A New Metaparadigm?

Substantial steps have been made in the science of consciousness over the last ten years, and there is much talk of a new paradigm emerging. But I believe we may stand on the threshold of an even more fundamental change -- a shift in metaparadigm.

Thomas Kuhn coined the term "paradigm" to refer to the beliefs and assumptions underlying a particular science. But beneath all our scientific paradigms lies an even deeper and more pervasive assumption: the belief in the primacy of the material universe. When we fully understand the world of space-time-matter-energy , we will, it is believed, be able to account for everything in the cosmos. Being the paradigm behind nearly all our scientific paradigms, this worldview has the status of a "metaparadigm".

Eminently successful as this model has been at explaining the world around us, it does not have much to say about the nonmaterial world of the mind. Indeed, nothing in the physical sciences says living systems should be conscious. Yet the reality of consciousness is apparent to each and every one of us. As far as the current metaparadigm is concerned consciousness is a great anomaly.

Kuhn showed that when anomalies first arise they are usually overlooked or rejected. Or, if they cannot be so easily discarded, they are incorporated in some way, often clumsily, into the existing model. Witness the attempts of mediaeval astronomers, wedded to Plato's belief in the perfection of circular motion, trying to explain irregularities in planetary motion with theories of epicycles (circles rolling along circles, rolling along circles).

Western science has followed a similar pattern in its approach to consciousness. For the most part it has ignored consciousness, and for seemingly good reasons: First, consciousness cannot be observed in the way that material objects can. It cannot be weighed, measured, or otherwise pinned down. Second, scientists have sought to arrive at universal objective truths, independent of any particular observer's viewpoint or state of mind. And third, there is no need; the functioning of the material universe can be explained without having to explore the troublesome subject of consciousness.

More recently, as developments across a range of disciplines have shown that consciousness cannot be so easily sidelined, science has made various attempts to account for it. Some have looked to quantum physics, some to information theory, others to neuropsychology. Yet whatever idea is put forward, one thorny question remains unanswered: How can something as immaterial as consciousness ever arise from something as unconscious as matter?

The continued failure of these approaches to make any appreciable headway into this problem suggests they may all be on the wrong track. We may need to challenge some of our most fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality.

All these approaches are based on the assumption that consciousness emerges from, or is dependent upon, the physical world of space, time, and matter. In one way or another, they are attempting to accommodate the anomaly of consciousness within a worldview that is intrinsically materialist. As happened with the medieval astronomers who kept adding more and more epicycles to explain the anomalous motions of the planets, the underlying assumptions are seldom, if ever, questioned. (See: Copernican Revolution)

I now believe that rather than trying to explain consciousness in terms of the material world, we should be developing a new worldview in which consciousness is a fundamental component of reality. The key ingredients for this new metaparadigm are already in place. We need not wait for any new discoveries. All we need do is put various pieces of our existing knowledge together, and explore the new picture of reality that emerges. (See: A Sentient Universe.)

Date created: 1-Dec-05


Our inability to account for consciousness suggests we need a new metaparadigm - the paradigm behind the paradigms.