Consciousness as the Basic Reality

© Copyright 1998 / 2006 by Timothy Conway, Ph.D.

[This is an excerpt from a book manuscript in preparation for publication, Spirit, Science and Deep Wonder, part of a planned trilogy on Spirituality in the New Millennium.]

The renowned Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann and Nobel-laureate physicist Eugene Wigner asserted in the 1950s and 1960s that it is impossible to give a description of quantum processes in physics without “explicit reference to consciousness.”[1] Physicist David Bohm and his followers also posited an interpretation of “unbroken wholeness” in which consciousness is an integral aspect of the nondual, seamless “implicate order.” However, until recently, because of the hegemony of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, their regard for the importance of consciousness has not been popular among most scientists. The influential Murray Gell-Mann has gone so far as to say, “the last refuge of the obscurantists and mystifiers is self-awareness, consciousness.”[2]

Yet in recent years an increasing number of cosmologists, theoretical physicists and philosophers of science have argued that consciousness is a basic aspect of the cosmos. Mystics from the ancient traditions of India have maintained this position for nearly 3,000 years, as indicated in the most ancient Upanishads, followed by the later Upanishads, Brahma Sutras, and Bhagavad Gita of the Vedanta tradition, the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali’s raja yoga tradition, Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist works, and Jaina works, all dating from well before the time of Jesus.

One would expect this emphasis on consciousness in the introspective traditions of the East. However, the emergence of the idea in scientific, empirical Western thought is an extraordinary historical development and bodes well for some kind of future complementarity between science and spirituality.

Physicist Nick Herbert, in his delightful book, Elemental Mind (1993), is one of the members of what might be termed a “Second Wave” of Western, scientifically-trained thinkers positing the idea of consciousness, mind, or awareness as a fundamental feature of reality, not explicable in other terms.[3] Whereas Herbert is mainly known among the Esalen Institute network and New Paradigm aficionados, David Chalmers, from 1995 to 1998 a philosopher of science at University of California at Santa Cruz (later Prof. of Philosophy at Australian National University) and author of the acclaimed 1996 work, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, has become the most widely heard voice in the mainstream scientific-academic arena challenging the assumptions of mechanistic Western science. He provocatively proposes that consciousness is an irreducible feature of our situation. In a landmark 1995 article for Scientific American, Chalmers observed,

Not all entities in science are explained in terms of more basic entities. In physics, for example, space-time, mass and charge (among other things) are regarded as fundamental features of the world, as they are not reducible to anything simpler.... If the existence of consciousness cannot be derived from physical laws, a theory of physics is not a true theory of everything. So a final theory must contain an additional fundamental component. Toward this end, I propose that conscious experience be considered a fundamental feature, irreducible to anything more basic. In the 19th century it turned out that electromagnetic phenomena could not be explained in terms of previously known principles. As a consequence, scientists introduced electromagnetic charge as a new fundamental entity... Similar reasoning should apply to consciousness.[4]

Elsewhere Chalmers has remarked, “It’s the combination of absolute familiarity and absolute mystery that makes consciousness so fascinating. We know far more about atoms and distant stars in many ways than we know about our own minds.”[5]

This is the challenge that mystical aspirants have undertaken around the world for millennia: to find out what this subjective consciousness is, to get to the bottom of the enigma—Who or What am I? The most accomplished mystic adepts, in accepting the challenge to “Know thyself,” have discovered things about consciousness or awareness that scientists do well to consider with far more attention and seriousness than they have previously managed. I will report on some of these accomplishments later on.

Because reductive materialists claim to have explained consciousness in terms of brain states, it’s worth presenting further some of the reasons why Chalmers feels that consciousness is the final frontier, the final mystery, and must be added to our naturalistic account of fundamental features of the world. Anyone who still doubts this is, for Chalmers, philosophically stuck on the inferior side of the “Great Divide.”

How could a physical system such as a brain also be an experiencer? Why should there be something it is like to be such a system? Present-day scientific theories hardly touch the really difficult questions about consciousness…. [W]e are entirely in the dark about how consciousness fits into the natural order. Many books and articles on consciousness have appeared in the past few years, and one might think that we are making progress. But on a closer look, most of this work leaves the hardest problems about consciousness untouched. Often such work addresses what might be called the “easy” problems of consciousness: How does the brain process environmental stimulation? How does it integrate information? How do we produce reports on internal states? These are important questions, but to answer them is not to solve the hard problem: Why is all this processing accompanied by an experienced inner life [i.e., consciousness—emphasis added]? Sometimes this question is ignored entirely; sometimes it is put off until another day; and sometimes it is simply declared answered. But in each case … the central problem remains as puzzling as ever….

[N]o collection of facts about complex causation in physical systems adds up to a fact about consciousness…. To analyze consciousness in terms of some functional notion is either to change the subject or to define away the problem….

I argue that reductive explanation of consciousness is impossible and I even argue for a form of dualism [where consciousness is different from matter]…. Temperamentally, I am strongly inclined toward materialist reductive explanation, and I have no strong spiritual or religious inclinations. For a number of years, I hoped for a materialist theory; when I gave up on this hope, it was quite reluctantly. It eventually seemed plain to me that these conclusions were forced on anyone who wants to take consciousness seriously. Materialism is a beautiful and compelling view of the world, but to account for consciousness, we have to go beyond the resources it provides. …

We have not remotely come to grips with the central problem, namely conscious experience itself…. At the end of the day, we still need to explain why it is like this to be a conscious agent. An explanation of behavior or of some causal role is simply explaining the wrong thing…. [O]ur theories must explain what cries out for explanation.

I resisted mind-body dualism for a long time, but I have now come to the point where I accept it… I can comfortably say that I think dualism is very likely true. I have also raised the possibility of a kind of panpsychism [wherein consciousness pervades the universe]. Like mind-body dualism, this is initially counterintuitive, but the counterintuitiveness disappears with time. I am unsure whether the view is true or false, but it is at least intellectually appealing, and on reflection it is not too crazy to be acceptable.[6]

Almost a decade before Chalmers penned these words, an important volume, The Reenchantment of Science, edited by respected philosopher David Ray Griffin, had Griffin and another contributor, Willis Harman, co-founder of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, arguing for a view that sees consciousness as a fundamental feature of reality.[7]

In sum, it would appear from our own direct experiencing of the “inside of experience,” along with expert analyses from thinkers including Herbert, Chalmers, Griffin, Harman, and others that consciousness or awareness needs to be included as a fundamental feature of the universe. This move would certainly help to resolve some major crises afflicting various fields of scientific study. These crises in Western science include the following:

1) The utter inability of neuroscientists (psycho-physiologists) to satisfactorily account for the subjective, “phenomenological” experience of seeing color, hearing sound and music, and feeling emotional states such as “love,” “happiness,” “sadness”—merely in terms of neuronal processes in the brain. Such physiological states can be correlated with these subjective experiences, but descriptions of physiological events cannot adequately account for the extremely vivid immediacy and emotional richness of these “noetic” experiences. This phenomenon—better to say “noumenon”—fascinated the eminent Canadian brain surgeon Wilder Penfield, who raised these philosophical issues back in the 1970s.[8]

2) The utter inability of neuroscientists to account for the initiating of efferent impulses, such as suddenly having the mental idea, “I am going to move my left hand,” and then executing this as an actual physical movement of the hand in a feat of, literally, “mind over matter.” The late Roger Sperry and Sir John Eccles, Nobel laureates and fathers of the modern field of neuroscience, always reminded their reductionist colleagues in the field (from Francis Crick to Daniel Dennett, et al.) that we don’t have a clue how such efferent impulses are launched in the “silent area” of the neo-cortex. There is simply no satisfactory way of explaining these initiatory mental events in physiological terms.[9] Again, there may be neuronal correlates for these mental events, but it is foolish to claim that it is the brain matter itself that launches efferent impulses.

3) The utter inability of neuroscientists or perceptual psychologists to account for how we are able to switch attention from one sensory or cognitive input to another. For example, notice how you are able to switch your auditory focus from one sound to another. This is the “cocktail party phenomenon”: you can inwardly “elect” to listen to one conversation over another and then switch back and forth if you choose. Or notice how you are able to switch your kinesthetic focus from one body sensation to another, say, from sensations in your left hand to those in your right hand. Such subjective switching occurs through a mysterious inner “attuning” process whereby you suddenly isolate one input as “figure” while all the other massive sensory information instantly becomes “background.” But precisely how do you do this? No neuroscientist has the faintest clue how you initiate these changes.

4) The utter inability of neuroscientists to satisfactorily account for the multi-faceted phenomenon of memory, which continues to be quite mysterious in important aspects of both storage and retrieval, for both short-term “working” memory and long-term memory. (For instance, despite recent findings that regions of the bilateral parahippocampal cortex and pre-frontal cortex are involved in encoding sensations, experiences and ideas into lasting memory, no one “knows yet what prompts the greater mental activity that seems to cement something in memory. We don’t know the source of those small differences in neural activity.”[10])

5) The utter inability of neuroscientists to explain how various cognitive functions can be “transferred” from one region of the brain to another after destruction and removal of the primary region. This even happens with adult brains, after “thresholds of development” have apparently long been passed. And what are we to make of Dr. John Lorber’s studies of patients with hydroencephalia-damaged brains? One person possessed only 1/45th of a cerebral cortex, yet was normal in every respect except for intelligence, which was unusually high![11]

6) The utter inability of doctors and biologists to make sense of the positive and negative effects that mental visualizations and intentions have on biochemical processes in the human body, especially neuropeptides and the immune system. (This anomaly has ushered in an entire field, psychoneuroimmunology, or PNI; also known as “mind-body medicine.”) This “mind over matter” phenomenon also includes various forms of remote spiritual healing that have been repeatedly validated in controlled scientific studies (see below).

7) The utter inability of physicists and psychologists to account for various forms of ESP (extrasensory perception, including remote vision, telepathy, precognition, etc.) and PK (psychokinesis, influencing material processes beyond one’s skin through the power of awareness). These incontrovertible psi phenomena will be discussed, along with spiritual healing, later in this book. They conclusively show that consciousness is more than local brain states, but appears to have nonlocal properties as well, extended in spacetime beyond this body and beyond this moment.

Nick Herbert, in his explorations of the mystery of consciousness, also wants to know why there is a felt-sense of the “unity of conscious experience”: “[A]lthough we know the brain to be a massive parallel processor with many billions of operations going on at the same time, our inner experience seems to possess a single center: whatever is going on seems to be happening to only one being.”[12]

And this brings up another anomaly: the well-known but little understood phenomenon of multiple-personality disorder involves veritable paranormal aspects. In this unusual but quite real psychopathology, the individual is not “undivided” at all: s/he feels the distinct sense of being “inhabited” by two or more personalities. And when one of these sub-personalities takes over from the other(s), instantaneous biochemical changes ensue, defying all conventional scientific accounts of how our physiology operates. For example, the primary personality may have severe allergies, and in the midst of an allergy attack, histamine floods through the tissues—but when another personality takes over, the histamine suddenly disappears!

All these anomalies constitute major, non-trivial problems that our present scientific paradigm or explanatory model simply cannot handle. Hence our scientific situation is in genuine crisis. And such a crisis state, as Prof. Thomas Kuhn so famously explained several decades ago, is a precursor to radical paradigm change or “scientific revolution.”[13]

The new psychological-philosophical-scientific paradigm for consciousness requires that we regard consciousness more as nonmaterial “information capacity” or “software” which utilizes a brain and a body as its “hardware.” By analogy, think of the programming you view on a television set. The programming is not a product of the physical apparatus, the TV. It is produced elsewhere and is transmitted as information content through the TV. Destroying the TV will not destroy the source or content of the programming. So also, when you destroy a human brain, you inhibit consciousness’ ability to express through it, but you don’t destroy consciousness itself, which belongs to an entirely different domain.

If the trend of accepting awareness or consciousness as a fundamental feature of the cosmos becomes accepted fact by enough mainstream researchers—and I think it is the only way to resolve the various crises afflicting our present day scientific state of affairs—this would represent a colossal validation of some classic views about mind, Spirit, and the universe that have been upheld by the sacred traditions—especially the most eminent “mystics.” These would include the aforementioned ancient sages of India who gave us the astounding wisdom teachings of the Upanishads, Brahma Sutras, and Bhagavad Gita, as well as later sages like Patañjali, Gaudapada, Shankara and their followers, the Yoga Vasishtha, Ashtavakra Gita, Avadhuta Gita, and other medieval and later “nondual” (advaita) Hindu works, the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama), Nagarjuna, Asanga, Vasubandhu and the Mahayana “Consciousness-Only” school of Vijñnavada/Yogacara, and related Mahayana and later Vajrayana texts and teachings (e.g., Lankavatara Sutra, Avatamsaka Sutra, Saraha, Milarepa, etc.), the contemplative Taoists (Lao-tze, Chuang-tze, et al.) and later Ch’üan-chen Taoists of medieval China, the ecstatic Sufis (Bayazid Bistami, Mansur al-Hallaj, Sana’i, Attar, Rumi, et al.), Christian mystics (Meister Eckhart and the Rheno-Flemish school, the Beguines, Cloud of Unknowing, Theologica Germanica, etc.) and Jewish mystics (e.g., Moshe Cordovero and other Kabbalists from the 16th century on).

Of course, accepting consciousness (or Awareness) as fundamental would also constitute a virtual defeat of mechanistic, materialistic scientism’s reductive premises that consciousness is merely an epiphenomenon of matter, a byproduct of brain processes, an ultimately nonexistent “ghost in the machine.”

This last phrase was coined by the materialist philosopher Gilbert Ryle in the 1930s. Paul Davies and John Gribbin, commenting on the rise of postmechanist, postmaterialist paradigm in science, conclude one of their books of several years ago by stating: “Today, on the brink of the twenty-first century, we can see that Ryle was right to dismiss the notion of the ghost in the machine—not because there is no ghost, but because there is no machine.”[14]

The hope of scientism since the time of Sir Francis Bacon has been to reach the point of satisfactorily explaining consciousness or “mind” in terms of matter. But it appears that the idealist scientist-philosophers early in the 20th century had the correct intuition about the world’s nature. The basic understanding of atoms, molecules, the chemical bond, and so on was complete by 1928. In that year, astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington succinctly declared in his highly popular work, The Nature of the Physical World (based on his 1927 Gifford Lectures): “The stuff of the world is mind-stuff.” He went on to explain,

The mind-stuff of the world is, of course, something more general than our individual conscious minds…. The mind-stuff is not spread in space and time; these are part of the cyclic scheme ultimately derived out of it…. It is necessary to keep reminding ourselves that all knowledge of our envi-ronment from which the world of physics is constructed, has entered in the form of messages transmitted along the nerves to the seat of consciousness…. Consciousness is not sharply defined, but fades into subconsciousness; and beyond that we must postulate something indefinite but yet continuous with our mental nature…. It is difficult for the matter-of-fact physicist to accept the view that the substratum of everything is of mental character. But no one can deny that mind is the first and most direct thing in our experience, and all else is remote inference.[15]

British mathematician-physicist-astronomer Sir James Jeans wrote even more suggestively in his 1929 work, The Universe Around Us,

Today there is a wide measure of agreement ... that the stream of knowledge is heading toward a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears as an accidental intruder into the realm of matter, we are beginning to suspect that we ought rather to hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.

One of the most influential and inventive figures of modern physics, John Archibald Wheeler, a protégé of Niels Bohr, went on record in the mid-1980s with the observation, “I do take 100 percent seriously the idea that the world is a figment of the imagination.”[16]

This notion, which accords well with the realization of the pre-eminent spiritual mystics, triggers from his fellow scientists questions such as “Where was mind when the universe was born? And what sustained the universe for the billions of years before we came to be?”[17]

I submit that the best answer to these questions can only come from a direct, intuitive-mystical-spiritual form of Self-inquiry into the very nature of what is aware of these questions and the words on this page... Just Who is this Noumenal Host for all these phenomenal "guests"?


1 See Eugene Wigner, Symmetries and Reflections, Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press, 1967; Wigner states that the relationship between consciousness and reality “cannot be eliminated.”

2 Quoted in John Horgan, The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Helix, 1996, p. 214.

3 Nick Herbert, Elemental Mind: Human Consciousness and the New Physics, Dutton, 1993.

4 David J. Chalmers, “The Puzzle of Conscious Experience,” Scientific American, Dec. 1995, p. 83. See also Chalmers’ larger work, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, Oxford Univ. Press, 1996, on the evidence for and the full implications of this view of consciousness as a basic feature of the cosmos. See Chalmer’s extremely rich Website, for a few hundred papers on consciousness, as well as Chalmers’ annotated bibliography of over 700 works on various facets of the topic, and additional links. Especially recommended works for readers of this book would be Jonathan Shear (Ed.), Explaining Consciousness: The Hard Problem, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997; Jonathan Shear, The Inner Dimension: Philosophy & the Experience of Consciousness, NY: Peter Lang, 1990; M. Hameroff, A. Kaszniak, & A. Scott (Eds.), Toward a Science of Consciousness, MIT, 1996; Ned Block, et al. (Eds.), The Nature of Consciousness: Philosophical and Scientific Debates, MIT Press, 1996; Alwyn Scott, Stairway to the Mind: The Controversial New Science of Consciousness, Springer-Verlag, 1995; M. Davies & G. Humphreys (Eds.), Consciousness: Psychological and Philosophical Essays, Oxford: Blackwell, 1993; Robert Kirk, Raw Feeling: A Philosophical Account of the Essence of Consciousness, Oxford Univ., 1994; H. Robinson, Objections to Physicalism, Oxford Univ., 1992; Colin McGinn, The Problem of Consciousness: Essays Toward a Resolution, Oxford: Blackwell, 1991; Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere, Oxford Univ., 1986. See also the Journal of Consciousness Studies (Imprint Academic, POB 1, Thorverton EX5 5YX, UK; or, in North America, POB 842025, VCU, Richmond, VA 23284) and their website at

For a more straightforward “mystical” approach to consciousness, see Arthur Deikman, The Observing Self: Mysticism and Psychotherapy, Beacon, 1982; Robert Forman (Ed.), The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy, Oxford Univ., 1990; and papers by Deikman and Forman in the J. of Consciousness Studies. For intriguing works positing Consciousness as basic, even the source of our cosmos, see some of the works on cosmology cited earlier, as well as Amit Goswami, The Self-Aware Universe: How Consciousness Creates the Physical World, Tarcher, 1993; David Darling, Equations of Eternity: Speculations on Consciousness, Meaning, and the Mathematical Rules that Orchestrate the Cosmos, NY: Hyperion, 1993; Fred Alan Wolf, The Spiritual Universe: How Quantum Physics Proves the Existence of the Soul, Simon & Schuster, 1996.

The materialist view, that consciousness is a byproduct or an emergent property of brain processes, is articulated in articles and papers in some of the earlier cited anthologies, and in such works as Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, Scribner’s, 1994; Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained, Little, Brown, 1991; Gerald Edelman, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire (On the Matter of Mind), London: Penguin, 1992; et al.

5 “David Chalmers: Untangling the Knot of Consciousness,” UC Santa Cruz Review, Winter, 1997, p. 13.

6 The quoted passages are from David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, Oxford Univ., 1996, pp. xi-xii, xiv, 103-105, 188-189, 357.

7 David Ray Griffin (Ed.), The Reenchantment of Science, S.U.N.Y., 1988.

8 Wilder Penfield, The Mystery of the Mind, Princeton Univ. Press, 1975.

9 John Eccles, How the Self Controls Its Brain, Springer-Verlag, 1995; The Wonder of Being Human, Random House, 1985; Roger Sperry, “Turnabout on Consciousness: A Mentalist View,” Journal of Mind and Behavior, Vol. 13, 1992, pp. 259-80.

10 Robert Lee Hotz, “Watching the Mind at Work,” Science File section, Los Angeles Times, Thursday, Oct. 1, 1998, p. B2.

11 John Lorber, “Is Your Brain Really Necessary?” Science, Vol. 280 (1980), pp. 1232-4. Lorber also reports on other cases, including one patient whose visual cortex was completey destroyed, yet exhibited normal vision. My thanks to Mark Woodhouse for pointing out Lorber’s research to me. The case of “Alex” was presented in the January 1997 issue of Brain by researchers Faraneh Vargha-Khadem, Elizabeth Isaacs, et al., of the Institute of Child Health in London (reported in Scientific American, Feb. 1997, p. 23): born brain-damaged, Alex was completely mute for 9 years, incapable of language except for “one or two regularly used words and sounds.” Having passed beyond the “critical threshold” for acquiring a language (this was long thought to be no later than 6 years of age) he then rapidly learned to speak over the next 2½ years, coming at age 15 to possess the semantics and syntax of a normal 10-year-old—all this without a left hemisphere, the region responsible for language in the overwhelming majority of people.

12 Nick Herbert, Elemental Mind, op. cit., p. 46.

13 See Kuhn’s famous work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 1970 (originally published in 1962).

14 Paul Davies & David Gribbin, The Matter Myth, p. 309.

15 A.S. Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World, Cambridge Univ., 1928, pp. 276-81.

16 The quote from Jeans, along with similar quotes from scientists who openly espoused or at least flirted with an idealist metaphysics, can be found in Ken Wilber, Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World’s Greatest Physicists, Boston: Shambhala, 1985. An important precursor for this book was Lawrence LeShan's article, "Physicists and Mystics: Similarities in World View," for the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall 1969.

17 The questions are from John Horgan in The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1996, p. 84, where he adduces the Wheeler quote (from Jeremy Bernstein, “Physicist John Wheeler: Retarded Learner,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, Oct. 9, 1985, pp. 28-41).