Implications for consciousness

This final chapter outlines some of the implications of psi research for consciousness. In order to do this, it begins by reflecting briefly on the evidence covered in the previous nine chapters. The essential take home message from this is that, when a broad view is taken that encompasses the various areas and findings, it is clearly evident that something strange is occurring. However, it is not clear yet precisely what this is, hence the term Dark Cognition. Nevertheless, given the range and variety of evidence covered in these chapters the continued sceptical rhetoric that there is either no evidence for psi, or that science in general should continue to ignore these findings, is simply untenable. Given that the range and diversity of findings supporting psi are both substantial and persistent, this in turn raises the question of how such effects may be accounted for in terms of consciousness. To explore this issue the chapter briefly examines current views on the nature of consciousness. It then outlines the dominant view that is currently accepted throughout the wider scientific field, that consciousness is solely the result of brain activity. However, it is clear when this view is used to try and account for the findings from psi-based research outlined in the previous chapters that it fails. Hence, there is a need for a paradigm shift in how consciousness is conceptualised. The shift outlined here is based on an emerging consensus that consciousness may be fundamental in nature and that an individual may interact with a wider field of consciousness. Exploration of this view shows that it is better able to account for the data from psi-based research. The chapter ends by exploring some of the implications of this new paradigm of consciousness.

Reflections on the evidence for psi

There can be no doubt that the field of psi research has come a long way since the inception of organisations such as the Society for Psychical Research and the Parapsychological Association. Indeed, some have argued that the field has demonstrated verifiable, concrete and useful contributions to science in general (Hovelmann, 2015). This is not to say that more cannot be done. It would of course be both useful and helpful if effect sizes and replicability could be improved. However, Cardena (2015b) points out that in order to do this we would need to know much more about psi phenomena and related variables than we currently do, and even then it would not necessarily mean that the phenomena can be elicited when required. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the notion of uncertainty that those in the field of psi researchhave to face and deal with is not unique, as it is a common feature of many other scientific disciplines (Cardena, 2015a).

The previous chapters have provided some coverage of a selected range of psi topics, including telepathy, remote staring effects, clairvoyance, remote viewing, precognition, psychokinesis, fields of consciousness, subtle energy healing, out of body experiences, near-death experiences and post death phenomena. In each of these areas, with the possible exception of out of body experiences, there is robust evidence of unusual or anomalous effects occurring. In many areas sufficient empirical studies have been conducted to allow for the use of meta-analytic approaches which provide a more comprehensive overview of the findings in a particular field. Each of these metaanalyses shows an often small but reliable and significant effect (e.g., Bern, Tressoldi, Rabeyron, & Duggan, 2015; Dogan, 2018; Duggan & Tressoldi, 2018; Honorton et al., 1990; Honorton & Ferrari, 1989; Milton, 1997; Mossbridge, Tressoldi, & Utts, 2012; Peters, 1999; Radin & Nelson, 2003; Roe, Sonnex, & Roxburgh, 2015; Schmidt, Schneider, Utts, & Walach, 2004; Storm et al., 2017; Storm, Tressoldi, & Di Risio, 2012). It is also interesting to note that the significant effects of psi reported in the various meta-analyses resemble, and at times exceed, those reported in the more acceptable areas of medicine and psychology (Richard, Bond Jr, & Stokes-Zoota, 2003; Tressoldi & Utts, 2015). Indeed the most recent review argues that the field of psi research has clearly demonstrated replicability and consistency of effects as well as cumulativeness (Cardena, 2018). As such, if the findings from each of these fields of psi research are examined individually the results are both positive and encouraging. However, if the findings from these areas are taken together en masse it is simply incomprehensible that anyone could reach a conclusion arguing that there is no evidence for psi. Therefore, the continued objections regarding evidence of psi would seem to be based more on dogma and cultural acceptance than scientific evidence and reasoning. Indeed, some have argued that continuing to ignore the data on psi simply reflects a prejudicial attitude which is contrary to the very nature of science (Facco, Agrillo, & Greyson, 2015). Nevertheless, once the findings of psi are accepted this raises the question of how they can be accounted for.

Accounting for psi in terms of consciousness

To try to answer the question of how such findings may be accounted for in terms of human consciousness we need to briefly examine what is meant by consciousness. Following this, we can explore the currently accepted basis for consciousness and ask how such an approach can account for the findings of psi.

Defining consciousness

Possibly the only agreement there is in research on consciousness is the fact that there is no universally accepted notion of precisely what consciousness is (Williams, 2016), though most would agree that it involves aspects of awareness, self-awareness, subjective experience, knowing and understanding (e.g., Blackmore, 2003; Rose, 2006). A pragmatic definition offered by Searle (2008) is that it refers to the subjective awareness you have of yourself and your environment which begins when you wake each morning and ends each night when you fall asleep. Throughout this time an essential componentof consciousness is its subjective and private nature. For instance, James (1890) pointed out early on that all people feel themselves to be conscious thinking individuals. Hence, the generally accepted view is that each person experiences their own consciousness but not that of another, no matter how close a relationship they may have. In addition, we conclude that others are conscious simply because they act in a manner that is similar to us and they can tell us they are conscious.

It is also worth reflecting for a moment on the idea that consciousness may not be a single state or construct. For example, researchers have distinguished between having something consciously in mind at a particular moment that can be reported or consciously experiencing a current event. The former is referred to as an aspect of access consciousness and the latter as phenomenal consciousness (Block, Flanagan, & Giizeldere, 1997). In addition, Searle (1997) notes that when we sleep we are often aware of our dreams and as such distinct or altered states of consciousness can occur. Some even suggest that each cortical system may be associated with a distinct aspect of consciousness. For example, Zeki (2001) uses the term micro-consciousness to refer to the possibility that each part of a system may have its own correlate of consciousness. Overall, it seems that consciousness refers to a range of possible states and types of experience rather than a simple single aspect of the self. In this way consciousness is more of an ‘umbrella term’ for a range of mental phenomena (see e.g., Blackmore, 2003). However, whilst there is much debate and discussion regarding the precise nature of consciousness the generally accepted view within mainstream science is that consciousness is directly related to the brain.

Consciousness is the brain

If an individual is asked to indicate where they think their consciousness resides many invariably point to the head to suggest that somewhere in this region is the basis for their sense of self. In part this may be because the major sensory inputs of vision, sound and touch are processed here. It also reflects the dominant view currently held in science which proposes that consciousness is a direct product of the brain. It is worth reflecting for a moment that this was not always the case. In fact, Aristotle put forward the cardiac hypothesis which suggested that the conscious mind resided in the heart region, because this was both warm and active. The brain was seen as nothing more than a radiator used to cool the blood. It was Plato who placed the conscious mind in the head, though he did this because that part of the body was deemed to be closer to heaven and not for any specific biological reason (Kolb, Whishaw, & Teskey, 2016).

Nevertheless, the proposal that consciousness is directly linked to the brain has remained the dominant view ever since. Hence, irrespective of how complex consciousness may be the central assumption of scientific materialism is that consciousness is identical with, or can be reduced to, the electrical impulses of the various neural networks of the brain (Beauregard, Trent, & Schwartz, 2018). Given this, each conscious experience is often perceived as emerging from the neural activity of the brain in response to internal processes and external sensory information (Tressoldi, Facco, & Lucangeli, 2016), in which case the human individual can be portrayed as a complex biochemical organism whose self-awareness is the result of these biochemical interactions. As such, when the organism dies its consciousness ceases to exist.

However, Chalmers (2013) has identified what he calls the hard problem of consciousness. This asks how we get from the objective activity of multiple networks of neurons to the subjective taste or experience of chocolate. Mainstream neuroscience has attempted to examine this by identifying and exploring specific neural correlates of consciousness (Crick 8c Koch, 2003). The assumption here is that by exploring how and why particular patterns of neural activity occur it will make the hard problem clearer. However, it would be fair to say that there are now an abundance of studies exploring and examining the various neural correlates of behaviour and cognition. Unfortunately, the hard problem of consciousness is still no clearer. Given this, it may be unsurprising that such a view also has difficulty accounting for the findings of psi.

Accounting for psi

Many have argued that models or theories which rely solely on the assumption that consciousness equates to brain activity have difficulty accounting for findings that suggest that the mind of an individual may not be limited to a precise space or time (Beauregard, 2014; Brabant, 2016; J. M. Schwartz, Stapp, & Beauregard, 2005). In particular, the findings from the field of near-death experiences, which suggests that rich conscious experiences may occur when the brain is either inactive or nonfunctioning, something that contemporary neuroscientific models would suggest is necessary for such experiences to occur, is difficult at best to account for using a materialist approach (van Lommel, 2004). Indeed, S. A. Schwartz (2018) argues that such a brain based account of consciousness is simply inconsistent with the available data. It is worth stressing at this point that the view of consciousness emerging as a result of brain activity is an assumption not an empirical fact. Furthermore, this assumption is based primarily on correlated activity between brain function and cognition or behaviour. Importantly, as most undergraduate students learn early on in their academic career, correlation does not equal causation. Hence, Brabant (2016), among many others, argues that the current view of consciousness as being solely an emergent phenomena of brain activity is certainly incomplete and very likely wrong (e.g., Beauregard et al., 2018; Facco, Lucangeli, 8c Tressoldi, 2017; S. A. Schwartz, 2018). However, this does not mean that the brain plays no part in conscious experience. As van Lommel (2004) argues, the many studies identifying clear associations between brain activity and cognition/behaviour show that the brain is in some way involved in these processes. Nevertheless, what such studies do not show is that the brain is producing these aspects of conscious behaviour. As such, there is a need for a paradigm shift.

A paradigm shift

It should not be the case that potential theories of consciousness avoid dealing with the findings related to psi simply because they are difficult to account for, ambiguous, complex and messy. In addition, where findings, such as those from across the various fields of psi, are either ignored or rejected a-priori then such decisions are based more on the beliefs of those responsible for such judgements than on science. Indeed, Facco et al. (2015) posit that this can lead to a dogmatic drift, where the currently accepted axioms and paradigms of science are prejudicially taken for truth, thus contradicting the very nature of science itself. In fact, the ability to check and change its axioms and paradigms, to question any accepted model, particularly when they prove to be incompatible with new findings, and attempt to understand all issues is a central strength of science and the scientific process. No theory or model, no matter how good, and no matter the professional credibility of the person proposing it should be allowed to stand if it cannot account for all the data. Hence, it is sometimes the case that in attempting to account for unusual data a paradigm shift is needed. A paradigm shift is often the result of scientists working within a particular paradigm that is no longer able to fully explain or account for the observed phenomena. Eventually, these anomalies accumulate making the current paradigm untenable which in turn can lead to a crisis. The crisis is overcome by a sudden revolution in thinking which involves a radical transformation in the way that science is then conducted. This marks the transition from the old paradigm to a new one that is more able to account for such findings (Kuhn, 1970). There are many examples in the history of science whereby a paradigm shift has produced a radical transformation in terms of what is viewed as accepted knowledge and understanding. Examples include the theories of relativity, evolution, plate tectonics and germ theory to name but a few. It should be noted that a possible paradigm shift does not mean that knowledge and understanding gained using the old paradigm should be rejected, simply that the anomalous findings indicate that the limits of such a paradigm have been reached (Facco et al., 2015). Just as the paradigm of Newtonian physics reached a limit when attempting to explain sub-atomic particles, this does not invalidate the findings of Newtonian physics, which are still used widely. It merely shows that the current paradigm has limits in terms of what it can explain. With regards to psi and consciousness many have argued that a shift needs to occur which gives serious consideration to two key points (e.g., Beauregard, 2014; Beauregard et al., 2018; Brabant, 2016; S. A. Schwartz, 2018). The first is that consciousness is not an emergent phenomenon but should be thought of as fundamental. Related to this is the idea that consciousness is not solely produced by the brain but may be interpreted, relayed or transmitted by the brain.

 
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