Methods, maps and transformations

Reflections on Velmans, Investigating Phenomenal Consciousness

by Gary Fuhrman
This version (7 January 2002) differs slightly from that published in Journal of Consciousness Studies Vol. 9 no. 2.

Abstract: This extended review of a collection edited by Max Velmans (2000) questions the need for extraordinary first-person (phenomenological) methods to investigate consciousness. Proponents claim such first-person methods to be essentially scientific, but they appear esoteric in comparison to public science. Both are grounded in the intersubjective, but they differ in the grounding of their consensual terms of reference. Methods such as meditation are evidently effective for self-transformation, but the training necessary to use them also transforms their terms of reference. Inter-views between various approaches are more productive than over-views in which some of them claim to transcend others.

The cross-disciplinary field of consciousness studies has recently devoted considerable attention to methodology, especially the role of ‘first-person’ (1p) or ‘phenomenological’ methods—explorations of conscious experience itself rather than the physical, systemic or social processes which generate it. The View from Within (Varela and Shear 1999, referred to here as VfW) was a pioneering work in this respect; Investigating Phenomenal Consciousness (Velmans 2000, IPC) is another landmark collection, linked to VfW by cross-reference and overlapping authorship, but taking a somewhat different perspective on 1p methods.

Subjective experience is of course private—only the subject has direct access to it. This is a problem for scientific method, which generally seeks to isolate the investigated object from the investigator, or to insulate her attention from her intentions. Investigating one's own consciousness is therefore widely considered unscientific, and investigating someone else's equally so, because there is no verifiable way to disentangle the experience from the subject's report of it. But the editors of both IPC and VfW assert that a science of consciousness cannot afford to neglect the view from within—hence the quest for scientific 1p methods. They differ, however, in rationale and emphasis.

Varela and Shear argue that phenomenal consciousness is not reliably reported by untrained subjects, but new methods (or new adaptations of time-honored meditation techniques) can enable trained subjects to convert their own experience into data usable by science. Articles in VfW by Varela, Depraz and Vermersch explain the proposed new methods and their historical context in considerable detail. In IPC, the same trio collaborates on a concise description of the new method they call ‘the gesture of awareness’ (121-136) [In this review, parenthetical numbers other than dates refer to page numbers in IPC unless the context indicates otherwise]. The language here is somewhat less abstruse than that of VfW, and indeed one of the strong points of IPC generally is its accessibility to non-specialist readers (despite the evident lack of proper copy editing).

Still, few general readers are likely to emerge from the accounts of this ‘gesture’ given in IPC (or in VfW) with confidence that they could actually carry it out themselves or verify its results. These instructions (if we can call them that) are not at all like those given by Ramachandran and Blakeslee in Chapter 5 of Phantoms in the Brain (1998), which show the reader how to locate the ‘blind spot’ in the visual field of one eye and observe the involuntary ‘filling in’ process carried out by the visual system. This is certainly a 1p method, since the experience it reveals and explores is private and subjective, and no separate third-person (3p) observer is required. Yet it is also easily replicated and fruitful in terms of theory development, especially when the reports of subjects with lesions in visual processing areas of the brain are taken into account. This would qualify as an example of what Dennett calls ‘heterophenomenology’ and declares to be the standard method of cognitive science (Dennett 1991, 2001).

Why then is such a method inadequate, as both Velmans and Varela suggest, for the further development of consciousness studies? Why are the newly proposed ‘phenomenological’ methods so difficult to implement or even to describe? Richard Stevens in his IPC article takes the challenge further, asserting that his review of 1p methods only shows the ‘absence of an effective phenomenological methodology’ (112). Perhaps a close study of IPC can respond to some of these questions and challenges without falling into the endlessly futile metaphysical disputes which bedevil these issues—for as John Pickering remarks (VfW 275), ‘Methods are hard to separate from metaphysics.’ But first we should note that the 15 articles in IPC are more inclusive than the ten main articles in VfW, which concentrate mostly on ‘pure’ 1p methods.

Most of the IPC articles focus on cross-disciplinary dialogue and ‘triangulation’ of different methods to address theoretical questions. For example, both Howard Shevrin and Mark Solms argue for the reality of the psychoanalytical unconscious—that is, mental content that is actively and intentionally kept out of the spotlight of consciousness even though the repressive intention itself is not conscious. Both derive their data mainly from clinical situations, but Shevrin also adds some 3p ‘laboratory’ methods such as EEG readings into the mix. Both criticize the limitations of neuroscience and cognitive psychology, claiming that psychoanalytic theory can account for phenomena that are ignored or denied within those other disciplines. Given the generally low esteem in which psychoanalysis is held by most scientists today, a bit of criticism in the other direction is welcome, whether the arguments of Shevrin and Solms prove persuasive or not.

In his introduction to IPC, Velmans comments that the tendency to dismiss investigations as unscientific extends to all 1p methods. He blames this on a ‘prevailing tendency towards reductionism’ (3). Pickering similarly refers to ‘the exclusion of experience that decapitates science and philosophy’ (283). To remedy this, three articles in IPC propose what amounts to a redefinition of scientific method—though from the authors' point of view it simply restores the health of true science, which has been hijacked by a misdirected notion of ‘objectivity’. Charles Tart proposes ‘Investigating Altered States on Their Own Terms’ by a method he calls ‘essential science’ (261). Ken Wilber and Roger Walsh propose ‘An Integral Approach to Consciousness Research’ based on a methodology composed of three ‘strands’: ‘injunction, apprehension, confirmation (or exemplar, evidence, confirmation/rejection; or instrumental, data, fallibilism)’ (320). Velmans wraps up the book by summarizing this method in a sentence: ‘The heart of science is the empirical method which, simply put, is if you follow these procedures you will observe or experience these results’ (354, emphasis his). Since these three views are virtually unanimous, as Velmans remarks (356), the discussion below will refer to them jointly as ‘essential science’.

Velmans' formulation above implies that the conventional distinction between 3p ‘observation’ and 1p ‘experience’ is not essential to science. He attempts to make this explicit in his contribution to VfW (pp. 299-306), which is entitled ‘Intersubjective science’ and incorporated in his closing IPC article (333-358). I will argue that his attempt fails because it conflates two aspects of intersubjectivity which play complementary but different roles in the transformation process—another central focus of IPC. To explain this, I will need to sketch out a rough ‘map’ of intersubjectivity. There are of course many ‘views’ which can be called ‘intersubjective’—Hargens (2001) takes four pages to identify five of them within the works of Wilber alone—but here I will confine myself to contrasting two of them. [What follows is neither original nor universally accepted, but I will refrain from citing sources because this ‘map’ is both too common and, in the form presented here, too sketchy.]

The first mode of intersubjectivity I call second-person (2p), a mutual relationship ‘between ourselves’, i.e. between two subjects each of whom recognizes the Other as a Self. The ‘resonance’ between the two subjects is the engine of transformation, and this requires the mutual alterity of the subjects as well as their sharing of a common ground. The second mode is that shared common ground, which I call first person plural (1pP) because of its consensual nature. Its content, as the product of the conscious 2p process, is normally unconscious (in the sense of post-conscious, not the psychoanalytic sense): it is the set of internalized and routinized patterns which subsequently ground and frame conscious attention. Language learning is one aspect of this developmental spiral: the implicit, unconscious knowledge of context and syntax develops by means of conscious interaction with other language users, and then enables our conscious grasp of meaning and intent in the next conversation.

Once a pattern has ‘sunk in’ to the unconscious ground of consciousness, it can still be ‘resurrected’ into the spotlight of consciousness, by new 2p encounters and resonances. These are the experiences we call transformative because they make a difference in the way we live and perceive the world afterwards. It is not normally possible to raise the entire 1pP consensus into consciousness at one time, because there is no figure without a ground—no text can become explicit without an implicit context, or be decoded without an implicit code. But our lives can be transformed by the interaction of 2p and 1pP modes, because they are complementary and not the same. If ‘empathy’ is a relationship in which 1pP (consensual) and 2p (other/self) relationships complement each other, then empathy is the precondition for transformation. It is also, as Evan Thompson declares, ‘the precondition for the science of consciousness’ (Thompson 2001).

The trouble with Velmans' argument in IPC is that he consistently fuses the two complementary modes of intersubjectivity, for instance referring to ‘a communally shared second-person perspective’ as ‘shared, systematic knowledge’ (7) and ‘the second-person space of “we”’ (355). Wilber and Walsh likewise refer to ‘second-person, we-language, intersubjective accounts’ and generally use 2p and 1pP interchangeably (see especially p. 310). The Lower Left quadrant in Wilber's now-familiar map of the Kosmos includes both the ‘intersubjective’ and ‘mutual understanding’ under the rubric of ‘We’ (diagram on p. 311). But ‘we’ is not 2p; it is 1pP. This is not a grammatical quibble but a sign of the confusion between the ‘empirical method’ of ‘essential science’ and the more restrictive empiricism embodied in public science.

In his argument for an ‘intersubjective’ or ‘essential’ science, Velmans claims that ‘experienced phenomena may be public in so far as they are similar or shared experiences’ (IPC 343, emphasis his). But as Gerald Edelman pointed out, ‘We cannot construct a phenomenal psychology that can be shared in the same way as a physics can be shared’ (1992, 114). Velmans bases his denial of this view on a thought-experiment: a scenario in which an experimenter (E) uses a light bulb as a stimulus for the subject (S). Velmans says that the phenomenon of the light bulb is really the same for both E and S, or similar enough to count as the same; it is not objective for one and subjective for the other, and thus the subjective/objective distinction conventional in 3p science is misleading. But his own argument becomes equally misleading when applied to phenomena which have no implicit consensual basis.

Public (1pP) consensus on the referent of ‘light bulb,’ and on what it is like to experience such a thing, is easy to come by—in fact it is automatic for normal adults. But this is certainly not the case for ‘enlightenment,’ or for any of those singular 1p experiences which lack any external correlative or ‘stimulus’. And these ‘singularities’ are the very forms of phenomenal consciousness which advocates of 1p methods generally choose to investigate; they tend to consider common everyday experience (like that explored by Ramachandran's method above) too common to be worthy of study. Hence Varela's rejection of Dennett's ‘heterophenomenology’ in VfW (p. 10, 273), Tart's focus on ‘altered states’ and Wilber's promotion of ‘higher states’ of consciousness.

We have to rely on highly metaphorical language to discuss these ‘states’ at all, because we have no universal consensus on how to refer to them, as we have for the world of sensible objects. The only way to achieve such a consensus is through training which transforms the consciousness of the subject and initiates him into a micro-community or sangha (Wilber and Walsh 314). Such training establishes and internalizes consensus on the meaning of the terms in which the ‘injunctions’ of the discipline are stated. This same consensus extends to the results expected from the prescribed practices, thus enabling ‘confirmations’ within the sangha. Tart, Wilber, Velmans and other advocates of 1p methodologies are unanimous that training is required not only to get results from these methods but even to understand and interpret the results. The untrained public is out of this loop. Thus these ‘essential sciences’ are not public sciences; they are esoteric disciplines. Perhaps it takes an esoteric ‘science’ to transform the consciousness of its practitioners, but if this is the point of ‘essential science’ how can we distinguish it from what Aleister Crowley called ‘magick’ and what the adepts of an earlier age called ‘alchemy’?

Of course, much of public science also eludes the understanding of the general public, and scientists also require training. But the object of this training is entirely different. It does not transform the subject, as Wilber and Walsh point out: ‘... no higher transformations are required for empiric-analytic or systems theory investigations.... You can master quantum physics without transforming consciousness; but you cannot in any fashion master Zen without doing so’ (320). Indeed, the whole point of public-science training is to minimize interference with the data by the intentions of the investigator. But as Velmans himself says, ‘In discovering its own nature, the mind changes its nature’ (353). Public science aims to avoid changing the nature it studies by insisting on public replication of results, which can only be attained when its objects of attention are those toward which the objective stance is the default. This furnishes public science with terms of reference which are already consensual prior to any special training, even though it may require training to build and test theories in these terms. The objective stance cannot be the default for the conscious exploration of consciousness because there is no automatic 1pP consensus about the phenomena under investigation; such consensus is achievable only within the sangha.

Every thoughtful scientist will admit (at least outside of his laboratory) that objectivity is an epistemic stance and not an attribute of his consciousness or its objects. Science has its limits, but ‘essential science’ cannot exceed those limits without ceasing to be public. Wilber and Walsh (314) claim that ‘there now exists a substantial amount of rather compelling evidence that interior consciousness can continue the evolutionary process of transcend and include, transcend and include, so that even rationality itself is transcended (but included!) in postformal stages of awareness, stages that increasingly take on characteristics that might best be described as spiritual or mystical.’ But the public beyond the sangha has no basis on which to judge how ‘compelling’ such evidence is. The products advertised by such claims are available for inspection only after you buy into them. Meanwhile, if anyone makes a claim that is empirically testable in the public sense, like being able to walk on water, ordinary science remains quite adequate for assessing such claims. As for ‘essential science’, my objection to it is similar to Baars' comment in VfW (217-18) that phenomenology lacks a ‘willingness to postulate unconscious processes to explain conscious experiences.... The unconscious is as necessary for a complete understanding of the mind as consciousness is.’ Likewise, the unconscious 1pP consensus is necessary for public science.

Fortunately, IPC does not limit itself to ‘essential science’ but offers several ‘maps of consciousness studies’ (as Velmans calls them). IPC lacks the ‘peer commentary and responses’ which take up a full third of VfW and add so much to its value, but it does offer a healthy plurality of views. Jane Henry provides a very comprehensive overview of methods used to transform experience in clinical practice, notes an over-emphasis in the West on the verbal and rational and on individualism, and recommends some new directions to redress this imbalance. Thus her descriptive ‘map’ serves a prescriptive (even transformative) purpose; and this is the case with nearly every article in IPC. Alwyn Scott presents an overview of nonlinear dynamics and emergence as scientific concepts with special relevance to the study of consciousness, and then calls for scientists to venture beyond their specialties and embrace the complementary nature of the humanities. Rom Harré offers a linguistic analysis of ‘consciousness talk’ and points to some ‘unfinished business’ concerning the nature of ‘social construction.’ Peter Fenwick gives us a useful overview of neuroimaging technologies while challenging the metaphysical assumptions which he claims to be implicit in their use.

Richard Stevens and John Pickering focus directly on methodological issues and offer perspectives that will surely inspire investigators for some time to come. Stevens suggests that 1p approaches may be ‘ineffective’ because ‘the very idea of mapping experience makes invalid realist assumptions about the nature of subjective experience.... For we are creating our consciousness in the very act of experiencing it’ (112-13). Stevens also suggests that the investigator's role may be ‘to inspire as well [as] to understand’ (117), and perhaps that is the best spirit in which to read the ‘maps’ offered by IPC. Rather than using the map as a View from Above which reduces other disciplines and investigators to items on a list, you can respond to the map itself and the territory it maps as potential Others with whom you might resonate. Such a 2p reading changes an overview to an interview.

The transcendent View from Above certainly has its uses; maps which reduce everything in the Kosmos to simple locations (such as Wilber's four-quadrant diagram, or the Great Chain of Being, or the kabbalistic Tree of Life) can help to consolidate the 1pP consensus within a micro-community, to initiate and train practitioners of esoteric disciplines, and to generate useful results for the disciples. But overviews, especially in conjunction with the Wilberian mantra of ‘transcend and include,’ can discourage interviews and rob us of their transformative power. (I am saying nothing here about Wilber's intentions, of which I claim no knowledge, and which have been extensively explored elsewhere, for instance by Hargens 2001). The trouble is that when a ‘state of consciousness’ or discipline or holon is ‘transcended,’ the transcendent overview of it does not include the chaotic and non-linear depth of 2p interactions which generate or constitute it.

In a systemic hierarchy, ‘function or control can only arise through some selective loss of detail’ (Pattee 1973; see also Pattee 1995). Constrained by embodiment, the spotlight of consciousness can only clarify the view by reducing it. Bruce Mangan refers to this as ‘conservation of consciousness’: ‘when something becomes clear, something else becomes vague’ (VfW 251). The overview, however ‘transcendent’, does not ‘include’ the field, as the review does not include the book. This raises questions about the feasibility and usefulness of ‘integrating’ consciousness studies by ‘contemporaneously tracking’ everything that goes on in the field (326). The problem with this approach is clearly understated by Wilber and Walsh: ‘In our time of massive information overload this is obviously no small requirement and none of us will master it. However, all of us can try to seek out and be open to ideas and information outside our own particular base’ (319). The humbler perspective here is more conducive to intersubjective (2p) discovery than the magisterial View from Above—for whatever is transcended and included ceases to be a significant Other.

It may be that the field is transformed not by advertising for micro-communities but by their trained adepts stepping forth from their cloisters onto common ground and offering the fruits of their investigations to the macro-community. This may require them to transcend their training, but if scientists can write in a public language (as many good ones have), then ‘essential scientists’ should be able to do the same. They may need to dispense with the View from Above, but then any such view which is not dispensible may turn into a fundamentalism. As Mary Catherine Bateson has written, ‘the rise of fundamentalism within any tradition is always a symptom of the unwillingness to try to sustain joint performances across disparate codes—or, to put it differently, to live in ambiguity, a life that requires constant learning’ (1994, 13). There is no methodology for living such a life except to recognize one another as one and Other. If consciousness studies needs an agenda, perhaps sustaining joint performances is the most promising.


Bateson, M.C. (1994), Peripheral Visions (New York: HarperCollins).

Dennett, D. (1991), Consciousness Explained (New York: Little, Brown).

Dennett, D. (2001), ‘The Fantasy of First-Person Science’ (third draft,

Edelman, G. (1992), Bright Air, Brilliant Fire (New York: BasicBooks).

Hargens, S. (2001), ‘Intersubjective Musings’, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8 (12), pp. 35-78.

Pattee, H. (ed. 1973), Hierarchy Theory: The Challenge of Complex Systems (New York: Braziller).

Pattee, H. (1995), ‘Evolving Self-Reference: Matter, Symbols, And Semantic Closure’, Communication and Cognition - Artificial Intelligence, 12 (1-2), pp. 9-27, .

Ramachandran, V.S. and Blakeslee, S. (1998), Phantoms in the Brain (New York: William Morrow).

Thompson, E. (2001), ‘Empathy and Consciousness’, Journal of Consciousness Studies 8 (5-7), pp. 1-32.

Velmans, M. (ed. 2000), Investigating Phenomenal Consciousness (Amsterdam: Benjamins).

Varela, F. and Shear, J. (ed. 1999), The View from Within (Thorverton, UK: Imprint Academic). Also published as Journal of Consciousness Studies 6 (2-3).

[ gnoxic studies (home) ]