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Consciousness and Inner Reality

Notes for a Science of Contemplative Practices

Speaking of consciousness, existing models can be classified into two main categories: those that recognize to the Consciousness an intrinsic existence independent, at least in part, from its physical substratum and those who instead consider the Consciousness entirely reducible to the electro-chemical-physical processes that take place in the brain.
detail of Area Broken by Perpendiculars (ca. 1934), Joseph Schillinger (American, 1895 – 1943)

by Bruno Neri

The enigma of Consciousness is perhaps the most fascinating mystery in the Universe. There are many hypotheses, more or less rooted convictions and models on the basis of which we try to give an answer to the most difficult of problems [Chalmers, 1995], but, wanting to schematize, all can be traced back to two broad categories: those that they recognize to the Consciousness an intrinsic existence independent, at least in part, from its physical substratum and those who instead consider the Consciousness entirely reducible to the electro-chemical-physical processes that take place in the brain. Whereas the latter fit well into the so-called materialist monism, the former lead to a dualistic vision of Reality in which the external world obeys the laws of Physics and the internal one requires a different level of analysis.

All of us are deeply immersed in a world made of science and technology and it is not easy to break free from a physicalist vision of reality. Nonetheless, a more or less conscious desire to look “beyond” is present in all of us. Faith is the tension towards the unspeakable and it is not an attitude contrary to reason: an act of faith is also that of the Scientist who senses a new Truth "beyond" the threshold of the known and then, perhaps, spends the rest of his life in the attempt to solidly connect this intuition of his to a rationally structured vision of Reality. In the same way, we can all intuit the existence of a "beyond" and try to build that type of connection in the form that appears most convincing to us, keeping a window open on the transcendent without giving up a vision of the world based on a strictly scientific approach . But it is not easy.
The dilemma between materialist monism and dualism, or between Science and Spirituality, if we want to bring it back to these two categories, is today more relevant than ever. In recent years it has been re-fueled, on the one hand, by the promises of the Neurosciences to "explain" Consciousness, which later proved to be premature, on the other by the spread in the West of new forms of spirituality that have proved surprisingly compatible with an approach strictly scientific. The path in search of the solution winds between these two alternatives and passes through the answer to two fundamental questions.

1. First question: "Is Scientific Materialism capable of embracing the totality of Reality?"
The dominant thought system in the world of Science is what Alan Wallace [Wallace & Hodel, 2008] defines Scientific Materialism (SM) and rests on four pillars which have risen to the rank of irrefutable truths without, however, anyone ever having demonstrated them. Here are the pillars of the SM:
1) Objectivism: the only Reality that makes sense to know and investigate with a scientific method is that which exists outside of us and can be observed, studied, measured with “objective” methods.
2) Metaphysical Realism: external Reality has its own intrinsic existence, independent of the Observer and can be entirely known by them.
3) Principle of closure or exclusion: the existence of any other non-material agent capable of influencing Reality (both internal and external) is excluded.
4) Reductionism: all phenomena can be analyzed at different levels of complexity, each level is the result of the underlying ones and its constituents, up to the fundamental level of Physics.

This view is still today the one widely prevalent in the Life Sciences, including Neuroscience, for which the Consciousness that has no mass/energy or extension, is, consequently, devoid of intrinsic existence, cannot be exposed to the objective methods of measure and, therefore, cannot be the subject of science. Consciousness is the phantom through which the complexity of neuronal processes is manifested to us due to our imperfect knowledge. When this knowledge is complete the ghost will vanish and we will be able to reduce any mental state to neuronal processes and then, through Biochemistry and Chemistry, to the level of classical Physics based on mechanistic determinism. The consequences of this reasoning are devastating: in one fell swoop the role of free will is eliminated, there is no room for ethics and every possible hypothesis about the survival of something after death becomes meaningless simply because this something doesn't even exist when we are alive: it is only an illusion. In fact, stating that Consciousness is devoid of intrinsic existence means that it is entirely reducible to the physical electrochemical processes that take place in the brain. Reducing one class of phenomena to another, in our case that of mental states to that of the Neuronal Correlates of Consciousness (CNC), means demonstrating a one-to-one correspondence between the phenomena of the two classes so that, from the knowledge of the phenomena of a class, complete knowledge of the other's phenomena derives. Once the reducibility of Consciousness to the CNCs has been demonstrated, Science will be able to deal with these, leaving to philosophers and men of faith any other vain discussion on vague and elusive concepts. This is the dominant position in the neuroscientific field.

However, the above reducibility has been taken for granted a priori, in the wake of what we could define an excess of scientific optimism, but no one has ever proved that this reducibility is possible nor is it very clear if anyone knows from where to start to demonstrate it . One of the foundations of this misunderstanding dates back to the advent of so-called intelligent (in the sense that they appear, but are not) machines: the computers. The misunderstanding derives from the following false syllogism: i) the computer is a machine capable of implementing logical operations; ii) the human mind is capable of doing the same thing; iii) therefore the mind works like a computer, indeed, like the most powerful of computers. The syllogism is clearly distorted by the fact that it assumes that the faculties of Mind / Consciousness are limited to logical operations, that is, to the implementation and execution of algorithms. And this is how AI (Artificial Intelligence) experts have been trying to design computers that can function like the human mind for over half a century and neuroscientists are scrambling to explain the functioning of the brain (that is, from a reductionist perspective, of the Mind) like a computer. But, as Federico Faggin [Faggin], inventor of the microprocessor, father of the personal computer, engaged for years on the AI ​​front and, later, creator of the Foundation for Consciouseness Studies, argues, the Consciousness has peculiarities that make it intrinsically irreducible to a machine, however complex it is.

Despite the failures, attempts by neuroscientists to explain the higher functions of the Mind / Consciousness as it were processes (software) that take place within the brain (hardware) continue. The machine / brain is represented as constituted by functional blocks to each of which a sub-function is delegated, as in a computer, (functionalist reductionism). By way of example, we report below a passage taken from a recent book by Nobel laureate Eric Kandel [Kandel, 2018]. This is the (alleged) explanation in terms of functionalist reductionism of a higher level prerogative such as the management of an emotion. "There are many brain structures involved in emotion, but four of them are particularly important: the hypothalamus which is the executor of the emotion; the amygdala which orchestrates the emotion; the striatum ... omitted; the prefrontal cortex which evaluates if the response to the emotional stimulus is appropriate etc. ". Well: performing, orchestrating, evaluating are all higher cognitive functions assigned by Kandel to each of the parts in order to explain how the whole (the brain) implements a function that is exactly the same type. It would be like saying: "To think, the brain uses the cortex that ... thinks": the problem is not solved in the least, it is only moved, triggering a process of regression to infinity. A somewhat clumsy attempt that closely resembles the 17th-century homunculus called into question [Wikipedia1] to explain the mechanism of vision.

But not only is the SM far from having reduced Consciousness to CNCs, it literally remains without arguments in front of phenomena involving Consciousness whose scientific evidence has been proven beyond any reasonable doubt. Below we list some of them, all published in peer reviewed international journals, to which we refer for further information and verifications. 1) Distant correlation of brain activity in subjects subjected to optical stimulation [Grinberg-Zylberbaum et al, 1994], [Radin, 2004/1], [Wackermann et al., 2003]
2) Near Death Experience [Lommel, 2011]
3) Retrocausality phenomena (reversal of the temporal sequence between cause and effect) [Radin, 2004/2], [Mossbridge, 2011]
4) Mind / matter interaction [Radin, 2013]
5) Conscious behaviors in people with almost no cerebral cortex [Feuillet et al, 2007] and in unicellular organisms, therefore without neurons and synaptic connections [Jennings, 1906]
In light of the considerations and facts that we have set out in this paragraph, the answer to the first question can only be a firm NO.
This is the dominant point of view in Neurosciences.

2.Second question: "Is a unitary vision of Reality possible in which Consciousness is not reducible to its neuronal correlates?" Having recognized the fact that Classical Physics and Scientific Materialism are unable to embrace the phenomenology of Consciousness, let's try to see how things change by taking into account of the novelties introduced by the QM that describes a sort of ultimate Reality very different from the conventional one. The ultimate Reality described by QM differs from the conventional one on some fundamental issues that we will try to summarize below. In fact, in QM:
1) The classic distinction between subject and object of knowledge loses meaning: what matters is the process of knowing. The Consciousness of the observer assumes a primary role as the QM does not describe Reality itself, but tells us how Reality becomes part of our cognitive universe. Ontology recedes and epistemology advances, putting Metaphysical Realism in crisis. Says Werner Heisemberg [Heisemberg, 1959], one of the fathers of the QM, “What we observe is not Nature itself, but how Nature responds to our methods of observation”. The very distinction between particle and wave, so dear to Classical Physics, vanishes. The electron, for example, is neither one nor the other: it manifests itself as a particle or as a wave depending on the way we observe / know it (experiment of the double slit [Wikipedia2]);
2) it is inherently impossible to know in a complete way not only the whole Reality, but even the single phenomenon (Heisemberg's uncertainty principle);
3) the only possible description of the phenomena is contained in the wave function, solution of the Schroedinger equation, and is of the probabilistic type (end of determinism);
4) the locality principle of classical physics is abandoned according to which no action at a distance is possible other than those mediated by the electromagnetic or gravitational field that propagate at a maximum speed not exceeding that of light. The universe appears, instead, as a connected whole in which an event can instantly produce effects at even astronomical distances (entaglement) without the mediation of the field; the claim of reductionism to study complex phenomena in terms of independent constituents vanishes;
5) the classic concept of cause and effect becomes evanescent; inexplicable phenomena emerge in classical terms in which the effect can even precede the cause (Delayed Choice Quantum Eraser [Wikipedia2]).

The ultimate Reality of the QM appears closer to certain experimental evidences involving the Conscious which are inexplicable in classical terms. In particular, although we are far from having definitive answers, we could interpret the correlations at a distance [Grinberg-Zylberbaum, 1994], [Radin, 2004/1], [Wackermann, 2003] as entaglement phenomena (non-locality of the QM ). Retrocausality could also be explained [Radin 2004/2], [Mossbridge, 2011] given that, for example, there is a well-known QM experiment (Delayed choise quantum eraser experiment [Wikipedia2]) in which the effect seems to precede the cause. At least QM would offer a frame of reference in which these phenomena are not in contradiction with the basic axiomatic system. Nevertheless, QM in its current formulation is not enough to account for some evidence such as, for example: near-death experiences; the existence of a collective or species unconscious, hypothesized to explain innate behaviors; the difficulty still unsurpassed by neuroscience, to establish a certain connection between the elements of memory and its "traces" in the brain; the existence of consciousness and memory in people almost devoid of brain matter (hydrocephalus) [Feuillet et al, 2007]; the apparently conscious behaviors of extremely simple or even unicellular organisms, therefore devoid of neurons and synapses, from the long-known paramecia to Stentor Raesillii [Jennings, 1906]. Hypotheses and experimental evidence that indicate the existence of forms of consciousness that are detached from the neuronal substrate or, even, that go beyond the boundaries of the individual.

To answer the question that gives the title to this paragraph, we must therefore go "beyond" and abandon the last axiom of Scientific Materialism that resisted the advent of QM: the principle of closure or exclusion. At this point it will be possible to hypothesize the existence of an entity devoid of the attributes of mass / energy and extension, but capable of acting in the world. This would mean that the current formulation of the QM is incomplete, or rather that in the Reality there are "hidden variables" (for now) that escape the categories of mass, extension and energy and that we have not yet been able to identify. While shocking, it wouldn't be the first time this has happened in physics: it happened when Newton discovered gravity and Maxwell described the electromagnetic field and, more recently, with the advent of QM. Moreover, Albert Einstein was also convinced of the fact that QM was not a complete description of Reality. He believed he had proved it in a very famous paper [Einstein, 1935] which gave rise to a twenty-year diatribe with Niels Bohr, never completely resolved. More recently Roger Penrose went further by hypothesizing a space of existence for Consciousness, not attributable to an algorithmic process, connected to quantum phenomena within nanostructures, microtubules, present in neurons (and not only) (Hameroff, 2014). These are fascinating, plausible hypotheses, but far from having been proven. If and when this were possible, a new form of monism would be born which, instead of excluding Consciousness, will embrace it, recognizing it an irreducible role for the understanding of Reality. A form of extended monism, just outlined in Enrico Facco's book "The enigma of the mind", which the author defines as Holomonism [Facco, 2019]. At this point, we can conclude by stating that the answer to the question that gives the title to this paragraph is: YES (but it must be built).

3. The Science of Contemplative Practices as a tool for investigating Reality
The answers to the two fundamental questions constitute a fixed point from which to start to identify the role of a Science of contemplative practices in the recomposition of a unitary vision of Reality. Just as, at a certain point in the History of Science, it was necessary to introduce the gravitational and electromagnetic fields to explain some otherwise inexplicable phenomena, in the same way the introduction in the Schroedinger equation of a Cognitive principle, what Faggin calls C-space [Faggin], could allow to build a new unitary vision of Reality. It could be the beyond towards which to look to build this vision with scientific rigor without giving up free will, ethics, will, attention to the inner life, to Spirituality. To ignite on this path, new tools are needed. In fact, once the irreducibility of Consciousness has been ascertained to its neuronal correlates, continuing to study it by limiting itself to the latter would be like having the pretense of exhausting the knowledge of the sun by dedicating exclusively to the measurement of its dimensions without dealing with its energy!

In this research it is obvious to look at those traditions that have always recognized to the Consciousness an its own intrinsic existence and that have their common roots in the cultural history of India in the first millennium BC, diversifying in the following centuries. In the following we will refer to Buddhism, in particular to Tibetan one which appears better compatible with the scientific method and, thanks also to the interest of the Dalai Lama, enjoys a proven interaction with Western Science [Dalai Lama, 1998] and offers a large number of dedicated texts (for example [Tashi, 2006]).
Buddhism, as the experimental sciences, recognizes the supremacy of direct experience and does not accept any Truth, not even that revealed by the Master, without an experimental verification. Even in Buddhism there are the scholars of the theory on the one hand and, on the other, the experimenters, i.e. practitioners who use the most advanced observational tools and techniques to test the theory, thereafter they make available the results for further refinements of the theory itself. This investigation is extended not only to ordinary states of Consciousness (wakefulness, dream, deep sleep) but also to non-ordinary ones induced by specific meditative practices (for example: lucid dreaming, higher levels of meditative absorption, near-death state (tukdam)).

Contemplative practices are known and practiced in the West with the primary and almost exclusive goal of pacifying the Mind and allowing the control of emotions. In the context of the culture in which they were born and developed, however, they constitute an irreplaceable tool for analyzing Reality and are also used to induce non-ordinary states of Consciousness that shift the point of observation and focus on the deeper aspects of the ultimate Reality.
In Buddhism, in fact, as in QM, two levels of reality are recognized: the conventional one perceivable by ordinary Consciousness and the ultimate one that can be glimpsed through reflection and study, but which is achievable, or intimately knowable, only in a privileged state of Conciousness. which we can define as enlightenment [Tashi, 2006 Vol.4]. I will limit myself here to mentioning only one significant example of the voluntary induction of a non-ordinary state of Consciousness which allows us to focus on a crucial question: that of the Mind-Body relationship at the moment of death. There are some esoteric forms of meditation in Tibetan Buddhism (Dzogchen, Dzogrin, Mahamudra) which are passed down only orally from master to disciple in Tantric colleges and which consist in controlling the process of separation of Consciousness from the Body until the perceptual channels are interrupted. In this way a non-ordinary state of Consciousness is generated which in the tantric tradition is considered the most faithful possible replica of a near-death state. The achievement of this state is witnessed externally by a reduction in metabolism: for example, the respiratory rate can drop to an observable respiration every 10 minutes. When one of these meditators feels close to death, he voluntarily begins for the last time this meditative practice from which he does not goes back. But, even when his heart stops beating, it is believed that the Conscious has not yet completed the process of detachment from the body which can last several hours or days. In this period, what for us is a corpse, continues his last meditation preparing for a new reincarnation with the aim of returning to the world to help sentient beings to escape from suffering. We cannot know, of course, what is true in this hypothesis, except that this last meditation, tukdam in Tibetan, is often accompanied by a phenomenon that is absolutely out of the ordinary: for the whole tukdam which can last even a couple of weeks , the deceased does not show any sign of the well-known processes of decay and decomposition, sometimes retaining an almost rosy color as if a sort of vital spirit still pervaded him. The phenomenon was also recorded under medical supervision, for example in the case of Geshe Ciampa Gyatso, abbot by the Lama Tzong Khapa Institute of Pomaia (PI) with a 7-day tukdam. The author witnessed a similar case during a stay in the Tibetan monastery of Sera-Jey, India, in 2019. We can therefore conclude our reflection by affirming that not only is a Science of contemplative practices possible and compatible with the most recent and effective representation of Reality that we have, that of QM, but that it is even necessary in order to try to illuminate the other side of Reality intrinsically impenetrable to the objective tools of scientific analysis.

4. Conclusions We have outlined in the previous paragraphs a path that has led us to glimpse a third way between materialist monism and dualism, a path that others have identified in a new form of extended monism, also assigning it a name: Holomonism. The goal is to build a unitary vision capable of embracing the external phenomenal reality together with the internal one and recognizing to Consciousness the role of a substance that cannot be reduced to others. To follow this path, the tools developed by scientists are not enough: tools are needed that are able to plumb the other side of the coin and confer equal scientific rigor to the analysis of experience in the first person. A leading role is thus outlined for a new science of contemplative practices intended not only as a remedy to pacify the Mind and control negative emotions, but also as an irreplaceable tool for analyzing first-person experience and capable of shedding light on the fascinating enigma of Consciousness.

Acknowledgments: The Author is very grateful to Profs. Giuseppina Campisi and Paolo Neri for the critical re-reading of the manuscript and the precious suggestions.


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