In scientific consciousness studies, the inter-disciplinary study of consciousness as a reported phenomenon, progress is at a standstill. The problem of explaining consciousness appears to be intractable. In mysticism, which is the study of consciousness as an empirical phenomenon, a solution is given.
As yet this solution has not been falsified. In consciousness studies it is rarely even questioned. We do not see many researchers wondering why, if it is wrong, it is unfalsifiable. Rather, we see a community of scholars trying and failing to prove that some other solution is correct and wondering why it is impossible to do so.
Let’s be honest. How likely is it that a world-wide community of active researchers and quite often life-long meditative practitioners working ceaselessly and diligently since pre-historic times would end up knowing less about consciousness than a recently established community of scholars who freely admit they do not understand it? On the face of it the idea is ridiculous.
What kind of hubris or arrogance is it that allows this community to continue to ignore the discoveries of mysticism even in the case of consciousness? It is as if a fancy new and well-endowed physics faculty decided that Einstein should be ignored and devoted all of its time and resources to finding a solution for the problem of the orbit of Mercury. Would we not find such a situation laughable?
The doctrine of dependent origination solves the ‘hard’ part of the problem of consciousness. It would state that the reason why we meet this problem in first place, if we do, is our natural inclination to reify one or both of mind and matter. When we do this it immediately becomes impossible to reduce them for a fundamental theory. Our theory becomes logically absurd in a strict technical sense, and could not describe the universe unless the universe is also logically absurd. This mistake is called ‘dualism’, where this term is given its most general meaning.
We may see this mistake as the ‘problem of consciousness’ when we meet it in consciousness studies, but it would be the source of all important problems of philosophy. Whenever we assume the true existence of space-time phenomenon, even space-time itself, our world-theory becomes either paradoxical or nonreductive. We find ourselves unable to complete the theory, for the final step would require that we contravene logic and reason and make the theory incomprehensible. Whichever way we look at it, metaphysics shows that in the end the idea that mental or corporeal phenomena are fundamental does not work. Clearly we are missing an ingredient.
It is an odd situation. If nearly all the world’s experimental researchers say that in their experience dualism is false and that Reality is advaita or ‘not-two’, then why would a theoretical researcher be surprised if the problem of proving them wrong turns out to be intractable? If it were possible to do this it would be astonishing. Perhaps it happens because in physics the theoreticians look down on the experimentalists, while in mysticism it is the other way around.
At any rate, it must be clear by now that the usual approach we take to studying consciousness scientifically is doomed to failure. As soon as we begin we are lost in a confusion of Chinese rooms, zombies, blind colour scientists, bower-bird’s nests and non-halting Turing machines. This approach ignores the fact that the ‘hard’ problem is a problem of principles and thus quite simple. The Mind-Matter problem, which in one of its forms is the problem of reducing Mind and Matter for a fundamental theory, is a well-known and long-studied dilemma. It is undecidable because a theory for which either or both of these is fundamental does not work. At the same time, ex nihilo creation is absurd. The only solution would be to say that Mind and Matter are dependently-arisen and reduce to a third phenomenon. There is no other idea that makes sense. In what way would this be a problem? It appears to be nothing but an opportunity.
If we begin a theoretical investigation into consciousness by beginning at the beginning, with the metaphysical issues, then it becomes possible to resolve these deep issues before moving on to deal with all the intricate and confusing details that arise in the natural sciences. When we do this we will have at our disposal the underlying principles necessary for untangling the endless details. If we begin our study by immersing ourselves in all the details, however, then we may very quickly lose sight of the essential simplicity of the deep problems, and having never seen the picture on the box we may find it impossible to put all the fiddly little pieces together to form a coherent picture.
Is it really plausible that the ‘hard’ problem is intractable, when the only evidence for its intractability is an ideologically-committed community of baffled scientific researchers who dismiss the only available solution without even bothering to falsify it? Is it not much more plausible that the ‘hard’ problem of consciousness only arises for us when we choose to believe that Lao Tsu and the Buddha knew even less about consciousness than we do?
The explanation for consciousness given by the Buddha is exceedingly difficult to understand and in the end cannot be properly understood as merely a theory. The in principle solution for the ‘hard’ problem that is implied by this explanation, however, would not be so difficult to understand. It states that psycho-physical phenomena are not truly real but dependently-arisen. This would be an empirical observation and a demonstrable outcome of logical analysis, such that however determined we are to prove it is not the case, whether in logic or experience, we will fail.
The simple fact is that there is a workable solution for the ‘hard’ problem of consciousness, and there can be no reason to suppose that the problem is intractable until we have shown that this solution is wrong. If we simply assume that it is wrong then we have no right to call our approach scientific. It would only be when our approach is not scientific but, rather, all to do with unnecessary assumptions and dogma, that the problem arises.
On this basis, we can predict that progress in consciousness studies will continue to be impossible until it becomes scientific. Time will tell.