Can science ‘know’ consciousness?

The answer to the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness lies in the way we define ‘to know‘.

Science employs objective knowledge to understand things. That is to say, it stands at a distance and measures objects and phenomena in order to know things. These objective measurable properties are then put on an agreed scale. For instance, distance is measured in meters or feet, force in Newtons, gravity in meters per second square, and so on. This standard scale helps us understand one object’s properties in relation to another. It is important to note that the measurement unit and the scale are relative. That is to say, it is a convenient system that helps us make sense of the world by putting its objective properties on a scale. But in no way is it an absolute reality.

These objective and relative measurements are indeed important to our life. They have specific utilitarian functions and help us develop tools, technologies, and functions in this world. However, do they capture what an object truly is?

Let us say that a scientist wanted to know you. They would approach you biologically. That is, measure your height, weight, blood pressure, and so on. Psychologists would also perform all sorts of evaluations to determine your mental and emotional health. Now let’s assume all this is compiled into a fancy report and handed over to you and they say “this is who you are”. Would this be an accurate representation of who you really are? Certainly not. Undoubtedly, these measurements are useful to indicate the health of specific parameters of the body and the mind. But the summation of all these parameters does not capture your true essence. The way we know ourselves “to be” goes beyond these metrics.

The same thing is true of art. Can you break up a symphony into its constituent parts and claim that you ‘know’ it? In order to know a piece of art, one has to go beyond understanding what it is made up of. However, paradoxically, only when you understand the building blocks of this musical piece, can you begin to appreciate the whole. The parts are critical but not sufficient to understand the whole. A great musician lets go and simply flows with the piece. In poetic and mystical terms, he or she becomes the piece.

This is where we need an added dimension in the knowledge of ourselves. Who are we subjectively? That is to say, who are we devoid of the objective measurements of ourselves? Who are we as seen directly by ourselves, and not reflected through biological parameters or through societal norms? This is the path of the mystic or the philosopher. This is a path that the methods of science, as we know them today, cannot reach. Because science is only based on objective measurements, it is limited in capturing the true and full essence of things. Science cannot know things subjectively.

In order to understand who we are, we must begin to go directly to that which is the most fundamental thing in us. We begin by eliminating the world as ‘not me’. This is quite evident. The world is separated from me by my body’s envelope. The skin delineates the world as ‘the other‘ from ‘I‘. Then comes the body itself. The body too can be eliminated as ‘not me’, for there is something or somebody that is able to perceive it. The body is known by me. Then comes thoughts and feelings. Both these experiences are ‘knowable’ and therefore must be at a distance from us. We, therefore, are forced to eliminate thoughts and feelings as ‘me’. What remains?

Nothing. There is no ‘I’ – the controller, thinker, perceiver, decider. There is just the awareness of things. There is just the knowing of experiences. There isn’t a physically located entity called ‘I’ sitting somewhere in the body. And this is a remarkable discovery. There is consciousness or awareness or knowing but it is not the body that is aware, nor is it a thought, nor is it an emotion. Awareness is self-aware and by the virtue of this property, it knows the body, the mind and emotions, and indeed the world itself. This is the ultimate recognition of ourselves as that which can know. It is wrong to even call it ‘that’ for there is no entity there. All you can say is that we hold the potential to know, which manifests itself as the knowledge of experience.

When we understand this, we begin to explore the true nature of things – not objectively, but subjectively. The external world becomes an experience that is known. In other words, knowing enables the knowledge of the world. This ability to know is the fundamental enabling factor that enables all experiences. In fact, we have absolutely no access to the world outside knowing. All we know is knowing. This is when the world appears to be an expression or a manifestation of the knowing.

Think of the ability to know as a field of potential. It has the capability to express itself in infinite experiences. These experiences are in accordance with our senses and our minds. But all these experiences are known. And while there is diversity in experiences, there is unity in knowing. It is the same ‘ability to know’ that knows diverse experiences. We then begin to realize that the world, its people, and objects are merely manifestations of a single knowing entity. And this is what I am, and indeed what the world is. This is the subjective understanding of ourselves and the world – not as two different things, but the same knowing.

In order for science to ‘know’ what consciousness is, it must turn around. The scientist must augment one’s outer objective investigation of things with the subjective inner investigation of awareness. This is when we understand consciousness to be knowing itself.

Spring blossoms. Denver 2022.

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