Sponsored By: Infinity Foundation

Towards an Adequate Epistemology

Towards an Adequate Epistemology and Methodology for Consciousness Studies
Contributions from the Western Contemplative Tradition
by Arthur Zajonc

This work made possible by support from the Infinity Foundation and the Fetzer Institute.

The most persistent criticism of first-person methodologies in consciousness research is the accusation of subjectivity. In what follows I will argue that recent developments in science convincingly demonstrate that the objects of science always arise in relationship to the perceiving subject. The subject or observer, therefore, is built into the very structure of contemporary scientific inquiry in inextricable ways. Instead of the illusory quest for the elimination of the subject, science achieves objectivity through its legitimate search for an unbiased method of investigation and a coherent account of phenomena. After establishing observer dependence in Einstein’s theory of relativity, I explore the positive potential of a phenomenological approach for the scientific study of consciousness. I will draw on contributions from cognitive psychology and the western contemplative tradition in order to provide an adequate epistemology and methodology for the study of consciousness without reduction to mechanism.

Impressive advances have been made in the study of consciousness in recent years due, in large part, to new non-invasive imaging technologies of value to cognitive neuroscience. Yet for all this progress, two fundamental issues still confound consciousness research, namely an adequate epistemology and an appropriate methodology. Without an adequate epistemology one inevitably ends up confronted the so-called “hard problem.” Without an appropriate methodology (or better, an array of methodologies), one cannot include first-person accounts in the research paradigm. Using a blend of modern physics and reference to the Western contemplative tradition, I address these two issues.

The hard problem as it appears in consciousness studies is the reflection of the mind-body problem familiar to us from dualist philosophies1. Physics, chemistry, and neuroscience provide accounts for the mechanism of consciousness but say nothing about the experience of consciousness itself. While physics can say little about conscious experience per se, it does offer a stunning refutation of a conventional scientific realism. I therefore begin by examining the place of objects and perceiving subjects in modern physics. In place of the conventional scientific worldview I offer an alternative which owes much to phenomenology and the Western contemplative tradition.

Having suggested an epistemology that is better suited to both modern physics and consciousness studies, I move on to the issue of methodology. Here it is a question of understanding the differences between physics, biology and consciousness studies. The research methods suitable for one area may well be unsuitable for another area. Therefore a range of methodologies will, in general, be required for an adequate exploration of the complex area of consciousness.

We can begin by treating the maturest area of science, namely physics. Physics treats inert matter and the interactions that operate within this realm. Already here we will discover the essential role of the observer, and the elusive nature of “objective reality.” The lessons learned here are crucial for the development of a suitable framework for the study of consciousness.

The elusive objects of modern physics

What are the things or objects studied by physics? Every individual has a unique personal experience of the common objects that populate our world. No two observers see the same thing, whether that thing is a fly ball viewed by thousands of baseball fans, or a rainbow hovering within the spray of Niagara Falls. Yet from the singular data available to us we have successfully developed a consistent, functional, and intuitive understanding of the world which allows us to navigate through it with great success. We successfully catch fly-balls; we move at high speed over long distances to far-away destinations and arrive without incident; we construct intricate buildings and inhabit them. Each of these is a marvel of spatial and temporal knowledge. Most of this knowledge is tacit. It exists without a correct formal scientific theory of space and time, but rather uses only a commonsense understanding that incorporates changes of perspective and simple locomotion. We all know that things look different from different viewpoints, even without a theory of perspective. Long before the 15th century artist and architect Brunillesci discovered single-point perspective, people were getting around their villages, and even around the world2. This implies some kind of mental representation of the world, or, following J.J. Gibson, a reciprocal relationship between world and perceiver3. We simply experience the world as other than ourselves, and we naturally grant it its own autonomous existence. What is it like apart from us, apart from the way we happen to see it?

In the light of this question, our commonsense experience of the world gradually gives way to a more abstract scientific conception of objects located in space and time4. These objects are essentially independent of the observer, and are imagined to possess an objective, intrinsic, three-dimensional nature. In addition they evolve steadily and autonomously in time. The introduction of an observer is incidental to the object, merely projecting it along a particular line of sight onto the retina of the observer at a single moment of objective time. Within this formal classical account nothing important is lost by removing the observer – space and time can be conceived of as independent of any observer. In Newton’s universe absolute space and absolute time are a given. The classical universe can thus be completely described as it is in its own right, to itself, as opposed to how it appears to a sentient being. Classical science should provide a God’s eye view, or, to borrow Thomas Nagel’s phrase, a “view from nowhere.” Its description purports to be one that presents the way objects were “to themselves”, and not as they happen to appear to an observer. Implicit in this view is a particular notion about the world itself and how we can come to know about it.

Einstein’s relativity theory fundamentally challenged this view of the world and of knowledge. It showed that the things of the world, or the objects of the theory, are much more elusive than naively thought. To appreciate the full scope of the theory’s implications would require a detailed exposition, but in the interests of brevity two aspects must stand in for the rest – the relativity of simultaneity and length contraction.

In classical physics two events, A and B, either occur simultaneously of not. In relativity theory this is no longer true. Whether two events are judged to occur at the same time or not depends essentially on the frame of reference from which they are viewed. Consider the figures below5.

Figure 1 shows a train car, traveling at speed v, whose two ends are struck by lightning. The two flashes travel at the speed of light from A and B to an observer at C located on the ground (not on the train) exactly midway between the ends of the train car. The signals are experienced as two simultaneous flashes of light by the ground observer. Thus the lightning will rightly be said to have struck the ends of the train car at the same time (at least in the frame of reference of the ground observer).

Now consider the same pair of events from the viewpoint of an observer on the train at its midpoint C’. Figure 2 shows that the light signals, which always travel at the speed of light, will not arrive at the same time at C’. Rather, as shown by the dashed circles, the light propagates from the ends of the train reaching C’ first from A’. Only later does the flash from B’ arrive at C’. We can easily understand this as due to the motion of the train advancing towards A and away from B.

Figure 3 shows how the lightning bolts will be seen by an observer on the train, namely first as striking A on the right, and then later striking B on the left. Note, however, that both observers will agree that the two flashes hit when A was across from A’ and when B what across from B’, but they will give different accounts for why this happened. From the unprimed frame S, the two lightning bolts struck the ends simultaneously when the two ends A’ and B’ were both aligned with points A and B on the ground. By contrast the observer on the train will say no, the lightning bolts hit the two ends of the train one after the other. First the front was hit when A’ was across from A, and later after the ground (not the train) has traveled a distance L, the rear was hit when B’ was across from B. Moreover, in order to make this all work out we must take into account the relativistic length contraction of the ground distance AB when viewed from the train car’s moving frame S’.

The conclusion we are forced to draw is that the temporal ordering of events is not an absolute. Two events can appear to occur at the same time or not depending entirely on the relative states of motion of observers. Moreover, it makes no sense in relativity to search for or to imagine that while appearances are relative there exists an objectively true situation. The notions of before and after have no absolute meaning, rather they only take on particular meanings to well-defined observers. In addition, as mentioned above, self-consistent, empirically adequate accounts can only be given if we allow for relativistic length contraction and time dilation. These two factors, taken together with the relativity of simultaneity, challenge our conventional notions of space and time profoundly. For a more complete treatment I refer readers to one of the many texts on special relativity6.

For our purpose I want to stress the essential place of the observer and the collapse of classical concepts of space and time in relativity theory. Every scientific explanation is an account given by a specific observer. The objects of a scientific account are always objects described or conceived within a particular frame of reference, never as they are “to themselves.” The account given is cognet to the observer and to others in the same inertial frame. That is, each particular account is consistent with the laws of physics, but the accounts of two observers in relative motion will generally disagree in fundamental ways. Only by making the appropriate (Lorentz) transformation can an observer in one frame make sense of the account given by an observer in a second frame of reference.

In relativity theory not only are space and time fluid, but so are such concepts as electric and magnetic fields, or mass. In other words, the bedrock concepts of our commonsense understanding cannot withstand the scrutiny of relativity theory. Relativity presents us with the following picture of “reality.” For every observer (or inertial frame) an empirically adequate account of phenomena will be possible that is consistent with the laws of physics. These accounts will differ in significant ways from one another, violating a commonsense, classical scientific understanding of the world as comprised of stable objects whose spatial dimensions and temporal evolution are independent of us. But if the scientist-observers know relativity theory, then by a suitable translation of their accounts (by means of the correct Lorentz transformation), they will understand the differences between their respective accounts. They will have given up the idea of absolute space or time or fields, and rather work within the more fluid framework of an observer-dependent theory of spacetime.

One can ask, is there nothing that is stable and observer independent in the relativistic understanding of the world? The answer is formally, yes. If, for example, one unites space and time into a four-dimensional spacetime, then invariants do exist. These invariants do not exist in the phenomenal space of our lived experience, but we can construct formal mathematical spaces that possess invariant structures of great beauty. To be specific, the classical spatial length, s, of a three-dimensional object is given by the Pythagorean theorem as

s2=x2 +y2+z2.

The classical length, s, above is invariant under rotations in 3-space, that is to say, the length of a ruler does not change no matter how we spin it. This is no longer true relativistically! The relativistic invariant is the spacetime interval, L, in which space and time appear on equal footing. The interval L is given by


In other words, if we wanted to imagine a “real” world whose objects possessed something like the invariant lengths of space, or an invariant interval of time between events, then we are required to combine space and time. In this view, objects don’t “really” have a length, s, and likewise events are not “really” separated in time by an invariant time interval. The only concept that persists in the face of relativity is the spacetime interval L.

Are the new higher level invariants such as spacetime intervals real? Are they the objects God has in mind when he sees the universe from his view? Is this Nagel’s “view from nowhere?” Physicists know that even the invariants of special relativity are not good invariants under the class of transformations of the general theory of relativity (diffeomorphisms). Therefore we cannot consider the spacetime interval to be an ultimate feature of reality either. Is there a truly fundamental set of invariants? Do they constitute the objective things of reality? I believe this to be the wrong way of addresses this problem. Every time we have reified invariants of a theory in the past, they have fallen to more subtle analysis. Relativity suggests that we adopt a different notion of reality entirely7.

Quantum mechanics leads us to similar conclusions. In a manner analogous to relativity theory, the wavefunction describing a quantum system does not exist in normal space and time but in a more formal abstract mathematical configuration space. In order to make predictions we must define the details of the experimental arrangement by selecting a “complete set of commuting observables.” In doing so we define our frame of reference and how we wish to represent the wavefunction in that frame. Other features of quantum theory “entangle” the experimenter’s frame with the system itself, producing the so-called measurement problem8.

All these considerations reinforce the essential place of the observer in physical theory. The traditional notion of an “objective” observer-independent universe is an incoherent view from the modern physical standpoint. The position, relative velocity, and experimental arrangement associated with the observer are all essential to a coherent, empirically-adequate treatment of phenomena. The viable “objects” of an invariant reality are elusive at best. In fact, I would suggest that to search for them is to mistake our theoretical representations for reality. If rather we follow van Fraassen’s criterion that a scientific theory should be empirical adequate, and not require it to provide us with a view of a transcendent reality, we can be satisfied with the treatment of phenomena offered by relativity theory and quantum mechanics9. We should be dissatisfied, however, with an epistemology that entails such transcendental entities.

Before assessing prevalent epistemologies against the facts of modern physics, to wish to point out that the essential “subjectivity” of physics does not entail a lack of rigor. Quite to the contrary, a rigorous analysis has led us to the conclusion that the subject cannot be eliminated, and that good theories includes the role of the observer in an essential way. Therefore, in science we should view objectivity to mean free from prejudice or bias, and reject its use to imply an ultimate observer-independent view on the nature and the arrangement of things. We always find ourselves implicated in the world, and any attempt to completely disentangle ourselves from that world will fail. We should accept the inseparability of subject and object, and that an empirically-adequate theory must include this feature. This suggests that we take an empirical or phenomenological stance in science, one that values the data of experience fully while granting theory its proper place as an articulation of the profound coherence hidden within the phenomenal world. Einstein wrote, “The only justification for our concepts is that they serve to represent the complex of our experiences; beyond this they have no legitimacy.”10 By taking an empiricist stance we resist the alluring temptation to treat a particular reductionist account as anything more that a provisional, empirically-adequate account of a certain limited domain of experience. It makes no deep claims concerning the ultimate nature of things, but rather suggests that we value experience itself and the coherence we are able to discern within it.

Towards an adequate epistemology

The philosophical position so characteristic of Western science (including consciousness science) holds that the phenomena of consciousness are epiphenomenal representations of a real world that is forever beyond experience11. It is thought that through careful experimentation and theory one can get behind the illusions of the senses to a true reality, be it composed of quarks and gluons, or axons and dendrites. The comparable position which dominated 19th century philosophy in the West was that advanced by Kant. According to Kant the phenomena of lived experience are merely representations of a transcendentally real world of noumena or things-in-themselves. By definition, human consciousness cannot experience noumena. To do so would immediately make them phenomena, that is, they would be corrupted by human subjectivity. According to this position, the best one can hope for is to approach the real noumena ever more exactly through one’s theoretical representation of them. The theoretical description itself likewise needs to be sanitized of all subjective elements. Therefore qualitative notions such as color, taste, etc. are excluded in favor of supposedly objective and quantifiable features such as spatial extension, arrangement, position, velocity, etc. Our previous analysis of space and time does much to erode the view held by Kant and which was implicit in classical physics.

Science since Galileo has understood its task to be to provide an analysis devoid of the qualitative aspects associated with phenomena. Galileo, Newton, Descartes, and Locke articulated this now familiar goal of scientific theory. They sought to distance science from the vagaries of subjective human experience by identifying what they felt were the real, objective attributes of material reality and then to provide explanatory accounts exclusively in terms of them. Primary qualities only, such as extension, mass, and position, were considered to be “real” and therefore suitable for inclusion in scientific accounts. But as many philosophers of science have pointed out, the distinction between primary and secondary qualities is dubious.12 Galileo and others give little substantial justification for considering one set of qualities as objectively real and another unreal. We are certainly free to identify attributes suited to our theoretical treatment, and if we do so wisely then the theory will prove powerful in various ways. However, in doing so we have not moved beyond qualities by limiting ourselves to a few, such as distance and time, that are amenable to quantification. We should remember that measurement is nothing more than a comparison (e.g. longer, twice as long, and so on) between the qualitative aspect of one object and another which we take as the standard unit.

Every science, if it would move beyond purely formal mathematical relationships, must incorporate qualities into itself. All meaning inheres in qualities. The qualitative connects the formal treatment with experience. Notions such as speed, wavelength, and force ultimately derive their meaning from experience. Even the relatively abstract concepts of electric and magnetic fields make physical sense because of the effects with which they are associated. The less concepts are connected to experience (for example, isospin and strangeness in the quantum theory of the strong interaction) the more formal and abstract is our understanding of them. Science requires connection to a human phenomenological world if it is to make meaningful statements. This suggests a stronger form of empiricism, one that accepts the important place of lived human experience in science as the basis for meaning. Therefore in addition to the weak inclusion of the observer as demanded by relativity theory, I would suggest that the meaningfulness of science itself requires the inclusion of qualities. Thus science cannot legitimately turn its back on qualities. Rather, in pursuit of a rigorous form of knowledge, it can develop various ways of making them reliable. By this I do not mean replacing qualitative experience with hypothetical entities, but instead we can seek methods that render them trustworthy. In some instances instrumentation and quantification may be called for, in other instances not. If our interest ultimately is consciousness, then we will require a means of investigation that is able to include the full range of conscious experience, and not merely a reduced set of variables easily amenable to quantification.

The central purpose of this paper is to advance an alternative epistemology and to examine methods of investigation that can be used to study consciousness. I do not wish to reframe the familiar territory of physics. As we turn from physics to cognitive science, therefore, we can ask which (if any) qualitative aspects of consciousness should be taken as fundamental? What methodology should be adopted in order to bolster the reliability of the data and subsequent analysis? What contributions can we expect from introspectionism, phenomenology, cognitive and ecological psychology, or the contemplative traditions of Asian and the West?13 The arena of conscious human experience has been explored for some time within these contemplative traditions, and each tradition has something to offer to a non-reductive science of consciousness. Within this large subject I would like to focus on two examples, the first drawn from cognitive psychology and the second examining the experience of the Western contemplative tradition.

Objectifying the Subjective

Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) has been used for decades by physicists and chemists in the analysis of complex physical and chemical materials and the processes they undergo. More recently this discovery has been adapted to provide medical imaging under the name of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). It and related technologies have found extensive use in cognitive neuroscience. From a technological standpoint, whether a geological sample or a human being is in the NMR machine is irrelevant. A significant difference arises only when we appreciate that the human in the machine possesses an inner life with intentions, memories, perceptions, thoughts, fears, pains, and hopes. These latter subjective experiences provide the crucial empirical content permitting research within the domain of consciousness as opposed to the domain of chemistry and physics. Without them we are engaged in the interesting but distinct task of mapping a complex system of physical, chemical, and electromagnetic processes exactly as we might for any other physical system. My point is that no matter how sophisticated the technology, one can only research consciousness when consciousness itself assumes a place in the paradigm. At a minimum we must seek a correlation of the physiological with the mental, a correlation which usually is obtained by some form of self-report or a self-conscious act (pushing a button). But such a methodology is far too limited.

In recent years the availability of new technologies has driven much of the research program in psychology, a common situation whenever a new technology is invented. The wealth of new data is fascinating, but it can also be distracting. If we would objectify the subjective, it is insufficient to merely locate brain correlates for subjective experience. I would like to use a different but equally exact and quantitative set of studies to demonstrate the actual significance of introspection for consciousness research when coupled with third-person experimental methods.

In the 1970’s Roger Shepard and collaborators performed a set of landmark experiments examining mental rotation of geometrical figures.14 Through these experiments, Shepard tested various theories of mental representation with impressive exactness. His work is connected to our previous considerations of space and time through the fact that visually we are so constituted as to experience only two-dimensional projections of three-dimensional objects on each retina. On the basis of a variety of cues the mind quite naturally (and in the case of visual illusions, falsely) experiences the object as three-dimensional. As we saw in our treatment of relativity, the space so experienced does not correspond to an invariant reality “out there.”

Shepard sought to examine the specific ways in which we mentally represent the objects of the external world. For example, in a 1971 experiment Metzler and Shepard measured the time subjects required to determine that two perspective views were of intrinsically identical rather than non-identical shapes.15 Subjects were shown pairs of perspective views and told to press one button if identical and a second button if not. The time until decision was measured as a function of the angle of rotation, for example. Figure ?? below shows the set of identical shapes from which pairs were chosen to be shown to subjects. Figure ?? shows the time until decision increasing linearly with the angular difference of their orientations in three-dimensional space. This is but a single example of a wide range of experiments they performed. Taken together the data are read by Shepard and colleagues as supporting a particular theory of mental representation and rotation, one which posits a mental analog of an actual physical rotation. They argue for the empirical adequacy of their theory.

From the above example it is clear that Shepard did not seek a metaphysical resolution to what mind is. His discovery of the linear dependence of time on angle between pairs will stand whether we take a Cartesian position that mind is of a different substance that matter, or whether we assert a materialist metaphysics. Like Snels’ Law for optical refraction, Shepard’s is a precise empirical law. We are accustomed to empirical laws in physics. It is initially surprising to discovery how exact mental laws can be.

How such laws are instantiated, is not developed by Shepard. Specifically, Shepard is not concerned with an account in terms of an underlying neuroscience. Sherpard and Cooper write that, “Our entire program of research is predicated on the notion that there are different levels of description of internal processes and that significant theoretical statements about such processes can be framed at a level of abstraction that does not entail any commitment to a particular mechanization of these processes within the neurophysiological substrate.”16

What is not evident from the above is the consonance of the quantitative experimental results with the introspective accounts given by the subjects themselves. Shepard and Cooper report, however, that there is good agreement between external tests and internal experience. “For the present, however, the theory of mental rotation seems to us to provide the account of our finding that is at once the simplest, the most complete, and the most consonant with the introspective reports of the subjects themselves.”17 Concerning the internal mental representation of three-dimensional objects, Shepard formulated a conceptual model of what subjects did in the rotation experiments. He went on to state that his model “is also consonant with the post-experimental introspective reports of the subjects who generally claimed the following: (a) They interpreted the perspective drawings as rigid three-dimensional objects and, in an important sense, “saw” the angles even though these angles varied widely from 90 degrees in the two-dimensional picture plane. (b) They imagined the rotations as carried out in isotropic three-dimensional space…” Notice that the recognition of same or different was not via a deductive proof, but rather was directly perceived by the subjects. This was his reason for choosing a visual study and not a verbal/linguistic problem. It is also significant that error rates were small, typically a few percent.

Shepard’s work provides an important example of a style of consciousness research that is free of metaphysical commitments, while being amenable to mathematical quantification. In addition, we find at least anecdotal support for the accuracy of introspective accounts offered by the study’s subjects.

No matter how elegant, science has never been content with empirical laws, but has always sought more “fundamental” treatments in terms of atomic theory, neurophysiology, and the like. As it matures, I expect that neuroscience, like physics, will be open to the philosophical critique of anti-realists. They will rightly draw our attention to the danger of mistaking the abstract elements of a formal theory for reality. They will argue that the data themselves, the empirical content, the phenomena are primary. Theory may help us elucidate patterns and make predictions, but we should be highly skeptical concerning the ontological claims of such a theory. Instead of pursuing the anti-realist critique, I prefer to develop a positive method that stays close to the phenomena throughout. One is naturally dawn, thereby, to the phenomenological tradition in philosophy from Goethe to Husserl, and the ecological psychology of the later J.J. Gibson. While acknowledging the importance of these thinkers, I choose here to concentrate on a lesser-studied contribution to consciousness research, namely that stemming from the Western contemplative tradition.

The Western Contemplative Contribution

While best known for his play Faust and other literary productions, Goethe considered his scientific studies in biology, botany, geology, meteorology, and particularly his research into color, as his most important contribution overall. In retrospect what seems most significant about Goethe’s efforts in science was his way of doing science, and less his particular discoveries. Goethe was one of the earliest advocates of a critical stance towards scientific models, advocating instead a mode of scientific investigation that kept close to lived experience while retaining scientific rigor. It was an approach that placed the cognitive act of discovery or insight at the center of its attention. Model-building and abstract theory, by contrast, were viewed as important accessory activity whose pictures should be understood as not necessarily corresponding to reality. Goethe shifts our cognitive focus away from the particulars of a formalism or model and to phenomena. Through this method the phenomena themselves are made increasing transparent to the patterns and lawfulness operating in them. Elsewhere I have written extensively about Goethe’s approach to scientific inquiry, including also its contemporary exponents, and so refer the interested reader to these works.18

Goethe’s approach was influential in the 19th century study of perception. Even Helmholtz, famous for his stimulus-response theory of perception, in later life came to appreciate Goethe’s more holistic treatment.19 A century later J.J. Gibson would make a systematic critique of the stimulus-response model, and go on to suggest a detailed treatment of perception with many similarities to the approach taken by Goethe. Steven Tainer’s discussion of J. J. Gibson’s ecological psychology makes similar points to those I make elsewhere in my writings on Goethe.20 Instead of rehearsing my previous discussions of Goethe’s work in the natural science, I want to take up the work of one of Goethe’s greatest students, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925).21

Rudolf Steiner viewed his own efforts as building directly on the scientific work of Goethe and extending them. He sought to make Goethe’s viewpoint philosophically rigorous and, in addition, to apply it explicit to the “spiritual or cultural sciences,”22 a direction Goethe never explored. In recent years the study of Buddhist epistemology has been discussed in relation to cognitive science and the investigation of consciousness generally.23 This is entirely justified. In Asia one has a long and rigorous tradition of philosophical analysis developed at the hand of meditative experience. As researchers in the modern West explore consciousness, they can benefit by acquaintance with the research methods and epistemological studies of Buddhism. To a lesser extent the description and analysis of experience, including those had at the hand of mediation, also form a significant part of the literature of Western spirituality. Rather than attempt a survey of the whole tradition, I will consider one individual, Rudolf Steiner, as an example of a modern spiritual philosopher and contemplative who was well trained in both the natural sciences and modern philosophy. He sought both a method of inquiry and an epistemology adequate to his wide range of experience.

From 1890-96 Steiner worked as a scholar in the Goethe-Schiller archives where he served as editor of Goethe’s scientific writings for two large editions of Goethe’s writings.24 In 1897 Steiner moved to Berlin where he worked as a writer, magazine editor, and as a teacher at a worker’s college. It was during this time that Steiner wrote his four purely philosophical books.25 In these early philosophical works Rudolf Steiner repeatedly and extensively examined the nature of cognition, contrasting his own approach (and Goethe’s) with that of Kant and others. His reasons for doing so were both philosophical and existential. Parallel with his education in the natural sciences and Western philosophy, Rudolf Steiner had been following a vigorous life of contemplative practice that led him to a wide range of spiritual experiences. Only after 1900 did he report on the content of his spiritual experiences and detail a path of spiritual development available to others.26 During his lifetime, Steiner thus brought together Western science, philosophy, and spirituality in a way that is nearly unique.

Rudolf Steiner viewed his earlier philosophical work as providing the epistemological foundation for cognition quite generally, including cognition associated with spiritual experience. Thus, like the Asian contemplative tradition, Steiner felt that a proper understanding of consciousness must rest on a theory of knowledge adequate not only to cognition arising from sense impressions but from all modalities of experience, public and private, including those accessible only through introspection and meditative practice. As contemporary researchers undertake the intensive investigation of consciousness, I believe that the study of sophisticated philosophical systems associated with the contemplative traditions of Asia and the West could prove enormously helpful. In this spirit I provide a brief overview of Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy as it pertains to the study of consciousness.

Rudolf Steiner’s Science of Consciousness

Rudolf Steiner distinguished between three different domains of science: the inorganic, the organic, and the spiritual (or cultural) sciences.27 Each domain required a method of investigation suited to itself. Specifically Steiner felt that much harm had been done by the inappropriate extension into the organic and cultural sciences of methods developed specifically for the domain of inorganic science (physics).

In the inorganic sciences the factors affecting the phenomenon are external in character. The objects under consideration may have characteristics such as mass or charge, but the external arrangement of the objects, their relative motion, collision, etc., determine everything. The purpose of scientific investigation in this arena is to so arrange the external factors (through experimentation) “that an occurrence will appear to us in transparent clarity as the inevitable result of these conditions.”28

Here Rudolf Steiner is following the scientific method of Goethe who saw the goal of scientific inquiry in this domain as the elimination of non-essential factors so that the phenomenon can be experienced as the self-evident manifestation of natural law. One varies the conditions of appearance in order to discover the invariant feature within the phenomena, which remains constant throughout. In the archetypal phenomenon one sees the ideal in the real. It is not a matter of replacing an experience by a formalism. Both Steiner and Goethe viewed the goal of science as achieving a “higher experience within experience” itself.29 The cognitive event or insight was termed by Goethe the apercu and was taken as fundamental. This feature of Steiner’s approach, which he took from Goethe, is crucial for an understanding of his science of consciousness. Experience itself is refined, enhanced so what had been inchoate becomes meaningful. The moment of epiphany is the fruit of thoughtful engagement with the world of experience. In adopting Goethe’s approach, Rudolf Steiner is explicitly rejecting the theory of knowledge advanced by Imanuel Kant, a view that has, in one form or another, continued to dominate much of Western philosophy. For Steiner, insight is the goal, not the discovery of a hypothetical reality beyond the experience of the human mind.

Specifically Rudolf Steiner rejects Kant’s approach, declaring the noumena to be illusory. “There is, however, not the slightest reason for seeking the foundation of things outside the given physical and spiritual world.…”30 Instead Steiner advances an approach that begins with the “given,” and goes on to ask where in the given can one already find the certainly one is searching for. He identifies thought as that starting point. From that beginning one moves to an understanding of truth not as a conceptual repetition in consciousness of a transcendent noumenal reality, but rather insight arises through a co-creative spiritual activity of the human being and the world.

The object of knowledge is not to repeat in conceptual form something which already exists, but rather to create a completely new sphere, which when combined with the world given to our senses constitutes complete reality. Thus man’s highest activity, his spiritual creativeness, is an organic part of the universal world-process. The world-process should not be considered a complete, enclosed totality without this activity. Man is not a passive onlooker in relation to evolution, merely repeating in mental pictures cosmic events taking place without his participation; he is the active co-creator of the world-process, and cognition is the most perfect link in the organism of the universe.31

Far from being an epiphenomenon, Steiner situates the activity of human cognition into the world in a profound way. Indeed he sees man as the “active co-creator of the world process.” Instead of being a passive on-looker, the creative spirit of the human being participates and so completes what would otherwise remain a partial creation.32 Such a view can only make sense if one takes the phenomenal world fully seriously, as Goethe and Steiner did. From a materialistic standpoint human cognition can add nothing to the material processes occurring in the world. The higher experience of cognitive insight, which from a phenomenological standpoint means so much to Goethe and Steiner, means nothing to a materialist reductionism.

For the inorganic sciences the search is for the external conditions of appearance that govern the phenomena. The endpoint is reached with the perception of the archetypal phenomenon as the transparent expression of natural law. In the organic sciences a new element enters. If one treats the organic exactly as one did the inorganic, then only the material aspects of life will show themselves, and so one misses precisely the essential aspect of the organic world. Steiner held that Goethe’s approach, by contrast, was perfectly suited to a science of the organic kingdom in nature. Goethe’s study of the metamorphosis of plants was an important example. While Goethe recognized the importance of the environment on plant morphology and development, he refused to reduce plants to inorganic processes alone. Instead of the natural law one searched for the “type” which could be studied via a comparative and evolutionary method. In Steiner’s words, “Just as we trace a phenomenon in the inorganic to a law, so here we evolve a specific form from the primal form (or type).”33 Today we would understand this to imply an understanding in terms of DNA and evolutionary genetics. By contrast Goethe and Steiner once again sought for a direct cognitive encounter but now with the type. Since the type manifests itself in each single organic entity, the mind should be able to reach back through these manifestations to the living principle that operates and animates within the organic forms. Steiner termed this an “intuitive” form of thinking, and recognized that it is normally held in suspicion. However a good case can be made that all scientific discovery occurs through such intuition,34 and in the case of the life sciences, Steiner saw it as the correct method.

Although much more could be said concerning both the inorganic and organic sciences, our interest is particularly with the study of consciousness. According to Steiner’s classification of the sciences, with the introduction of consciousness one moves beyond the natural sciences to the spiritual or cultural sciences.35 These sciences not only include psychology but also social and political science, history, and the arts. They must be distinguished from both the organic and inorganic sciences, according to Steiner. In the inorganic sciences one is concerned only with the outer causal conditions that determine a system’s behavior. These factors, of course, still obtain for the physical aspect of human beings, but Steiner explicitly maintains that human nature is not exhausted by the physical. Likewise for organic aspects of the human being, humans are alive and so the principles of life are to be found operating here as well. In addition, however, another distinct and defining feature in active directly within the human being. It is this that defines his nature and thereby also the nature of the spiritual and cultural sciences.

Psychology is concerned with the study of this distinctly human characteristic. Its method is a disciplined form of self-observation.36 Steiner writes

The first science in which the human spirit deals with itself is psychology. The mind here stand observing itself… the psychological method consists in the immersion of the mind it its own activity. Here, then, self-apprehension is the method.

Steiner contrasts the proper psychological method with the false one adopted by the behaviorists, who were already in evidence in the late 19th century. They sought to avoid the human spirit, seeking rather to examine only the external phenomena it caused. These external manifestations were then analyzed according to the methods of science developed in the inorganic sciences like physics. “Just here they [psychologists] have allowed themselves to be brought to the false standpoint which would apply to all sciences the methods of mechanics, physics, etc.”37 The result was “a theory of soul without any soul.” One loses sight of the essential, according to Steiner.

Rudolf Steiner pursued this method in various directions including philosophy. His Philosophy of Freedom was subtitled “Results of Soul Observation Arrived at by the Scientific Method.” In it Steiner addressed, among other things, the so-called “hard problem,” which had already found articulation in the 19th century by Du Bois-Reymond. Du Bois-Reymond had written that “it is, indeed, thoroughly and forever incomprehensible that it should not be a matter of indifference to a number of atoms of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, etc how they lie and move… There is no way to understand how consciousness could arise out of their interaction.”38

In this context Steiner describes with great thoroughness the reigning dualism of his own time (which he called “metaphysical realism”), and contrasts it with his own monism. In metaphysical realism, transcendent noumena or things-in-themselves constitute reality. We can only come to a partial knowledge of these through inference from our subjective experiences. It is a form of dualism that transfers our sense-based notions of physical reality to the inaccessible realm of transcendent entities that stand behind sense appearance. “Dualism makes the mistake of transferring the antithesis of object and subject, which has significance only within the realm of perception, onto purely imaginary entities outside the realm of perception.”39 In metaphysical realism, ideas themselves have no reality as such, but are understood merely as a way of describing transcendently real entities (noumena). Du Bois-Reymond’s atoms are such transcendent entities. Steiner’s description of dualism does not, therefore, map directly onto the mind-body problem. Rather the dualism of which he writes is between appearance and reality. What is “real” may, for example, be taken to be matter and matter only. However, matter never appears unmediated to the observer as it is in itself, but only as our senses or scientific instruments permit it to appear. Contemporary materialist reductionism is, in this sense, dualistic and a form of metaphysical realism.

Steiner rejects, or perhaps better, transforms metaphysical realism to a form of monism that acknowledges the subject-object split but does not reify it. Rather Steiner viewed the world as essentially unitary, or undivided. That we experience the world as subjective and objective is an artifact of consciousness, not a fact about the world. “Through my specifically human perception, I am placed as subject over against the object. The connection of things is broken.”40 We experience the world in this way, but we should not go further to mistake an epistemological fact for an ontological one by instantiating a world of noumena over and against a world of phenomena. There is no inaccessible realm of noumena. Rather, “everything one needs to explain any given phenomenon of the world must lie with the sphere of this phenomenon.”41 Steiner maintained that the broken connection is re-established though thinking. Thus the high role Steiner assigns to cognition, it is a reunification of what is torn apart in perception.

I would now like to return to my initial treatment of Einstein’s theory of relativity and to Shepard’s studies of mental rotation, seeing them in relation to Steiner’s philosophy of cognition. Recall that Steiner rejects the notion of reality as a world of eternal, transcendent objects somehow behind the world of phenomenal appearances. Rather the object only arises as object by virtue of the act of perception. He states explicitly that, “The object is not something absolute, but only something relative with respect to this particular subject.”42 This philosophical viewpoint is of immense significance when trying to comprehend modern physics. As we have seen, when we falsely reify the object, making it and spacetime an absolute, we encounter direct contradictions with relativity theory. If instead we understand the object (and spacetime) as arising through perception, as the other pole to the subject, then no contradictions occur. In relativity one has a detailed example of how different perceiving subjects encounter different objects. Moreover, coherent cognition is possible in all frames of reference. That is to say, the laws of physics obtain in all frames. It is only when we reify “the object” to become “the absolute object” that contradictions arise. Steiner’s philosophy avoids these contradictions neatly, while also affirming the laws of nature, viewing them again not as material forces but as “ideal connections which one gains through thinking.”43

Shepard’s studies are excellent examples of studies that do not reach beyond the phenomenal realm at hand. Developing Goethe’s approach, Steiner maintained that the appropriate method of investigation in psychology is self-apprehension. Shepard’s experiments relied on both a quantitative measure and, to a lesser extent, verbal self-reporting. Even the quantitative measure of time used in their studies, however, required self-apprehension, namely the judgement of whether the two figures were identical or not. Here again one does not need to reach to a transcendent “reality.” Rather, as already remarked before, “everything one needs to explain any given phenomenon of the world must lie with the sphere of this phenomenon.”44

Finally, Steiner maintained that the faculties for self-apprehension, while meager at the outset, could be schooled and developed. In this regard he is to be understood as in the contemplative tradition. That our knowledge may today be limited is a reflection of our particular organization now, and is not an indication of our permanent condition. Steiner, therefore rejects any ultimate limits to knowledge including knowledge of the psychological or spiritual. His writings and lectures after 1900 are largely a report of his exploration of these realms and the methods by which others could also explore them. He felt throughout his life that he was pioneering a science of the soul and spirit, one that would have important consequences for education, medicine, agriculture and the arts. For a more comprehensive treatment, I refer the reader elsewhere.

Few theories of science are more elegant or rigorous than Einstein’s special theory of relativity and the theory of quantum mechanics, both of which were developed in the first decades of the 20th century. While they were formulated to describe an objective physical world, both theories shed light on the troubling question of the place of the experiencing subject in science. This issue is at the margins of physics, but it is at the very center of consciousness studies, where consciousness itself becomes the object of inquiry. By first examining the treatment of the observer in modern physical theory, I lay the ground for a phenomenological stance to science generally. This approach is uniquely suited to first-person consciousness research. Finally, I use J.W. Goethe and Rudolf Steiner as two western exemplars – artist and contemplative – who struggled mightily to frame a phenomenological epistemology suited to their direct artistic and spiritual experiences.

The objectification of space and time away from subjective human experience is a well-studied area. The importance of the observer’s position and relative velocity in Einstein’s theory is an argument for inclusion of the observer, but the inclusion is only formal. Likewise, quantum theory must include a treatment (no matter how inadequate) of the observer in order to make contact with experiment. Modern physics requires an inclusive or holist treatment of subject and object. Relativity and quantum mechanics, however, remain silent on the status of qualia, that is on the experience of a perceiving subject. This deeper and extremely significant extension was treated in the second part of the paper.

The methods of investigation and the epistemology we hold to are important factors affecting the science of consciousness. Physics, cognitive psychology and the Western contemplative tradition can all contribute to the project.


1. David Chalmers, The Conscious Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

2. Arthur Zajonc, Catching the Light (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

3. Thomas J. Lombardo, The Receprocity of Perceiver and Environment: The Evolution of James J. Gibson’s Ecological Psychology (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., 1987), p. 336.

4. Max Jammer, Concepts of Space (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

5.Paul Tipler, Modern Physics (NY: Worth Publishers, 1978), pp. 15-17.

6. Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special and General Theory (Crown Publishers, 1995), and Edwin Taylor and John A. Wheeler, Spacetime Physics (W.H. Freeman, 1992) 2nd edition.

7. For more details see Bas C. van Fraassen, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Time and Space, (NY: Random House, 1970) and Lawrence Sklar, Space, Time and Spacetime, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1976).

8. George Greenstein and Arthur Zajonc, The Quantum Challenge (Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett, 1997)

9. Bas C. van Fraassen, The Scientific Image (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).

10. Albert Einstein, The Meaning of Relativity, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1956), p. 2.

11. For a survey of the major positions, see Paul Churchland, Matter and Consciousness, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993). Churchland does not address the position maintained in this paper.

12. For example A.N. Whitehead criticizes the “bifurcation of Nature” due to Galileo and Locke in his book Science and the Modern World, and declares in Process and Reality that his “philosophy of organism accepts the subjectivist basis of modern philosophy… the whole universe consists of elements disclosed in the experience of subjects.” Quoted in John Passmore, A Hundred Years of Philosophy, (NY: Penguin, 1966), pp. 340-41.

13. See The View from Within, First-person approaches to the study of consciousness, edited by Francisco Varela and Jonathan Shear (Thorverton, UK: Imprint Academic, 1999).

14. Roger N. Shepard and Lynn A Cooper, Mental Images and their Transformations, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982).

15. Shepard and Cooper, Chapter 3.

16. Shepard and Cooper, p. 12.

17. Shepard and Cooper, p. 66.

18. David Seamon and Arthur Zajonc, Goethe’s Way of Science: a Phenomenology of Nature (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1998), and “Facts as Theory: Aspects of Goethe’s Philosophy of Science,” Goethe and the Sciences: A Reappraisal, F. Amrine, F. Zucker and H. Wheeler, editors (Reidel, Boston, 1986).

19. Jeffrey Barnouw, “Goethe and Helmholtz” in Goethe and the Sciences, Amrine et al., pp. 45-82.

20. Steven Tainer, paper for Infinity Foundation.

21. Rudolf Steiner is best known as the founder of the spiritual philosophy Anthroposophy, and for his work in education (Waldorf schools), agriculture (Biodynamics) and medicine. See Robert McDermott’s article, “Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy,” in Modern Esoteric Spirituality, edited by Antoine Faivre and Jacob Needleman (NY: Crossroad, 1992).

22. Rudolf Steiner, A Theory of Knowledge based on Goethe’s World Conception (NY: Anthroposophic Press, 1968), chapters 17 and 18.

23. Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rasch, The Embodied Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, ???).

24. Rudolf Steiner worked with two different publishers as editor of Goethe’s scientific writings. He edited five volumes for “Kuerschners Deutsche National-Literatur” edition published from 1884-1897, and afterwards for the so-called “Weimar or Sophien-Ausgabe,” Goethe’s Naturwissenschafliche Schriften, published between 1891-1896 in Goethe’s Werke, Part 2, vols. 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, and 12. Steiner’s introduction has been translated as Goethe the Scientist, trans. Olin Wannamaker (NY: Anthroposophic Press, 1950).

25. Rudolf Steiner’s philosophical early philosophical writings are, Grundlinien einer Erkenntistheorie der Goetheschen Weltanschauung (1886), translated as A Theory of Knowledge based on Goethe’s World Conception, trans. Olin Wannamaker (Spring Valley, NY: Anthroposophic Press, 1968); Wahrheit und Wissenschaft (1892), translated as Truth and Knowledge, trans. Rita Stebbing (Blauvelt, N.Y.: Steinerbooks, 1981); Die Philosophie der Freiheit(1894), translated variously as The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity (or Freedom) or Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path (Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press) ; and Goethe’s Weltanschauung (1897), translated as Goethe’s Conception of the World (NY: Haskell House Pub., 1973).

26. See for example Rudolf Steiner’s books, Theosophy, An Outline of Esoteric Science, and How to Know Higher Worlds, (Hudson, NY, Anthroposophic Press).

27. A Theory of Knowledge…, Chapters 15-18.

28. P. 74.

29. P. 80.

30. Truth and Knowledge, p. 10.

31. Truth and Knowledge, pp. 11-12.

32. I do not mean to imply that the events of the world would not occur without human cognition. Steiner explicitly states that the external aspects would certainly exist, but the inner conformity to law would never be perceived, and so something significant would be missing. (p. 100, A Theory of Knowledge…).

33. A Theory of Knowledge…, p. 92.

34. See Arthur Zajonc, “Goethe’s Theory of Color and Scientific Intuition,” The American Journal of Physics, vol. 44, pp. 327-333 (1977), and “Facts as Theory… (above)”. See also Henri Bortoft, The Wholeness of Nature, Goethe’s Way toward a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1996)

35. Steiner, A Theory of Knowledge…, chapter 17.

36. Steiner, A Theory of Knowledge…, p. 104.

37. Steiner, A Theory of Knowledge…, p.106.

38. Quoted by Rudolf Steiner in his The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, p. 102. Much of my subsequent discussion is drawn from chapter 7 of this book entitled, “Are There Limits to Knowledge?”

39. Steiner, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, p. 105.

40. Steiner, The Philosophy, p. 113.

41. Steiner, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, p. 103.

42. Steiner, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, p. 114.

43. P. 112.

44. Steiner, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, p. 103.

Arthur Zajonc is affiliated with Amherst College and the Kira Institute.