Understanding Consciousness

Our human consciousness unavoidably colors all of our observations and our attempts to gain understanding. Nonetheless, scientific inquiries have provided useful perspectives on consciousness. The advances described above should engender optimism about the various research strategies applied to date and about the prospects for further insight into consciousness in the future.


Because conscious experiences are inherently private, they have sometimes been taken to be outside the realm of scientific inquiry. This view idealizes science as an endeavor involving only observations that can be verified by multiple observers, relying entirely on the third-person perspective, or the view from nowhere (from no particular perspective). Yet conducting science is a human activity that depends, like other human activities, on individuals and their subjective experiences. A rational scientific account of the world cannot avoid the fact that people have subjective experiences.

Subjectivity thus has a place in science. Conscious experiences can be subjected to systematic analysis and empirical tests to yield progressive understanding. Many further questions remain to be addressed by scientists of the future. Is the first-person perspective of a conscious experience basically the same for all human beings, or do individuals differ fundamentally in their introspective experiences and capabilities? Should psychological science focus only on ordinary experiences of consciousness, or are extraordinary experiences also relevant? Can training in introspection lead to a specific sort of expertise with respect to conscious experience? An individual with training, such as through extensive meditation practice, might be able to describe their experiences in a more precise manner, which could then support improved characterizations of consciousness. Such a person might be able to understand subtleties of experience that other individuals fail to notice, and thereby move our understanding of consciousness significantly forward. These and other possibilities await future scientific inquiries into consciousness.


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UPEI Introduction to Psychology 1 Copyright © by Philip Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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