In late December 2016 I wrote this piece for the YHouse blog. YHouse is a newly-formed New York City based organization that is dedicated to approaching the topic of consciousness from a multidisciplinary perspective that includes the hard sciences, social sciences, arts and philosophy; from the for-profit, non-profit and academic world. I started volunteering at YHouse in September 2016. There, I am in charge of photography, taking care of its blog and social media, and, as a social scientist, I occasionally write opinion pieces and commentaries. This piece is a commentary on a talk given by Doctor Piet Hut (one of the founders of YHouse) about the need to come up with new ways of understanding and researching the issue of consciousness.
Here's the article as it appeared in YHouse's blog . As well as the talk it was responding to.
From object to subject: consciousness at the center of a necessary “reframing” of science and the production of knowledge. A comment to Piet Hut’s “From Knowing What You Have to Waking Up to What You Are”
The disconnection between the object and the subject is at the center of Piet Hut’s presentation. The question is: how can we put together what, through the development of the scientific method over the last 400 years, we consider to be objective knowledge of the world (universal, physical, observable) and the subjective (the way we, as individuals, look at things, interpret them, are moved by them) without running into contradictions and analytical problems?
Piet Hut mentions that science, a historical product of Western society, has been focused on what it could observe: things and objects from which we can distance ourselves. However, by talking and studying “things” we can only say so much about the world. What about people’s relationship to physical objects? What about judgements we have of them? Or their beauty? If, as human beings that live our lives through everyday experiences, our knowledge is limited only to an “objective” understanding of the world, then certainly our understanding of it is very limited. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a rigorous approach to existence has not existed in the past or in other parts of the world; at the centre of Buddhism, Hinduism, Yoga and other non-Western systems of knowledge there is a central focus not on objects, but on subjects.
Why does this matter now? It is undeniable that science (understood here as a strict adherence to the scientific method, which is rigorous, with reproducible results, verifiable and able to make predictions) in our contemporary world has become the dominant form of knowledge. Science has allowed humanity to understand physical phenomena, how things exist, how to cure diseases, how the human body works. However, if we are interested in what this means for us as human beings, then this is not enough. A paradigmatic case might be illustrative: imagine a very sick person whose ailments can be controlled by life-long treatments, daily doses of pills, frequent visits to the doctor’s office and a very restrictive diet. This person might be able to survive and live a long life as such, but what would happen if this person feels that his quality of life is so diminished by such treatments (by the idea that he can only live to survive) that he’d rather not continue living at all. This is a question without answer within contemporary fields of science for a simple reason: science is not concerned with the way the person feels as a subject, it only provides an understanding on how things work (and how they could, perhaps, prolong a person’s life). If we intend to live in a more wholesome world, where –for instance-medicine is not only about health but about quality of life, or where technology does not exist solely for its own sake, then our paradigms of science have to incorporate the subject into how we are supposed to build knowledge.
Central to the YHouse’s goal is the issue of consciousness. Through science we know that consciousness physically takes place in the brain and the neuronal connections of the human body. However, falling in love, or feeling happy about eating a good meal cannot, as some materialists would argue, be restricted to electric impulses and chemical reactions in the brain. In a way, they are, but in a more wholesome understanding of how we are aware of ourselves, our lives and how we perceive the world, these experiences transcend the physical aspect of a human being. So, what to do? At this point in history and society, we cannot “unlearn” science, but the pursuit of knowledge certainly needs a “reconnection” with the subjective world that allows it to better understand what the implications of its findings are.
What happens in other fields of knowledge? The world of the arts never really succumbed to the allure of scientific objectivity. However, because scientific objectivity created a path towards attaining “truths”, many other contemporary fields of knowledge were born out of it. The social sciences were such attempts at using scientific objectivity to better know, or uncover, “truths” about society. Over the last century, many of these fields of knowledge have moved away from purely objective science. This has happened as a response to the limitations of such an approach to the world, and increasingly these fields have veered towards taking more into consideration the subject as an integral part of their knowledge. However, the traditional “hard” sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) are perhaps the most difficult field in which there can be an opening to other forms of knowledge (emotional, subjective, non-rational, aesthetic, etc.) precisely because their own existence is defined by objects that can be observed methodically and from a distance (without the involvement of the subject).
It is my understanding that the YHouse believes, I think rightly, that we can rethink (or “reframe”) knowledge production and science by linking them to the fields I mentioned above. Thus, knowledge about consciousness would not be solely based on discoveries within the realm of science, but also work collaboratively with the fields of social research, culture, the arts, poetry, meditation practices, etc. This is not a far-fetched thought, but it does require a reframing of how we understand our knowledge of the world.
The idea of reframing and linking fields of knowledge has been rather popular for the past half century. Increasingly, universities (which have traditionally been the major players in the production of knowledge) have attempted, with different degrees of success, to encourage multidisciplinary research. Thus, more and more we are seeing economists working with historians; biologists with designers; or artists (whether photographers, filmmakers or conceptual artists) with social scientists. In his presentation, Piet Hut underlies the importance of technological advance in order to realize new connections between seemingly completely different fields of knowledge (he gives the example of how, for instance, the invention of radars and sonars allowed scientist to understand how bats move in complete darkness), but it is interesting to see that this has already started taking place even in the most abstract fields of knowledge: mathematics. Through the Langlands Program, at Princeton University, the field of mathematics has undergone a revolution in the last five decades. Without going into details, the Landlands Program has successfully linked what were previously thought to be completely different areas of mathematics (number theory, geometry and harmonic analysis) through by their commonalities. Basically, this program exists to help mathematicians realize that discoveries in one field often can help solve problems in others, even if these fields seem to have nothing in common. Whilst this might seem abstract in terms of mathematics, its success and—dare I say—beauty shows that bridging fields of knowledge can help us discover new ways of solving problems, and furthermore, new ways of understanding and seeing.
Technological advances have allowed scientists to be better equipped to understand the issue of consciousness. However, because the study of consciousness is focused on the observer itself, if strictly looked at from a scientific point of view, the pursuit risks running into a wall. For this reason, the issue of consciousness must be engaged from additional ways of knowing. At the core of the YHouse, this is the purpose of building links between different fields of knowledge, of talking about consciousness from different perspective. This is a project that perhaps should be taken further to encompass scientific knowledge itself. But such a reframing of the scientific enterprise has to start somewhere, and where better than at the issue of consciousness itself?
Philosophy, the broad meta-field of knowledge, has been the field par excellence where these issues have been discussed. Philosophers such as Descartes, Kant, William James and Husserl have brought many insights to discuss the separation between subject and object that is at the center of the issue of consciousness. In the Western tradition, philosophers have done so, often, by taking into consideration knowledges outside of philosophy itself (Kant famously based much of his writing as a critique and engagement with the ideas of the fledgling field of scientific research during the Enlightenment; Wittgenstein did so borrowing extensively from the world of linguistics). So perhaps part of the mission of the YHouse is also to build new bridges between science, technology and philosophy. These bridges have, in the past, already existed but unfortunately, over the course of 400 years of scientific objective and empirical tradition, these links have grown weak. Now that the very questions of consciousness can be asked, what better moment then to rebuild these bridges?