Can we change the way we debate the nature of consciousness or any existentially significant topic? I believe this is a crucial question for the future of civil discourse and the maintenance of peaceful societies.
The term “culture war” is most often used with regard to issues that highlight deep cultural rifts, usually with their roots in our ancestral past. Issues such as our colonial history, racism, homosexuality, abortion, gun ownership (in the US) and climate change have all become battlegrounds for culture wars; invariably at the cost of meaningful and productive dialogue.
Positions seem largely divided into a binary of “conservative” and “progressive” and adherents of one view speak almost exclusively to those who share their perspective. Interactions across the divide tend to take the form of dismissive and even abusive and ad hominem online exchanges. Nuanced discussion and expressing subtle variations in opinions is very difficult in such a context.
All these culture war issues are of fundamental existential importance to our societies. Consequently it is perhaps not surprising that the most fundamental question of all, the nature of consciousness and its relationship to the physical body, is the site of yet another culture war. And to be clear, when I use the term consciousness I am not just talking about “being conscious”, but about our deepest nature or essence. This dispute pits those who locate consciousness in the body against those who consider it to emerge from some non-material realm. The former are often labelled materialists. The latter do not really have a single label and include a large variety of views ranging from religious, New Age and all kind of eclectic spiritualities, to science-based researchers. On the face of it, both interpretations can be justified.
There are conditions of the human body that point to a correlation between consciousness and the health of the brain as well as the overall health of the body. For example, if certain parts of the brain are damaged aspects of human functioning become impaired, or there can be profound personality changes. We can also clearly link the presence or absence of certain hormones and neurotransmitters to different states of consciousness. For some, this is strong evidence for the emergent nature of consciousness, i.e. that consciousness originates in or emerges from the brain.
Those who see consciousness as immaterial and independent of the body have a different take. They often look at near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences or mediumship communications with supposed spirits as evidence for the immaterial nature of consciousness. Others find evidence for this in quantum physics. For these people, correlation between brain health and states of consciousness merely shows that the condition of the human body impacts the way consciousness can express itself through that body.
To illustrate the differences between the emergent and immaterial consciousness perspectives, consider the following analogy. Imagine consciousness as the world’s best racing driver and the body as the car they drive. You can put this driver in a Formula 1 car, and they will set track records. If you put the same driver in a 1980s VW Combi with one flat tyre and no coolant, all they can do is limp around the track. The driver is the same, it is just the vehicle that is impaired. When the car finally breaks down, the driver can leave and find a new car. We can call this the “consciential” or “conscientiocentric” model, i.e. it views consciousness as foundational to manifestation. By contrast, in the emergent model the body (aka matter or energy) is foundational. Consciousness and the car are one. There is no separate driver. The car and thus consciousness are either well-functioning or not. And when the car dies consciousness ceases.
The question of which of these two models provides the more accurate account of human experience lies at the heart of life. This is why it is unfortunate that dialogue between respective proponents is rare and reference to each other often framed in the language of ridicule and shame, just as in all the other culture wars. Naturally, this stops meaningful dialogue before it can even start.
When we consider the deep history of the question, the polarization surrounding it is not that surprising. For millennia, religion dominated this topic and prescribed what one could and could not think about it. Not only that, but many religions have used their version of the consciential model of consciousness, i.e. spirit or soul as it would be called in that context, as a way of justifying terrible violence and harm. Such history lives on in all of us today and impacts both strident materialists and convinced conscientiotrists in different ways.
I personally see consciousness as distinct from matter and am keen to understand its nature beyond the physical body (if you want to understand how I came to that view you can check out my book Multidimensional Evolution). But I am also a strong advocate for respectful and meaningful dialogue. For the kind of dialogue where people at least acknowledge the arguments and logic of each other and can respect each other’s thinking, even if they end up disagreeing. There are many arguments against religion by materialists such as Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins that I whole-heartedly agree with for example, while at the same time disagreeing with their view on other things, including the nature of consciousness.
As someone who sees a lot of serious data in support of the consciential perspective of reality, I get especially frustrated when proponents of materialism simply seek to dismiss the consciential perspective out of hand without engaging with this data. The data I am referring to is not simply confined to anecdotal accounts of near-death-experiences (NDEs), information from mediums, or past life memories. Those are all crucial experiential domains for the exploration of consciousness. But the data about them now greatly exceeds anecdotes. Instead, serious clinical researchers from medicine, psychology and neuroscience have identified patterns across thousands of cases and highlighted verifiable elements where possible (see for example: Greyson 2010, Rivas, Dirven & Smit 2016, Tucker 2013, Van Lommel 2010). Rarely do proponents of the materialist paradigm seriously engage with this data set.
Of course the issue is much more nuanced. There is not just one consciential perspective. This means there is plenty of disagreement among people who see consciousness as immaterial, about what exactly that means. And most likely there will be a similar variation in the ways people rationalise the materialist perspective. But to get to those nuances, we first need to find ways to communicate despite differences of opinion and data analysis. Realising that the way we generally communicate fits the mould of the culture wars and owning our own contribution is the first step towards creating a healthier communicative environment that allows for human connection and mutual understanding. To the extent that we resist creating such an environment or revel in our assumed intellectual superiority and ability to “cleverly” mock those of other views we will only entrench division and slow down the progress of the evolution of our collective self-understanding.
In a separate article I will look at an especially egregious example of public communication on the topic of consciousness, in the form of a critical “review” of the 2021 Netflix documentary series “Surviving Death” . I will address some of the flaws in the criticism levelled against the documentary and suggest more constructive ways in which to have these important conversations.
Greyson, Bruce. 2010. Seeing Dead People Not Known to Have Died: “Peak in Darien” Experiences. Anthropology and Humanism. Vol. 35(2):159–171
Rivas, Titus, Dirven, Anny & Smit, Rudolf. 2016. The self does not die: verified paranormal phenomena from near-death experiences. Durham, NC: IANDS Publishing
Tucker, Jim. 2013. Return to life: Extraordinary cases of children who remember past lives. Sydney: Macmillan Australia
Van Lommel, Pim. 2010. Consciousness beyond life: The science of the near-death-experience. New York: Harper One
Kim McCaul is an anthropologist with a long term interest in understanding consciousness and personal transformation.
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This blog is about my interests in consciousness, energy, evolution and personal growth. My understanding of consciousness is strongly influenced by the discipline of conscientiology and I have a deep interest in exploring the relationship between culture and consciousness.
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