Phenomenology and Science

Science (empirical observation coupled with logical deduction), as a way of thinking, has undoubtedly made more out of mankind than any other mode of thought in his historical arsenal. In both the material and mental spheres, man has used the knowledge and technology that he has gained from science to make many great practical advances. He has accumulated a wealth of useful ideas and inventions since the beginning of the Scientific Revolution. However, science, and all the progress which accompanied it, has yet to provide a satisfying answer to any of reality’s most fundamental mysteries, one of which being the nature of consciousness. While allowing man to logically breakdown and then symbolically map the world so as to better understand it, the scientific approach provides little insight into the nature of the mind that gives rise to those symbols in the first place. This scientific oversight of the primacy of consciousness has affected many fields of study, including philosophy. Philosopher-mystic Alan Watts laments the results of this influence: “This is the current movement in philosophy: logical analysis says you mustn’t think about existence, it’s a meaningless concept. Therefore philosophy has become the discussion of trivia. No good philosopher lays awake nights worrying about the destiny of man and the nature of God and all that sort of thing. A philosopher today is a practical fellow who comes to the university with a briefcase at 9 and leaves at 5. He does philosophy during the day—which is discussing whether certain sentences have meaning and if so what” (Watts LHG). Watts adds that “he would come to work in a white coat if he thought he could get away with it,” mocking the typical academic philosopher’s desire to be considered scientific. Author Aldous Huxley had a similar view: “In a world where education is predominantly verbal, highly educated people find it all but impossible to pay serious attention to anything but words and notions. There is always money for, there are always doctorates in, the learned foolery of research into what, for scholars, is the all-important problem: Who influenced whom to say what when? Even in this age of technology the verbal humanities are honored. The non-verbal humanities, the arts of being directly aware of the given facts of our existence, are almost completely ignored” (Huxley 76). In other words, because the characteristic philosopher deals only in logical abstractions (usually the same abstractions that are the basis of the metaphysics of the scientific method), he deals only with a third person view of reality. He finds this approach comfortable, though, because it is the view of the objective scientist safely cut off from the field of reality going on outside his mind, from the “given facts of [his] existence.” This detached perspective helps to maintain the illusion that some progress toward understanding ultimate truth is being made, as if truth were out there in the world and the scientist/philosopher need only to observe and record it. Of course, it may never have been the goal of science to provide us with such truth, but its undeniable usefulness seems to have distracted the greater part of humanity from that pursuit altogether. Put simply, the modern philosopher has lost his sense of wonder and become hypnotized by the easily acquired half-truths of science. He may still marvel at the outside world, but he has been made ignorant of the inside world, that of his own mind, and of consciousness, that indescribable sense of being which arises when the outside and inside unite and interact. Alan Watts agrees: “Consciousness is the background to all that we know” (Watts LHG). If we don’t first look deeply into our own direct perception, how can we derive any knowledge from a world we know only through its filters?

In light of this shortcoming of science, Phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty described the necessity of reevaluating the worth of a purely scientific view of reality: “The whole universe of science is built upon the world as directly experienced, and if we want to subject science itself to a rigorous scrutiny, and arrive at a precise assessment of its meaning and scope, we must begin by reawakening the basic experience of the world, of which science is the second-order expression”(Merleau-Ponty). So the basic metaphysical assumption made by science—that the subject/object distinction between the mind and the body, or between man and his world, is fundamental to reality itself—is being called into question. Before one can reliably describe the outside world, one must understand the nature of his direct experience in that world. Understanding this direct experience by relating it to the state of unity consciousness (typically referred to as mystical awareness) by bridging the gap between science and religion and incorporating the insights such integration provides into a coherent phenomenological theory of embodiment will be the objective of the remainder of this essay.

To begin drawing parallels between what Merleau-Ponty means by “direct experience” and what a mystic means by “unity consciousness,” I offer the following comparison. Here is Merleau-Ponty’s description of the origin of experience: “[It is] the mysterious tissue or matrix that underlies and gives rise to both the perceiver and the perceived as interdependent aspects of its spontaneous activity,” and further, “that primordial being which is not yet the subject-being nor the object-being and which in every respect baffles reflection. From this primordial being to us, there is no derivation, nor any break; it has neither the tight construction of the mechanism nor the transparency of a whole which precedes its parts” (Merleau-Ponty viii). Now, here is philsopher-mystic Ken Wilber describing the nature of Spirit, that which is apprehended during unity consciousness: “In its immanent aspect, Spirit is the Condition of all conditions, the Being of all beings, the Nature of all natures. As such, it neither evolves nor involves, grows or develops, ascends or descends. It is the simple suchness or isness—the perfect isness—of all that is, of each and every thing in manifestation. There is no contacting immanent Spirit, no way to reach It, no way to commune with It, for there is nothing It is not. Being completely and totally present at every single point of space and time, It is fully and completely present here and now, and thus we can no more attain immanent Spirit than we could, say, attain our feet” (Wilber xvi). Merleau-Ponty speaks of a state of being that has “not yet” spontaneously divided into a subject and an object. That is, this state has not developed into time and space; it exists in its undivided state. It is space-time itself, or, as Wilber termed it, Spirit. We see then that in these two descriptions of the creative force of the universe, two seemingly disparate thinkers have realized one and the same truth, that at the root of consciousness lay a direct experience of reality which transcends all categories and dualities. Wilber’s Spirit is Merleau-Ponty’s “direct experience” of reality mystically renamed.

To illustrate why any attempt to conceptualize this direct experience “baffles reflection,” a detailed account of the limits of language must be undertaken.

Ludwig Wittgenstein once asserted that because the goals of philosophy are not lofty but illusory, its problems are not difficult but nonsensical. What exactly he meant by this is of greater importance to humankind’s pursuit of truth than perhaps any other philosophical aphorism in its history. This is so precisely because the statement casts such a shadow on all types of philosophical knowledge regardless of the conclusions they may appear to draw.

The mind/body problem, then, when viewed in light of Wittgenstein’s doubts about philosophy’s goals, must be evaluated in a fundamentally new way. The majority of the popular philosophies thus far conceived by past great thinkers have failed to produce a convincing theory because they’ve failed to properly bring to the surface the language-based barriers standing in their way. Even Merleau-Ponty’s description of direct experience, as near as it comes to dissolving these barriers, remains creatively tied down by the grammatical structure of its language. He is forced to describe a state without a subject-object duality through the medium of a language which only makes sense when subjects can act or be acted upon by objects. So to understand what Marleau-Ponty means when he says your direct experience “gives rise to both the perceiver and the perceived as interdependent aspects of its spontaneous activity,” you have to take a step beyond the mere words and actually feel it for yourself.

The thus far insoluble problem of other minds provides a great example of what happens when words get in the way of reality as we directly experience it. Every proposed solution to the dilemma remains frustrating unverifiable. Behaviorists claim that only what can be outwardly observed need be considered real, thereby negating the necessity of mind altogether. This seems quite silly, though; such an assertion seems contradictory being that the theory itself requires a mind for its manifestation and subsequent application. To prove, though, that other minds exist would require that a solution be spelt out here on the page, that some logically coherent intellectual argument be voiced so that you might read it and somehow understand that it were true. But Wittgenstein would say that such an answer was impossible, as proving that other minds exist cannot be accomplished using any conventional linguistic means but rather that the question itself ought to be unasked before anything might be settled. It is impossible to know that other minds exist because knowing implies that you can provide logical reasons in support of your knowledge, and reasons can only be expressed using language, which at its roots remains a fundamentally contradictory medium of expression. Surely, though, it is quite possible to feel that other minds exist, to feel without words or reasons the truth inherent to your direct perception of the human condition of another. As Wittgenstein put it, “[See the] consciousness in another’s face. Look into someone else’s face, and see the consciousness in it, and a particular shade of consciousness. You see on it, in it, joy, indifference, interest, excitement, torpor, and so on. [It’s] the light in other people’s faces” (Wittgenstein 225). Intuitively, then, the problem of other minds is no problem at all, but a farce—an unnecessary intellectual abstraction of a reality that is easily grasped by anyone willing to admit that proof is the burden of language and not the burden of reality as we experience it. In reality, the proof is in the pudding: taste it and you’ll understand. There is no reason another person ought to have a mind, there is only the truth that they do, a truth arrived at through a purely intuitive and non-rationalized experience of reality.

Of course, this conclusion is not final, as it is contingent on the definition one assigns to such an abstract word as “mind.” Here is a sample of John Locke’s view concerning the nature of mind as self: “[It is] impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive” (Locke 335). It is indeed impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive, but notice the necessity of the premise “for any one.” This one is the “mind,” the “I,” the individual person, the illusory place holder given to each human entity by the grammatical structure inherent to his way of describing reality. So it is true then, at least “true enough” in Wittgenstein’s words, that one cannot perceive without knowing he perceives, as it is said “I perceive” such that the perceiving is in fact performed by me and therefore separate from me. But am “I” a real entity, a real perceiving substance, or merely a product of the functional conventions of language (i.e. Wittgenstein’s suggestion that the meaning of a word is derived from its use)? As Huang Po, a Zen Buddhist master, once remarked to a student, “Let me remind you, the perceived cannot perceive” (Blofeld 26). If I am aware of my own perception of myself, which is the real me: my perception or my perception of my perception, or my perception of my perception of my perception, and so on? This infinite regress appears to be unavoidable, however it arises only because of the dualistic nature of language, because an “I” must “have” perceptions instead of there just being perception alone. (Of course, the illusion of separate mental existence is an undeniable experience for all those who are members of a language-crazed society, so in this sense and this sense only, it is, again, “true enough” that other minds exist even when the ego or mind is, from the ultimate perspective, not an individual’s truest identity.)

This “perception alone” is the only real quality that can be assigned to consciousness. It is synonymous with Marleau-Ponty’s “direct experience” and Wilber’s apprehension of Spirit. We all intuitively feel this perception at the deepest level of our experience all the time. It reveals what there is. It is our total current experience, our body’s complete awareness of our environment as it exists in its entirety before the names and descriptions the ego superimposes upon it become our only way of thinking about it or describing it to others. This total bodily awareness with the environment also dissolves the illusory barrier between the two so that our current experience becomes an identity with the universe in its entirety, organism and environment as one. This is a step Marleau-Ponty may or may not have been willing to take, although it seems to follow naturally from the conclusions drawn by his philosophy. If the mind is embodied, then it is no great step to realize that the organism is also embodied by its environment. This hierarchical relationship between the mind and the body, and between the body and its environment, forms the center piece of Wilber’s theory of the spectrum of consciousness.

Wilber’s spectrum of consciousness is a formalization of what is known to mystics as the Great Chain of Being. While there are many forms of this chain, each of which being divided into its own special categories with their own original names and designations, the basic core of the concept remains the same in all cases. Wilber explains: “Consciousness is not, properly speaking, a spectrum—but it is useful, for purposes of communication and investigation, to treat it as one. We are creating, in other words, a model, in the scientific sense of the word… [This model incorporates] the revelations of psychoanalysis, Yogacara Buddhism, Jungian analysis, Vedanta Hinduism, Gestalt therapy, Vajrayana, and Psychosynthesis, among others” (Wilber 6). The rationale behind creating such a detailed account of consciousness was best summed up by Psychologist William James: “Our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, while all about it parted from it by the flimsiest of screens there lay potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded” (Wilber 3).

Wilber’s spectrum begins at the level of Mind. This is the level at which consciousness embraces the whole of the universe and becomes aware of, as Huxley once put it, “everything that is happening everywhere in the universe” (Huxley 24). It is as if during one’s “normal waking consciousness” this “Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system, [and] what comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet” (Huxley 23). So then it is only the filters of our nervous system—the brain’s special ability to concentrate on specific stimuli while ignoring other less practically valuable stimuli—that prevents the average person from realizing their real identity with the universe as a whole.

Before we can progress to the next level of consciousness, it must be made clear exactly how each level comes to appear separated from the other. It is important to remember, first of all, that the level of Mind is both the source which creates and the substance which makes up all other levels on the spectrum. If the other levels of the spectrum are waves traveling through the ocean, Mind is the water itself. Like its namesake, Spirit, Mind is all that there is. The other levels are then said to arise as illusory boundaries are spontaneously erected which separate the universe from itself. That is not to say, however, that these boundaries are useless and destructive; quite the contrary. They provide the supporting structure of evolution, or as Wilber refers to it, the process of spirit returning to Spirit, as well as the basis for each individual consciousness’ development through life. In other words, the spectrum of consciousness develops both ontogenically and phylogenically. The first boundary, created one level above Mind, gives rise to what Wilber terms the Existential level of consciousness. At this level, the totality of the universe as a whole is divided into an organism and its surrounding environment. This is the level at which the consciousness of lower order animals appears to operate. Their daily concerns are usually finding food, avoiding death, and reproducing. The next level is the Ego level, and it is here that things begin to get more complicated. At this level, the mind begins to separate itself from the total organism and the mind/body duality is born. This step is the direct result of the development of language and the subsequent ability of the organism to form abstract concepts, including the concept of self. Without language, the realization of such a separation between the mind and the body would be impossible. The organism would have no way to bypass its present experience of momentary, embodied existence in favor of the symbolic abstractions derived from memory that create the sense of a continuous individual being separate from its decaying body. It is also clear that time plays a large role in the maturity of this level, as developing an understanding of time first requires the ability to record past and predict future events which are nowhere to be found in the directly experienced present. It must be pointed out that human beings are, as of yet, the only species on Earth to have developed the biological apparatus necessary for this level of consciousness. The final boundary is the level of the Shadow. On this level, the ego itself becomes fragmented and divided into a persona and a shadow, or a conscious mind and an unconscious mind. The persona includes all the thoughts and feelings an individual is not ashamed to identify with, while the shadow refers to anything forbidden or taboo that the conscious mind finds unacceptable or is incapable of expressing. No further division of consciousness is deemed possible, so it is at the Shadow level that the spectrum ends, or rather, that it collapses in upon itself. Here is a diagram of the spectrum:

(Wilber 131)

One can see that at each level on the spectrum, a larger part of the universe is divided from itself and that, as a result, a self/other distinction is created. At the existential level, the skin of the organism separates it from the environment it inhabits. At the Ego level, the mental abstractions of the mind separate it from the organism. And finally, at the Shadow level, the meta-mental abstractions of the formally unified ego divide it from itself.

Assuming this spectrum is accurate, which is no great assumption considering the many experiential reports gathered from mystics and other explorers of consciousness throughout human history that are in perfect agreement with its fundamental structure, then what can it tell us about the nature of the mind/body problem? It would appear to suggest that the basic theory of embodiment, that the mind and body need to be somehow reunited, is a step in the right direction. But to stop short at the barrier of the skin is to make the same mistake Descartes made when he thought himself out of his body. As Wilber’s spectrum makes evident, the separation of an organism from its environment is only an apparent separation. There can be abstract distinction between organism and environment but there can be no real division. “From this primordial being to us, there is no derivation, nor any break,” as Merleau-Ponty reminds us. A biologist would agree, “[claiming] that a man’s self—his ‘real’ being—is the entire organism-environment field, for the simple reason that [he (the biologist)] can find no independent self apart from an environment” (Wilber 13). This identification of the self with the organism-environment field is the dissolution of all barriers to consciousness and the realization of the level of Mind. All filters are turned off and consciousness of the All is allowed to flow freely through itself.

All this talk of mysticism and states of unity consciousness has probably made the dedicated scientist or logic-bound philosopher queasy. This adverse reaction to incorporating the wisdom of the various contemplative religions into the academic research on the nature of consciousness should be no great surprise at all. Scholar Alan Wallace tells us why: “Especially since the Scientific Revolution, the Western mind has sought to know what is out there, in the objective world, while ignoring discoveries of what is in here, in the subjective world… We have commonly regarded the history of discovery as being principally a Western pursuit; and religion is commonly presented as a principal foe of discovery… Such ethnocentric biases concerning the history of discovery must be abandoned if we are ever to learn from the insights of the world’s contemplative traditions” (Wallace 179). This bias has many philosophers working tirelessly to produce a workable science of consciousness unaware that one may already exist. Mystic Ananda Coomaraswamy explains: “It would be unscientific to say that [unity consciousness is] impossible, unless one has made experiment in accordance with the prescribed and perfectly intelligible disciplines… That [mystical awareness is possible] cannot be demonstrated in the classroom, where only quantitative tangibles are dealt with. At the same time, it would be unscientific to deny a presupposition for which an experimental proof is possible. In the present case there is a Way [i.e., an experiment] prescribed for those who will consent to follow it” (Coomaraswamy 69). So it becomes clear that it is not the scientific desire for experimental results that hinders progress in this area, but rather science’s refusal to fully acknowledge the primacy of direct subjective experience. If this rejection of first person experience can be overcome, what better body of wisdom is there to draw from concerning the nature of direct experience than the world’s contemplative religions? What is needed then is not a denial of either science or religion, but integration—a science of religion.

In his book The Fiction of a Thinkable World, Michael Steinberg uses the insights provided by the theory of embodiment to remind us that “We are not thinking beings at all, but bodies that think, and without the body, thinking wanders into irrelevance” (Steinberg 23). The philosopher who agrees with Steinberg’s statement is also just such a thinking body, and it would seem that often times he forgets this, allowing his thinking to wonder beyond his body and into abstractions that turn out to be quite irrelevant. Most of these irrelevant abstractions rest on his sense of being an individual self, the same sense that leads the scientist to deny direct experience in favor of a third person, subject/object duality, as to objectify the world one must first assume that they are separate from that world. But Steinberg again reminds us that these separations are not real but merely apparent: “The life of the body is part of an intricate weave of relations in which all things ceaselessly change each other. Its transformative interactions make no distinction between inner and outer or human and animal. There is no boundary within which we can point to a “me” apart from anything else. It is only when we isolate those parts of the process which we experience as conscious discourse that we look to ourselves like conscious beings” (Steinberg 24). This “conscious discourse” is language, and, as was pointed out earlier, language is what fools the mind into feeling separate by erecting boundaries within itself. Mind, or Spirit, or “direct experience” can only know itself if it hides from itself, if it creates duality and draws a line between inside and outside. Steinberg again: “…the human subject is not an isolated percipient. Each of us is instead a unique node in a network of interactions, and there is nothing other than that network. You cannot cut off a fragment and say, this is mine; nor can you leave the rest and say that it is not” (Steinberg 25). The subjective realization that there is “nothing other than that [objective] network” is the attainment of unity consciousness. This level of awareness is its own truth, but no amount of second-hand vetting will ever convince the skeptical scientist that this is so. The scientist must, as Coomaraswamy says, “consent to follow [the Way],” which is nothing more than the experimental procedure laid out for him by the various mystical traditions the world over.

In closing then, the implications of the current neurological research and philosophical discussion pointing academia toward the union of mind and body into one embodied being cannot be understood to there full extent until the scientific perspective becomes humble enough to turn the microscope inward upon itself. Only then, after examining the metaphysical assumptions lying behind its worldview, can science begin to appreciate reality in the only way we ever actually come into contact with it; that is, through direct experience. When this most basic level of experience is acknowledged, the theory of embodied consciousness is necessarily extended beyond just the layer of skin that marks the boundary between my body and my world. Consciousness becomes embodied, instead, by the universe in its entirety. One may ask at this point, “But what does that mean? What does this add to the current debate? How can we incorporate this idea into further research on the topic?” It means only itself, as the universe can point to nothing but itself, and the realization of this, when practically applied, can tell us only that all forms of scientific knowledge are relative. That is, while they may be quite useful, they can never be truthful, at least not ultimately so.

“Tao is beyond words and beyond understanding. Words may be used to speak of it, but they cannot contain it. Tao existed before words and names, before heaven and earth, before the ten thousand things. It is the unlimited father and mother of all limited things. Therefore, to see beyond boundaries to the subtle heart of things, dispense with names, with concepts, with expectations and ambitions and differences. Tao and its many manifestations arise from the same source: subtle wonder within mysterious darkness. This is the beginning of all understanding” (Lao Tzu 1).


1.Blofeld, John, trans. 1958. The Zen Teaching of Huang Po. New York: Grove Press.

2.Huxley, Aldous. 1956. The Doors of Perception. New York, New York: Harper & Brothers.

3.Locke, John. 1975. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. London: Clarendon Press.

4.Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1962. Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

5.Pech, G. N.D. Accessed: Oct. 10, 2005.

6.Steinberg, Michael. 2005. The Fiction of a Thinkable World. New York: Monthly Review Press.

7.Tzu, L. Trans. by Walker, B. B. 1995. Tao Te Ching. New York

8.Wallace, Alan B. 2000. The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press.

9.Watts, Alan. 1965. Learning the Human Game (live lecture). Electronic University Publishing.

10.Wilber, K. 1998. The Marriage of Sense and Soul. New York, New York: Random House.

11.Wilber, K. 1977. The Spectrum of Consciousness. Wheaton, Illinois: The Theosophical Publishing House.

12.Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1976. Zettel. Berkeley: University of California Press.


What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s