rules of scientific rigor.
I am suggesting the need for the method of our investigation to be appropriate to the object of inquiry. Given that one of the primary characteristics of consciousness is its subjective and experiential nature, any systematic study of it must adopt a method that will give access to the dimensions of subjectivity and experience. So the critical question is this: Can we envision a scientific methodology for the study of consciousness whereby a robust first-person method, which does full justice to the phenomenology of experience, can be combined with the objectivist perspective of the study of the brain?
Here I feel that a close collaboration between modern science and the contemplative traditions, such as Buddhism, could prove beneficial. Buddhism has a long history of investigation into the nature of the mind and its various aspects—this is effectively what Buddhist meditation and its critical analysis constitute. Unlike that of modern science, Buddhism’s approach has been primarily from first-person experience. The contemplative method, as developed by Buddhism, is an empirical use of introspection, sustained by rigorous training in technique and robust testing of the reliability of experience. All meditatively valid subjective experiences must be verifiable both through repetition by the same practitioner and through other individuals being able to attain the same state by the same practice. If they are thus verified, such states may be taken to be universal, at any rate for human beings.
The Buddhist understanding of the mind is primarily derived from empirical observations grounded in the phenomenology of experience, which includes the contemplative techniques of meditation. Working models of the mind and its various aspects and functions are generated on this basis; they are then subjected to sustained critical and philosophical analysis and empirical testing through both meditation and mindful observation. This process offers a first-person empirical method with relation to the mind.
I am aware that there is a deep suspicion of first-person methods in modern science. I have been told that, given the problem inherent in developing objective criteria to adjudicate between competing first-person claims of different individuals, introspection as a method for the study of the mind in psychology has been abandoned in the West. Given the dominance of third-person scientific method as a paradigm for acquiring knowledge, this disquiet is entirely understandable.
I agree with the Harvard psychologist Stephen Kosslyn that it is critical to recognize the natural boundaries of introspection. No matter how highly trained a person may be, we have no evidence that his or her introspection can reveal the intricacies of the neural networks and the biochemical composition of the human brain, or the physical correlates of specific mental activities—tasks that can be most accurately performed by empirical observation through application of powerful instruments. However, a disciplined use of introspection would be most suited to probe the psychological and phenomenological aspects of our cognitive and emotional states.
What occurs during meditative contemplation in a tradition such as Buddhism and what occurs during introspection in the ordinary sense are two quite different things. In the context of Buddhism, introspection is employed with careful attention to the dangers of extreme subjectivism—such as fantasies and delusions—and with the cultivation of a disciplined state of mind. Refinement of attention, in terms of stability and vividness, is a crucial preparation for the utilization of rigorous introspection, much as a telescope is crucial for the detailed examination of celestial phenomena. Just as in science, there is a series of protocols and procedures which contemplative introspection must employ. Upon entering a laboratory, someone untrained in science would not know what to look at, would have no capacity to recognize when something is found; in the same way, an untrained mind will have no ability to apply the introspective focus on a chosen object and will fail to recognize when processes of the mind show themselves. Just like a trained scientist, a disciplined mind will have the knowledge of what to look for and the ability to recognize when discoveries are made.
It may well be that the question of whether consciousness can ultimately be reduced to physical processes, or whether our subjective experiences are non-material features of the world, will remain a matter of philosophical choice. The key issue here is to bracket out the metaphysical questions about mind and matter, and to explore together how to understand scientifically the various modalities of the mind. I believe that it is possible for Buddhism and modern science to engage in collaborative research in the understanding of consciousness while leaving aside the philosophical question of whether consciousness is ultimately physical. By bringing together these two modes of inquiry, both disciplines may be enriched. Such collaborative study will contribute not only to greater human understanding of consciousness but also to a better understanding of the dynamics of the human mind and its relation to suffering. This is a precious gateway into the alleviation of suffering, which I believe to be our principal task on this earth.
Adapted from The Universe in a Single Atom (Broadway Books).
Originally published September 30, 2005