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  States of Consciousness

    Charles T. Tart

        18.   As Above, So Below: Five Basic Principles
                  Underlying Physics and Psychology

I consider the material in this chapter speculative and thus appropriate for introducing this section on speculation about consciousness. The ideas presented are not basic to the applications of the systems approach to the investigation of states of consciousness but are extensions of the approach that intrigue me. They are speculative also in that I am by no means a physicist and do not really understand mathematics, the language in which so much of physics is expressed. I intend this chapter primarily as a stimulus to prompt both physicists and psychologists to think further about some of the ideas expressed here.[1]
    Most psychologists accept the idea that reality is ultimately material, composed basically of matter and energy operating within the physical framework of space and time. This is a useful set of intellectual constructs for dealing with experiences, but most psychologists think of it as an understanding of reality rather than a philosophy. Psychologists who implicitly or explicitly accept this position (which means most psychologists) thus in effect define psychology as a derivative science, one dealing with phenomena much removed from the ultimate bases of reality. A corollary is that to be really "scientific" (to be fashionable in terms of the prevailing physicalistic philosophy), psychology must ultimately reduce psychological data to physical data.
    Figure 18-1 depicts the world-view of philosophical physicalism. The ultimate structures or components of reality (top) are subatomic particles. When I was a high school student, only a few such particles were known and many scientists thought that electrons, protons, and neutrons were the basics whose arrangement in patterns accounted for the way the world was. Now literally hundreds of subatomic particles have been "discovered." The word is enclosed in quotation marks because, of course, no one has actually ever seen a subatomic particle. They are assumed to exist because their presence enables sensible interpretation of various kinds of instrumental readings. Thus modern physicists picture the universe as composed of hundreds of subatomic particles being influenced by three basic types of forces: (1) the nuclear binding forces, which operate only at the extremely tiny distances inside atomic nuclei; (2) the so-called weak forces, which determine particle interaction at extremely close distances; and (3) electromagnetic forces. These forces act on the subatomic particles within a matrix of space and time, which is still largely taken for granted as simply being "space" and "time." Physics, then, is the study of this most basic level of reality.
    From this most basic level this world-view builds toward life and consciousness. From subatomic particles, it moves to atoms, primarily influenced by electromagnetic forces and studied by physics and chemistry. From atoms it moves to molecules, primarily governed by chemical forces (which are electromagnetic forces) and studied most appropriately by chemistry. Next come large molecules, which to some extent are self-sustaining, hold their molecular configuration in spite of fairly large changes in their environment. Some of these cross the mysterious dividing line into the simplest forms of life, complex molecular assemblies capable of sustaining themselves and reproducing themselves in spite of environmental changes. Chemical, electromagnetic, and now gravitational forces affect things at this level, and chemistry and biology are the sciences for studying them.
    Next comes the evolutionary chain of increasingly complex organisms, which soon develop specialized nervous systems, which themselves increase greatly in complexity. Chemical, electromagnetic, and gravitational forces are active here, and chemistry, biology, and physiology are the important sciences for studying them.
    The human brain is considered the epitome of development of nervous systems. I suspect that this is an unduly egocentric view, for animals such as dolphins and whales certainly have larger brains than man. But, perhaps because they do not build weapons to attack each other or us, practically no one seriously considers the idea that they may be as intelligent as we—the notable exception is John Lilly {34}. The human brain is also affected by chemical, electromagnetic, and gravitational forces. Physiology and probably information theory are appropriate sciences for dealing with the human brain.
    Finally, there is consciousness, thought of as a by-product or property of the human brain, and psychology is the science for studying it. The forces affecting consciousness are not shown because, in terms of the physicalistic philosophy, social or psychological forces are derivative, not the "real" forces that actually control the universe.
    This is the conservative or orthodox view of the mind discussed briefly at the beginning of this book. It does not really explain what consciousness is, but, citing good evidence that physically affecting the brain alters consciousness, asks not further questions and simply believes that consciousness itself is a product of brain functioning. The consequence of this view is that for an ultimate explanation of consciousness, the phenomena of consciousness must be reduced to those of brain functioning; brain functioning must be reduced to basic properties of nervous systems, which must be reduced to basic properties of live molecules, which in turn must be reduced to basic properties of molecules per se, which must be reduced to properties of atoms, which must finally be reduced to properties of subatomic particles.
    In practice, of course, this would be extremely tedious. Certain relatively simple phenomena can be reduced one or two levels, but if I want to predict what you are next going to do, the amount of information I must deal with, starting with the knowledge of subatomic particles and various forces and building all the way up to consciousness, is simply impossible to handle.
    There is no doubt that reductionism to more basic physical levels has been extremely useful in the physical sciences; and, to a certain extent, reductionism to simpler psychological events has been useful in psychology. Finding the physiological bases of psychological events or perhaps more accurately, the physiological parallels or interactions with psychological events, has also been useful. But, by and large, the attempt to reduce psychological events to physiological events is neither the only nor the best activity for psychology.
    In the radical view of the mind, discussed earlier, a person's belief about the nature of reality may actually alter the reality, not just his interpretation of it. A fundamental part of the radical view is that basic awareness may have an independently real status itself, rather than being just a derivative of physical processes.
    Figure 18-2 shows the scheme I propose for understanding human consciousness. Human consciousness is shown as the result of the interaction of six dimensions, each one just as real in some ultimate sense as any of the others. The dimensions are matter, energy, space, time, awareness, and an unknown factor that may be life itself. Science, guided by a physicalistic, reductionistic philosophy, investigates finer and finer levels of the matter and energy dimensions, within a certain space-time framework; but these dimensions constitute only two of the six or more dimensions that must be examined for full understanding of human consciousness.
    I have added space and time as two independent dimensions more on intuition than on a basis I can cogently argue. We tend to assume that space is some uniform thing that is just there and that time is some uniform thing that is just passing. But experiences in d-ASCs (see discussion of the Space/Time subsystem, in Chapter 8) indicate that there may be other kinds of spaces and other kinds of times. I predict that some day our procedure of simply taking space and time for granted as unitary phenomena will seem quite crude.
    In the systems approach, awareness is given a real and separate status. Recall the distinction between awareness and consciousness. Awareness is that basic, obviously there but hard-to-define property that makes us cognizant of things; consciousness is awareness as it is modified by and embedded in the structure of the mind. Consciousness is awareness transformed by the brain-body machine so that awareness loses some of its own innate properties, gains certain properties from the structure (probably largely brain structure) it merges with (or arises from in the conservative view), and leads to certain gestalt properties that cannot be predicted from a knowledge of either. The unknown factor dimension is added to remind us of our ignorance and because I feel intuitively that symmetry is called for in this diagram.
    The first phrase of this chapter's title, "As Above, So Below," expresses my hypotheses that there is a uniform set of basic laws running the universe. I speculate that whatever fundamental principles or laws run the universe manifest themselves similarly in one area we call psychology and in another we call physics. The idea can be extended to other areas also, but I am not expert enough to do so. Thus the laws of physics, as we currently understand them, are manifestations (of an unknown degree of directness) of the basic principles running the universe; laws and principles affecting consciousness are manifestations (of an unknown degree of directness) of these same principles. Neither manifestation may be any more basic than the other. If this hypothesis is correct, parallels to the five basic principles that seem to underlie physics should be clearly discernible in the psychological area.


First Principle: Duality

    Physics distinguishes between a pure energy state and a matter state, with both energy and matter operating within the framework of space and time. A convenient abbreviation for this quaternity is MEST (matter, energy, space, time). The first principle is that whenever pure energy is converted into matter , it generally (universally?) creates a pair of particles whose properties are, in some important way, opposite. An electron and a positron may be created, for example, with opposite electrical charges, or a pair of particles may be created that spin in opposite directions. Conversely, the proper interaction of a pair of such opposite particles results in their annihilation as particles and their transformation back into pure energy. Thus the transformation of energy into matter is generally done in a dualistic manner. The principle seems so general that whenever a new particle is discovered, its exact opposite is looked for as a matter of course.
    Assuming that a resulting duality in a transition from an energy state to a matter state is a general universal principle, a parallel manifestation at the psychological level is seen in a phenomenon encountered in some d-ASCs, the mystical experience of unity. This is a direct experience of a condition of consciousness in which all duality is transcended. In contrast to ordinary existence in a world dominated by opposites, there is to up and down, good and evil, creator and created, I and thou; everything is oneness. Our language, of course, cannot express the experience adequately. The experience of what may have been consciousness of the Void (Chapter 14) in William's ultradeep hypnotic state may be an example of this kind. In Buddhist literature, the highest kind of samadhi, reached by successive refinements of concentration, is described as a state in which there is neither perception nor nonperception {20}. This state of consciousness seems analogous to the condition of pure, undifferentiated energy.
    But we do not live in such a state of consciousness. Few people ever attain it, and even to them it is a transient experience, though of supreme importance. All the spiritual systems {128} that have this realization of a transcendence of duality as an experiential basis teach that in the ordinary d-SoC (and in many d-ASCs) duality is a basic principle governing the manifestation of consciousness. Thus pleasure cannot exist without pain, hope cannot exist without despair, courage cannot exist without fear, up cannot exist without down. The state of mystical unity, of Void consciousness, seems to be the experience of pure awareness, transcending all opposites, like the pure energy state, while consciousness, the condition of awareness deeply intermeshed with and modified by the structures of the mind and brain, is a realm of duality, the analog of the matter state. This seems to be a manifestation of the principle of duality in he psychological realm.
    It is an exotic example, as most of us lack an experiential basis for understanding it. When we deal with human consciousness we do not deal with undifferentiated energy manifesting as two opposite particles, the simple, primary phenomena with which physics deals, but with complex, interacting systems made up of untold numbers of more elementary systems constituting the structures of the mind and brain, activated by awareness and construction, consciousness (as opposed to pure awareness), is the experiential area with which we are most familiar. As we shall see in considering the other basic principles, the fact that our ordinary psychological experience is almost always with the complex, ongoing structure of human consciousness makes it difficult to see how these basic principles, derived for ideally simplified situations, can be applied precisely.


Second Principle: Quantum Law, the Law of Discreteness

    The quantum principle in physics states that because of the nature of certain physical systems, most obviously that of the atom, certain transitions from one energy configuration to another can occur only in a complete, all-or-none jump. In an atom, for example, an electron can be in one or another precise energy state, but cannot occupy an energy level intermediate between these two. It must go from one to the other, given the requisite energy to bring this about, in an all-or-none fashion. Thus there is one state, a forbidden zone, and then a second state. There may be a third state, a fourth state, and so on, but the transition is always all-or-none. When dealing macroscopic objects or systems that are made up of large numbers of the more elementary components governed by quantum laws, the aggregate, the macroscopic system, may seem to show continuity over wide ranges of intermediate values, but this is statistical illusion from a gross level of observation. For example, an aggregate made up of units, many of which are in a quantum state that we can call two, and many of which are in a quantum state that we can call three, can have an average value anywhere between two and three, depending on the relative distribution of the quantum units.
    I see the quantum principle, as stated in physics, as particular manifestation of a more general principle that various components of the universe have a "shape" or "structure" or "energy configuration." On a familiar, macroscopic level, for example, water can be in three distinct states, a solid (ice), a liquid (ordinary water), or a gas (steam). There can be mechanical mixtures of the three states, as of water droplets falling or floating in the air, but the solid, liquid, and gas states are quite distinct.
    The application to consciousness of this general principle, that various components of reality have properties that therefore determine the way they can interact with other units, is outlined in Chapter 2. To recapitulate briefly, a d-SoC is a system or a pattern or an overall configuration of many psychological subsystems or structures. Each subsystem shows variation within itself within certain limits, but maintains its overall identity as a subsystem. Since identity means properties, this limits the number of possible ways a stable system can be built up from the subsystems and thus limits the number of d-SoCs possible for a human being.
    The induction of a d-ASC involves the application of disrupting forces to the b-SoC to push one or more subsystems beyond their stable limits and/or to disrupt the feedback loops between subsystems that stabilize the b-SoC. When enough feedback loops have been disrupted and/or enough subsystems pushed beyond their stable, ordinary ranges of functioning, the overall organization of the b-SoC breaks down, and a transitional period of varying duration occurs, with the subsystems having only transient, unstable relationships to each other. then, with the application of appropriate patterning forces, the subsystems are reassembled in a new configuration that is stable and that we call the d-ASC.
    This process constitutes a kind of quantum jump. albeit not the neat quantum jump of an electron from one discrete energy state to another in an atom. We are dealing with highly composite, complex structures, and even when such structures are made up of units that operate on quantum principles, the aggregate may show various degrees of continuity. Recall the earlier discussion of individual differences. For certain individuals, the transition from a b-SoC to a d-ASC definitely shows a quantum jump, with no consciousness during the transition period. The system properties of the d-ASC are quite different from those of the b-SoC.
    The quantum jump from one d-SoC to a d-ASC may be a leap along what we conceive of as a continuum or it may be the emergence of a totally new function or pattern of functioning.
    The d-ASCs of which we now have some scientific knowledge occur in human beings who have been thoroughly conditioned by enculturation processes, so the quantum jumps we have seen in investigating various d-ASCs may largely represent the results of semiarbitrary cultural conditioning. That is, in a particular culture you might have to be either straight or stoned, but in another culture you may be able to be a little of each simultaneously. However, we can postulate as a general principle that the various subsystems and structures that make up the human mind cannot be put together in just any arbitrary way: each structure has properties of its own that restrict its possible interaction with other structures into a larger structure or system. Insofar as we can learn to study the mind beyond the semiarbitrary cultural conditionings of consciousness, the study of d-ASCs may eventually tell us something about the fundamental properties of the human mind and the way in which the overall system of consciousness can thus be structured, what its basic states and forbidden zones are.


Third Principle: Relativity

    In nonmathematical terms the relativity principle in physics is that there is not such thing as a neutral observer. Rather, any observer exists within a particular MST framework, and this framework affects his observations.
    This is more profound than saying that an observer's sense organs affect his observations. We realize, for example, that we do not naturally know how the world looks in the ultraviolet spectrum of light, but we can build instruments to make a translation for us. What is here being said is that the observer is an inherent part of the MEST framework, and this gives the observer himself characteristics, over and above what can be compensated for by special instruments, which affect his observations of thins outside himself.
    The principle of relativity applies in a variety of ways in psychological work, even though most psychologists have not seriously accepted it. Indeed, it applies to you and me in our everyday lives, even though we do not always accept it. At one level, each human being, functioning in his ordinary d-SoC (or in a d-ASC), shows selective perception, selective thinking, selective action that in turn controls his perceptions. Because of his particular culture and the consensus reality to which his ordinary d-SoC has adapted him, plus his personal idiosyncrasies, he (1) is more prone to observe certain things; (2) is unlikely to observe other kinds of things at all; and (3) may have a great many transformations and distortions of what he does sense before it reaches his consciousness. This all happens unconsciously, automatically, and smoothly in the normally functioning adult. For example, the Christian missionary of the 1800s "saw" sin in the form of public display of "lust" in a native village, when the natives would have said that they were only giving polite approval to the dancers.
    This kind of relativity is becoming recognized in psychology under the topics of experimenter bias and the implicit demand characteristics of experiments. An experimenter's desire to prove the hypothesis he believes in not only can influence how he perceives his data, but also can subtly influence his subjects to cooperate in ways that will erroneously "prove" his hypothesis. Your beliefs about the nature of things around you can influence the way you see things and subtly influence others to uphold your view of reality.
    In addition to this culturally and individually conditioned relativity, the fact that each person is human and therefore born with certain basic properties in his nervous system, sensory receptors, and perhaps in the nature of the awareness that enters into or comes from the operation of his nervous system, equips him with built-in biases for seeing the universe in certain kinds of ways and not other ways. This applies not only to the external universe perceived through his senses or with instrumental aids, but to his observations of his own internal experiences.
    It is amazing how little recognized this idea is. The old concept of the "neutral observer," common in nineteenth century physics but now long abandoned by physicists, is alive and well within the ranks of psychologists, implicitly guiding almost all experiments. A wiser course is always to assume that an observer or experimenter has biases and selectivities in the way he perceives, evaluates, and acts, even when these are not obvious.
    D-ASCs are of particular interest here. The ordinary d-SoC is a complex system incorporating various selectivities for perceiving the outside world and our own internal experiences, and functioning as a tool for coping with our external and internal worlds. Transiting to a d-ASC constitutes a qualitative as well as a quantitative restructuring of the systems, which may be looked at as a new set of filters, biases, and tools for the observer/theorizer. By observing both the external and internal worlds from a variety of d-SoCs, rather than only one, we can develop a number of state-specific sciences within various d-ASCs. This enables a complementary series of views of the external and internal universes, which may partially compensate for the limits of the view found in any one d-SoC. I emphasize partially compensate, because no matter how many different d-SoCs we observe from, we are still human, and that probably implies ultimate limits on what we can do. We have not begun to approach these ultimate limits.
    Note again that the idea that we must obtain complementary (I use this term in the sense it is used in physics) views of the universe from various d-SoCs, in order to get as full as view of it as possible, collides with an implicit and pervasive assumption that the ordinary d-SoC is the optimal, most logical state of consciousness and thus the one in which ultimate understandings will occur. This powerful and implicit bias, a product of enculturation, seriously hinders our thinking. We should always be open to the possibility that there is some "higher" d-SoC of which all other d-SoCs can be seen as fully comprehensible subsets: perhaps this is what enlightenment means in some ultimate sense. The ordinary d-SoC, with all its culturally conditioned limitations, is an unlikely candidate for this high degree.
    The last two basic principles of physics do not have obvious parallels in known psychological functioning because the complexity of the human mind precludes such simple analogies. It is interesting, however, to consider them and assume that they ought to be manifest in the psychological realm if they are true. In this way, we can alert ourselves to look for parallels.


Fourth Principle: Conversation

    The basic expression of the principle of conservation in physics is that in any reaction nothing is lost. The sum total of what goes in is the sum total of what goes out, even if there are transformations in form. This was originally thought of as the conservation of mass: the amount of matter that went into a chemical reaction was exactly equal to the amount of matter that came out of it. Because of various theoretical prospective changes, as well as the development of extremely precise measurement techniques, this definition was seen to be too simple and the principle was rephrased in terms of the conservation of the sum of mass and energy. Thus mass can be traded for energy, for example, but the sum is still the same. Modifications of the exact quantities are put into this equivalence equation in various physical situations, but the basic principle that what goes in equals what comes out holds generally through physics.
    I do not see the obvious application of this to conscious experiences that we know of, because we almost never have simple, straightforward actions of consciousness that allow this kind of input-output comparison. Even apparently simple psychological reactions may consist of many separate steps that are perceived dimly or not at all due to automatization {14}. Also, experience at almost all times involves several things going on in rapid succession or even apparently simultaneously, and we know that important unconscious reactions can occur simultaneously with conscious ones. Thus we may have conscious experiences that seem to deplete or use up psychological energy or create psychological experience (the equivalent of mass?), and other kinds of experiences that seem to increase energy, but we do not know how to assess or measure these in a clear enough way to begin to measure what goes in and what goes out and see whether they are equivalent. We may be able to develop indirect indicators of unconscious reactions or make unconscious reactions more conscious by means of therapeutic or self-observational techniques.


Fifth Principle: Law of Least Action

    The physical expression of this principle is that nature is economical: when a process can occur in several alternate ways, the one requiring the least expenditure of energy is the one used. Apparent exceptions generally turn out to conform to the principle and to have seemed exceptional because they were viewed in isolation: when considered as a part of a larger system, the principle of least action is, in fact, followed.
    An initial glance at psychological experience seems to show many contradictions to this. We do all sorts of things every day in ways that, even to our own perception, are certainly not the most economical ways. An observer may detect even more wasted energy. Suppose I carry a book from here into the next room. If I observe the action carefully, I will probably find that I have not used my body in a way that requires a minimal expenditure of energy to move the book from here to there. The complicating factor in trying to apply the fifth principle to psychology is the human propensity for doing several things simultaneously, many of them not in consciousness or even available to consciousness. So while carrying the book from this room to the next I may also be thinking about what to write in this chapter an using "body English" as part of my thinking process. I may also be semiconsciously trying to improve my posture, semiconsciously rebelling against the need to try and improve myself so much of the time, and so deliberately wasting some energy, either bodily or psychological energy, in order to express my "freedom."
    A claim made in many spiritual writings, supported by some experiential data from various d-ASCs, is that, with effort, we can become more and more conscious of exactly what we are doing. Whether we can become conscious of everything we are doing psychologically at a given moment is unknown. Thus it is unclear whether we can ever be in a position adequately to assess whether the law of least action applies to psychological phenomena. But it may be profitable to postulate that the fifth principle does apply and then proceed to look for manifestations.
    In the history of science it has often been fruitful to postulate some principle as true before there is good evidence for it, and then to examine the subject matter of the particular science with the postulate in mind. It may be profitable to follow this plan for the fourth and fifth principles. They may be true; if they are not, the need to develop more precise ways of measuring many psychological phenomena simultaneously in order to test the truth of the principles will be a major advance in itself.
    As above, so below?



    [1] I In the spring of 1973, my colleagues at the Institute for the Study of Human Consciousness and I heard an exceptionally lucid presentation by Dean Brown, Stanford Research Institute, of the basic principles of physics, general principles that seem to emerge repeatedly in all areas of physics and that may represent fundamental principles underlying the universe, Brown suggested that these same principles may have parallels in the study of the mind, although he did not expound on this idea. The suggestion took firm root in my mind and has resulted in this chapter. I am also indebted to Andrew Dienes for helping me to understand and express some of the physics ideas in this chapter. (back)

Chapter 19

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