Can we be certain that mind, or consciousness, is just an epiphenomenon of neurophysiological activity, that it is little more than a byproduct of brain function? How do we know that our current models are accurate explanations, even descriptions, of what consciousness is? The computer model of the mind and brain, with consciousness as software, is clearly outdated and oversimplified. The behaviorist assertion that consciousness does not exist is inaccurate. The history of science reveals a continuous succession of models and theories repeatedly replacing one another in light of new observations, discoveries, realizations and eventual paradigms of understanding.
My contribution to this debate, drawing from my own ethnographic observations, is to ask a simple question: what if consciousness actually is something akin to the way it is experienced? That is to say, perhaps taking heed of experience itself might tell us something about the nature of consciousness.
I am not simply referring to our everyday waking consciousness here, but am striving to be inclusive of the broadest range of conscious experiences—from the mundane to the sublime. Yes, for most of us, most of the time, consciousness is experienced as something that is fairly stable and continuous—a stream of uninterrupted experience, usually characterized by intentional purpose. When we go to work, for example, we are usually clear and deliberate in our actions and experiences, we feel in control. But this narrow form of consciousness is not the only way we experience our minds.
What about dreams, for example? In dreams consciousness is let loose. We can create whole worlds in our minds. Then there are mystical experiences, where consciousness is experienced as expansive and connected to all else in the universe (unity), and maybe even to God.
What about astral travel and shamanic soul-journeys? Here consciousness is not confined to the physical body, but is something much more mobile, something capable of traveling through space and time to distant locales.
Then there is spirit possession, and mediumship. Here consciousness is experienced not so much as a single bounded ‘thing,’ but rather as a conglomeration of minds, as made up of many different porous, interconnected, parts that coexist to form a whole.
There are many more examples we could draw on to illustrate the fact that consciousness is often experienced in ways that are at odds with the dominant explanatory models of mind—time-slips, past-life experiences, precognition, psychedelic experiences, psychokinesis, near-death experiences, and so on.
Are we to assume, then, that such experiences tell us nothing at all about the nature of consciousness? Must we conclude that these experiences are purely illusory? I don’t think that we do. Indeed, it seems, to my mind at least, that these experiences point towards an understanding of consciousness as something that is profoundly complex, deeply mysterious and altogether much stranger than the dominant reductionist accounts seem to want to admit. We like things to be easily classifiable. We like simple explanations. But nature doesn’t have to play by our rules—why would it?