What is Consciousness Studies?

The Approach at the Bhaktivedanta Institute, Mumbai / Berkeley

By Prof. R. Gomatam, Director

First Posted: June 12, 2010


The Bhaktivedanta Institute (B.I.) at Mumbai/Berkeley has played an important role in the development of the modern field of consciousness studies since its inception. In 1990 in San Francisco, the institute organized the First International Conference on the Study of Consciousness within Science, featuring presentations from sixteen eminent scientists including three Nobel laureates. Soon after the conference, the Institute began a colloquium on Consciousness and Science in the San Francisco that ran for many years. The speakers list at this colloquium is a veritable who-is-who of consciousness studies in N. America. Alongside organizing this conference and the follow-up colloquium-series, the institute's director, Prof. Gomatam has been working to develop the Bhaktivedanta institute's own in-house research in Consciousness Studies.

As a logical result of these activities, B.I. was able to enter into collaboration with BITS, Pilani to offer the world's first (and perhaps still, the only) fully accredited M.S./Ph. D. program in Consciousness Studies at the Bombay center of the institute. It is at present, a full-time residential program. One important aim of B.I. is to convert the MS program to a fully online one, both to make it available to more students worldwide, and to also release its main faculty to focus on a new emerging result of Prof. Gomatam's research within quantum physics, as it is expected to open up concrete applications in other fields in the coming few years.

Consciousness Studies--A Brief Overview of its Evolution

Starting in the mid 70's leading scientists and philosophers felt advances in the sciences -- in fields such as biology, neuroscience, computer science, along with underlying physics and chemistry -- has made it possible to study consciousness strictly in a scientific way and on a conventional empirical basis. This was a particular moment of hubris, since consciousness is a property of the human observer, whereas material science progressed by abstracting out matter in terms of properties that are independent of conscious observers -- called primary properties -- and studying matter "objectively" by measuring and manipulating primary properties.  How then could such a material science, which presupposes a notion of matter independent of the existence of the human conscious observers study consciousness? It would seem a logical impossibility.

The hope here was that consciousness could be studied by treating the human observer as a more complicated material system, built out of (relatively) less-complicated material systems, such as atoms and molecules, DNA/RNA and cells.  This approach to studying consciousness was called cognitive science.  In this field, typically, instead of studying what consciousness is, questions revolved around studying conscious behavior; or, more accurately finding neuro-physiological correlates of conscious behavior.  Although this was practically a useful and limited approach to studying consciousness, it has a serious flaw: because the study of behavior was done in term of primary properties of matter that non-conscious systems also must necessarily have, any so-called "conscious behavior" (or, more precisely, behavioral correlates of presumed conscious/mental states) can also be present in non-conscious systems. This is known as the "zombie" problem. A zombie is a robot system that is by definition not conscious, but yet has the exact same behavior as conscious systems.

The zombie problem meant that the prevailing approach of cognitive science to study behavior can tell us nothing about consciousness itself.  By the late 1990s, a minority of scientists and philosophers started insisting on going past cognitive science to inquire about the nature of consciousness itself within science. This led to the emergence of "Consciousness Studies", in contradistinction to cognitive science, in the 1990s. But Consciousness Studies also was beset by numerous problems because despite their agenda to attempt a study of consciousness qua consciousness within science, the researchers had only the same science that gives rise to the "zombie problem" at their disposal. Thus Consciousness Studies as a study of what Consciousness is, fared no better than cognitive science.

However, Prof. Gomatam, who conceived and organized the pioneering first International Conference on the study of consciousness within science in 1990 in San Francisco, has had a different agenda for Consciousness Studies from the beginning.  Consider two worlds W1 and W2. Let W1 be a world which has only non-conscious material systems. Matter in W1 will certainly have some objective properties. Suppose W2 is the world W1 but with consciousness in addition.  The new question that Prof. Gomatam raised is this: Will matter in W2 have some objective properties that matter in W1 does not have? If yes, then the study of matter in W2 can continue to be objective and consciousness-based. Such an approach to Consciousness Studies will by definition not be plagued by the zombie problem, and will continue to remain a field of science that studies the world of matter independent of consciousness; yet it will have a bearing on our understanding of what consciousness is.

In other words, consciousness studies as a scientific field has been flummoxed by a material science from W1. It is a science of matter based on "primary properties".  W1 is a fictional world that is constructed within science using what Prof. Gomatam has called the classical R-mode thinking. [See Gomatam, 2004; Physics and Commonsense, in this regard.]

In contrast, Consciousness Studies as conceived by Prof. Gomatam will instead be based on a material science from W2. Clearly, W2 is the world we live in, unlike W1 which is an imaginary world created by scientists so far. What will be the new properties of matter that will form the subject matter of material science in W2? It is in providing a precise answer to this question that Prof. Gomatam sees Consciousness Studies as being pioneered by him in B.I. to be a real scientific field. The new properties are "relational properties".  A simple place to start understanding the nature of these new physical properties is Gomatam (1999), [Quantum theory and the Observation Problem, Journal of Consciousness Studies]. He has many other publications which can be obtained from the Bhaktivedanta Institute, Mumbai/Berkeley. They are available here. 

Revision 1: July 6, 2010

The W1 and W2 worlds can be further elaborated as follows.  

"Science" is the attempt to understand phenomena in entirely "naturalistic" terms. This approach pre-supposes a subject/object distinction, i.e. a distinction between conscious scientists qua embodied beings and the rest of the world that is taken to exist "independent" of us, and called the "natural world". Such a natural world is treated as a closed system, and scientists endeavor to get some testable predictions under well defined conditions for some range of phenomena occurring in this natural world.

Of course, "natural world" is but an idea in our mind.  Under the circumstances, the best approximation to objectivity we can hope is an inter-subjectively invariant description of it. This is what classical physics achieved in some ways. Such a physics has remained an attractive paradigm for other sciences to follow. Chemistry, early on, co-opted the idea of its reducibility to physics in principle more than a century ago; in the early 20th century psychology, surprisingly before biology, followed suit with behaviorism. In the mid-50s, molecular biology joined the party. Computing, with the work of Church and Turing followed suit, with the program for Artificial intelligence in place right from the start. Neuroscience joined in by 80s.  Consciousness studies by 90s and in the first decade of this century. All these fields are based on the idea that they are ultimately reducible at least in principle to physical workings.

If so, regimes in which the validity of classical objectivity (read: classical inter-subjective invariance) fails acquire critical interest. And it is well known that the classical objective description fails irrevocably in quantum theory. Thus, my discussion of the scientific agenda for Consciousness Studies is tied to my own work in quantum theory, to develop what I call MQM or macroscopic quantum mechanics [See my online papers, quantum theory, symbol grounding problem and the Chinese Room Argument; quantum realism and haecceity]

Given the fundamental presupposition in physics of the distinction between subject and the rest of the world, and between one object and another in the rest of the world, we can conceive of three kinds of properties that these inanimate physical systems have, in terms of which they can dynamically interact with each other:

a) Properties that a physical system will have independent of the presence any other inanimate physical systems, and any other conscious physical system. These are called primary properties in the literature; length, height of a table; its mass. Etc.

b) Properties that a physical system will have because of the presence of other inanimate physical systems, and because of the presence of other conscious physical systems. These are not at present conceived.

c) Properties that a physical system will have solely of the presence of conscious physical systems. These are at present called secondary and subjective properties; color of a table, it is a "nice table" etc.

W1 is the natural world studied by physics in terms of properties mentioned in a) above. Thus, the world of classical physics is W1. Currently, the world of current quantum theory is also W1, since classical kinematics is taken over on the whole in quantum theory and quantum dynamics is simply grafted on to it.  

It might appear that W2 that is being proposed will involve properties c) above.

However, that is not the case. Properties b) and c) above both actually require taking into account the presence of conscious observers. However, in considering properties of the kind (b) we can bracket out the conscious observer to arrive at an inter-subjective invariance which is different from the classical one (since the physical properties on which such physics will be based upon will be different0. Thus, W2 is a new world of expected to be developed within physics, based on properties (b) above in order to scientifically matter in the presence of consciousness.

Macroscopic quantum mechanics (MQM) is such a new physics being developed by the director of our Institute, Prof. Ravi Gomatam. It aims to treat macroscopic objects as observably having quantum states predicted by the wave function evolving only as per the Schrodinger equation, i.e. without such states reducing to classical states at the point of observation. Physics being the basic science, MQM can naturally be expected to have consequences for chemistry, biology, neuroscience, engineering etc. 

Further elaboration requires getting into the details of MQM which will not be attempted here.  Visit Prof. Gomatam's webpage to see his publications in this regard.

For an earlier write-up on the same topic of "What is Consciousness Studies?" by Prof. Ravi Gomatam, our Director, please click here.

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