The Roots of Consciousness is a look at the history, folklore and science that shapes our understanding of psychic capacities. The original edition was published in 1975, while I was still a graduate student at U.C., Berkeley, working in an individual, interdisciplinary doctoral program in parapsychology. It is, in part, a personal book containing descriptions of significant events in my own life. It is also personal because in the field of consciousness exploration there are so many competing interpretations that any telling of the story -- even in strictly scientific terms -- contains many individual choices.
I might have, for example, written an account from the perspective of a proponent for a particular viewpoint regarding the existence or non-existence of psychic functioning. In so doing, my goal would not be to sift through competing claims to arrive at a balanced and truthful account. Rather I would be interested in persuading you that my version of reality is superior to those of my opponents.
If I were a skeptical debunker I would rail against magical thinking and would argue that every purported psychic event is the result of human error, folly or fraud.
This view, which is not uncomon in academic circles, has an ancient history and a marvelously fascinating folklore whose heroes are enlightened philosophers -- people who have struggled mightily to break free from the shackles of superstition. By popping the illusory bubbles of myth and magic, such heroes can presumably guide humankind toward an age of rational enlightenment. Within the perspective of this folklore, anyone attesting to such events as telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition or psychokinesis is to be considered either suffering pitiable delusion or perpetrating contemptible fraud.
While I doubt that all "skeptics" will feel comfortable with this book, I have become convinced, over the past fifteen years since I wrote the original edition, that the point of view debunkers represent deserves greater respect. True, debunkers often argue from a materialistic, positivistic or scientistic ideology. Their thinking is as colored by their worldview that of other ideologues or "true believers. (The mechanisms by which this can occur are detailed explicitly in Section III.) However, thoughtless dismissal of either true believers or true skeptics sometimes results from a protective reaction which generally serves no other purpose than to protect our own views from too sharp an outside challenge. As the original edition of The Roots of Consciousness was widely used as a college text, I am grateful for the opportunity to inject more critical thinking into the revised edition.
On the other hand, an exploration of consciousness might hardly be thought of as complete without an enumeration of the many inner realms of the mind explored by cultists and occultists, mystics and metaphysicians, witches and warlocks, poets and prophets, seers and saints, spirits and spiritualists, scientists and pseudoscientists of all stripes. Were I to write from the perspective of a New Age proponent, I would not fail to sympathetically treat such important terrain in the geography of consciousness as human beings who are the embodiment of dieties, the hierarchy of spiritual beings and planes of non-human existence, the healing power of crystals and pyramids, the worldwide confluence of prophecies regarding the future of the human race. In so doing, I would find no need to refer respectfully to the arguments of those who challenge my perspective.
Time and space do not permit me to enumerate all the the many threads and nuances implicit in the two possible scenarios presented above. Nor do I wish simply to elaborate on all the possibilities. We all possess different genetic patterns, fingerprints and personal histories. Similarly, each of us is the creator of our own unique perspective about the power and creativity of our thoughts and desires. While I have sought to present a balanced viewpoint, I realize that many other knowledgable persons hold perspectives about consciousness quite different from my own -- that they also believe to be appropriately balanced!
An author's goal of objectivity suggests that we can be neutral judges, evaluating the world around us as if we were not ourselves part of it, as if we were not players with a stake in the world game. To the degree that I subscribe to this goal (which, I hope, is substantial), I see myself as an impartial observer, accurately and fairly setting down the perspectives of believers and their critics. Yet, consciousness is a unique topic in that it is subjective, that it is direct, that we are it. Thus, while subscribing to the goal of objectivity, I wish to challenge the "myth of objectivity" which holds that we can accurately and fairly describe the world about us without reference to our own selves, our beliefs and attitudes.
Our idealized image of objectivity (especially in science) receives its most severe challenge from neither mystics nor psychics -- but from the growing critical literature within the philosophy and sociology of science itself. For an overview, I recommend Michael J. Mahoney's book, Scientist as Subject: The Psychological Imperative. Dr. Mahoney persuasively argues that the "storybook image" of the scientist -- to which most scientists apparently subscribe -- is, in fact, continually contradicted by the empirical evidence. The actual behavior of scientists suggests an image that, in practice, overlaps much more with occultism -- in both the positive and negative senses in which this might be taken.
Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, in Frames of Meaning, specifically claim that "radical cultural discontinuities" exist within the scientific community itself. Such cultural differences, they maintain, make it impossible to rationally settle the dispute as to the existence of human psychic abilities. The eminent philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend, in Science in a Free Society, goes even further and argues that major advances in science necessarily require the violation of normal scientific rules and standards.
In describing the history, folklore and science of consciousness, I will not pretend to be simply a disinterested observer and student of consciousness, but a participant as well. My entire slant is colored by my own experiences. Let me clearly warn you that, while I have done my best to honestly and accurately present all the following material, I had better -- due to the possibility of numerous cognitive pitfalls (to be detailed in Section III) -- make no further clai` that I have demonstrated the truth of any particular version of reality. The purpose of this revised edition of The Roots of Consciousness is simply to provide an entry into the language, concepts and assumptions implicit in a sophisticated worldview that allows for the possibility of psychic functioning. I am more interested in readers understanding and appreciating this worldview than in accepting or following it as "the truth."
One stylistic model which I am setting for myself (and which I hope to attain from time to time) has been called meaningful thinking by Sigmund Koch in his presidential address to the Divisions of General Psychology and of Philosophical Psychology. Koch describes meaningful thinking in terms which may seem more familiar to mystics, poets and occultists than to scientists and scholars:
In meaningful thinking, the mind caresses, flows joyously into, over, around, the relational matrix defined by the problem, the object. There is a merging of person and object or problem. Only the problem or object, it terms and relations, exist. And these are real in the fullest, most vivid, electric, undeniable way. It is a fair descriptive generalization to say that meaningful thinking is ontologistic in some primitive, accepting, artless, unselfconscious sense.
"Why am I me?" The chills and sensations of first being conscious of myself being conscious of myself are still vivid in my memory. I was a ten year old child then, sitting alone in my parents' bedroom, touching my own solid consciousness and wondering at it. I was stepping through the looking-glass seeing myself being myself seeing myself being myself...tasting infinity in a small body.
I could be anybody. But I happen to be me. Why not someone else? And if I were someone else, could I not still be me?
What does it mean to be an individual being? How is it possible that I exist? How is it I am able to sense myself? What is the self I sense I am?
How is it I am able to be conscious? What does it mean to exercise consciousness?
Does conscious awareness naturally emerge from the complex structure of physical atoms, molecules, cells and organs, that compose my body? Does consciousness reside somehow or emerge from the higher structure of my brain and nervous system? And, if so, how does that occur? What is it about the structure of my nervous system that allows me to discover myself as a human being? How can a brain formulate questions? Are thoughts and questions even things in the same sense that neurons and brains are things?
As conscious beings, do we possess spirits and souls? Are we sparks of the divine fire?
How close are we to understanding the origins of the universe, of life, of consciousness? Is it possible to answer questions such as ... Who are we? What does it mean to be human? What is the ultimate nature of matter? Of mind?
In our time, the spiritual and material views seem quite divergent. In a way they both ring true. They each speak to part of our awareness. And, for many if not most people, they each, by themselves, leave us unsatisfied.
We have myths and stories. We have world views, paradigms, constructs and hypotheses. We have competing dogmas, theologies and sciences. Do we have understanding? Can an integration of our scientific knowledge with the spiritual insights of humanity bring greater harmony to human civilization?
We go about our business. We build cities and industries. We engage in buying and selling. We have families and raise children. We affiliate with religious teachings or other traditions.
We sometimes avoid confronting the deep issues of being because there we feel insecure, even helpless. And like a mirror of our inner being, our society reflects our tension.
Yet the mystery of being continues to rear its head. It will not go away. As we face ecological disaster, nuclear war, widespread drug addiction, widespread inhumanity, we are forced to notice the consequences of our lives in ever greater detail. Are not these horrendous situations the products of human consciousness and behavior? Can we any longer continue to address the major political, technological and social issues of our time without also examining the roots of our consciousness and our behavior?
Can we reconcile our spiritual and material natures? Can we discover a cultural unity underlying the diverse dogmas, religions, and political systems on our planet?
This book suggests we have that potential.
It details the the progress of some who have dared to probe the roots of
being. Let us now begin the journey of discovery together.
. Paradoxically, one might also say that the reverse is true: the only thing that we know objectively and directly is our own consciousness. The rest is all secondary. The great physicist, Sir Arthur Eddington, put it this way: Primarily the sphere of objective law is the interplay of thoughts, emotions, memories and volitions in consciousness. The resolution of this paradox, that consciousness might be both objective and subjective, will be the focus of a detailed discussion in the Appendix.
. Michael J. Mahoney, Scientist as Subject: The Psychological Imperative. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1976.
. Harry M. Pinch, & Trevor C. Collins, Frames of Meaning. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.
. Paul Feyerabend, Science in A Free Society. London: NLB, 1978
. Sigmund Koch, "The Nature and Limits of Psychological Knowledge. Lessons of a Century Qua 'Science,'" American Psychologist, 36(3), March 1981, p. 260.