Russell references logical positivism early in his narrative as the prevailing philosophical position of the academic community he was a part of. Given at least my limited experience in the life sciences, I would agree that this position continues to prevail, even if it does so mostly unnamed or unexamined. By my understanding, logical positivism emphasizes pragmatism within our explorations—i.e., the search for concepts that work. Meanwhile, it under-emphasizes the reality (i.e., the metaphysics) underlying these concepts. The problem with this approach, by my reckoning, is that we all hold metaphysical assumptions, as individuals and cultures, even if we are often unaware of them. These metaphysical assumptions affect what questions we ask, how we seek to answer these questions, and what answers we deem acceptable. I.e., they hinder our search for truth. If I understand his work correctly, part of what was so revolutionary about Albert Einstein’s theories around Relativity are that they rejected some of the metaphysical assumptions that had to-date been taken for granted in the Newtonian worldview. Russell’s book is obviously an attempt to transcend logical positivism.
The primary theme of the book seems to be the exploration of consciousness as a means of linking differing epistemologies (ways of knowing), in particular “spirituality” & “science” (empiricism, rationalism). Further, Russell asserts that a true understanding of what consciousness is will fundamentally alter our metaphysics (understanding of reality).
So what is consciousness?
Russell calls consciousness a problem for modern science in that there is no theoretical framework within existing sciences which can explain the phenomena. He believes that consciousness is an anomaly that will push Western thought into a paradigm shift; Russell thus extends Kuhn’s idea of paradigms from existing within a particular discipline into culturally-shared metaparadigms. So, for instance, scientists (and laypeople) across disciplines may share certain metaphysical perspectives.*
Consciousness is not composed of matter (and can not be observed in the way that we observe material objects); how then can assembled matter (e.g., human beings) acquire or create consciousness? What is our metric for the claim that human beings have consciousness while other assembled matter (e.g., a rock) does not? For Russell, these observations raise the question of whether consciousness actually arises from matter or whether consciousness is a fundamental element of reality that exists independently of matter. Russell begins to address this question through differentiating between the faculty of consciousness and the varying forms of consciousness, with matter shaping these forms similarly to how a film projector shapes light. So, for instance, it may not be that consciousness exists in critters with more advanced nervous systems because their nervous systems are creating consciousness, but because they are amplifying the faculty of consciousness, which exists independently. The varying forms of consciousness have thus evolved along with the complexity of life, yet the underlying faculty remains the same and ever-present.
Does “consciousness” even exist?
I ask this question to reflect my opinion that Russell never really gets around to providing a useful definition of the faculty of consciousness. My understanding of his forms of consciousness are somewhat clearer—my thoughts as I type these words constitute a form of consciousness (Russell characterizes the forms of consciousness as “…everything we know, perceive, or imagine, every color, sound, sensation, thought, and feeling, is a form that consciousness has taken on. As far as this world is concerned, everything is structured in consciousness.”). But what is the underlying stuff (or “faculty”) that I am amplifying, if consciousness is truly more than a relatively useless term applied to the amalgamation of all the varying activities that my brain carries out. Where do we have any sort of evidence of consciousness existing independently of a brain (i.e., matter), for instance?
Russell performs an interesting thought exercise to demonstrate how our sense of consciousness is misleading: we tend to associate consciousness with our brains, when actually this association only happens because our brain is located centrally between our eyes and ears. If we imagine these sense organs instead being located on our knees, for instance, it is easy to imagine how we might associate consciousness with a completely different locus on our bodies. Hence consciousness is neither comprised of matter, nor does it have a specific physical location. If consciousness does not have a specific location, how can we say that it is contained within us?
How has consciousness evolved (both within life on our own planet and within the context of our universe as a whole)?
“Matter has reached the point of beginning to know itself…[Man is] a star’s way of knowing about stars.”
Alternately, perhaps consciousness is our way of knowing about knowing about stars.
The wacky world of quantum physics.
In chapter 5, when Russell really starts to delve into some physics, is when I am reminded of how inadequate my understanding of all this business truly is. He discusses the nature of light, whose anomalous behavior is at the base of major paradigm shifts in physics (specifically relativity and quantum physics). Apparently, the nature of reality at the speed of light is significantly different (at least in terms of time, space, and mass) from that which we experience in everyday reality, driving home the point about confusing our perception of reality with the actual structure of reality. Yet from here Russell switches back to discussing consciousness, and commits what strikes me as something akin to an illusionist’s parlor trick: he juxtaposes the physical reality of light with the use of light as a metaphor for consciousness. I wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable with this juxtaposition if it were only a metaphor, but it somehow seems to become incorporated into his central thesis that physical light is synonymous with the light of consciousness. Russell claims “…close parallels between the light of consciousness and the light of physics,” but at least in my opinion, he doesn’t do enough to develop these supposed parallels into a convincing argument for their synonymy. And especially so given that he then follows this association with the elucidation of a life philosophy that, while it sounds really nice, seems to be based upon this new metaphysics which he has snuck in through the backdoor.
East & West
Unlike the West, whose intellectual pursuits Russell claims have been focused on the external world, Eastern intellectuals have long pursued an understanding of the inner realm. Hence he has turned in his quest to understand consciousness to “…texts such as The Upanishads, The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, The Cloud of Unknowing, and contemporary writers such as Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, Carl Jung, and Christopher Isherwood.” Another important book is The Science of Being and Art of Living by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (an Indian), which teaches Transcendental Meditation.
Another significant difference which I have been thinking of, yet which Russell does not specifically articulate as being an East/West divergence, is our sense of self. Westerners especially tend to view our selves as our own individual characteristics which distinguish us from others (also see Richard Nisbett’s discussion of individualism index, high context vs. low context with regards to self-understanding in his Geography of Thought). By Russell’s understanding, the pure light of consciousness is the truest essence of self, and we experience this essence through silencing the mind. Here’s an interesting quote from him along these lines:
“…The first appearance of self-awareness probably involved a sense of identity with one’s tribe and kin, but not a strong personal self. Gradually this inner awareness evolved, becoming more focused, until today it has reached the point at which we have a clear sense of being a unique self, distinct from others and the natural environment. Awareness of this individual self is not, however, the final stage of our inner evolution. Dotted through history have been those who have discovered there is much more to consciousness that most of us usually realize. This self, they tell us, is not our true identity. Moreover, it has serious shortcomings. If our awareness of self is limited to this separate, dependent, ever-vulnerable self, our thinking is distorted, and our actions are misguided, bringing much unnecessary suffering upon ourselves. To free ourselves from this handicap, we must take a further step in our inner journey and discover the true nature of consciousness.”
Finally, Russell has apparently been at the forefronts of some of the research (which I first encountered from folks at the Mind & Life Institute) studying actual links between physiology/brain function and meditation. This topic seems to be a pretty hot one currently; I even saw some articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education not too long ago looking at the integration of meditation techniques into higher ed. curriculum.
Places to go for more:
Russell is connected to the
*One of these perspectives, or metaparadigms, is the idea that we can play the role of objective observer of phenomena, that somehow we can remove ourselves from affecting the phenomena. Critiques of the Western scientific worldview stress that our perception is “theory-laden,” i.e., that our experiences of reality are personal rather than universal. Vedantic philosophers of ancient