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Consciousness: Truth or Wisdom

By Christian de Quincey

My earliest relatives were bacteria!

I sat there on a rainy winter’s afternoon, a seven-year-old kid in Ireland, truly amazed at the revelation. Daydreaming out the window, I imagined the vast panorama of evolution: From humblest beginnings, life had grown and developed and produced all this—including me!

I remember becoming fascinated with consciousness that day. The trigger was discovering an entry on “evolution” in my father’s tattered encyclopedia. A drawing of a dinosaur caught my attention: Not only was I descended from my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on, but the entire human race had evolved from some ape-like ancestors, who came from even more primitive mammals, who came from reptiles, who came from amphibians, who came from fishes, who came from jellyfishes, who came from clumps of cells, all the way down to bacteria-like single-celled “infusoria,” as they were called in that old encyclopedia.

I spoke the word aloud, enjoying the onomatopoeia—“e-v-o-l-u-t-i-o-n.” It sounded like a great unfolding, a rolling out of hidden forms, now mimicked in the way my tongue uncurled from the roof of my mouth.

But something else even more astounding grabbed me. Not only was I mesmerized by images of descending species culminating in this young fella sitting there reading a big, dusty old book. Somehow, that stupendous unfolding managed to produce the ability to look back and contemplate the process of evolution itself.

Somehow, somewhere along the line, evolution had become aware of itself. But just where did mind first appear?

I grew up puzzled. Not that this question burned in my thoughts every day; but from time to time I would think back on those dinosaurs and infusoria and wonder about evolution, wonder about the feelings and thoughts pulsing through me and other creatures.

Years later, after failing to find answers in either science or religion, I turned to the philosophical texts of the West, particularly those specifically focused on the precise questions that had come to trouble me: the nature of mind, the nature of matter, and how one was related to the other. I went back to college and, through perseverance and determination, cracked the code of Western philosophical jargon—I began to understand what philosophers were saying about the “mind-body problem.”

I dissected all competing views on the mind-body problem...but was still looking for an answer.

I came to appreciate, and then love, the rigor and precision that philosophers applied to language, to hone and dissect distinctions that lay buried beneath superficial assumptions. I learned to use the surgical skills of logic and analysis to cut through linguistic and conceptual confusions surrounding the “great questions.” I learned to use and value the philosopher’s gift of reason.

In debates, discussions, and arguments, I wielded saber and scalpel to slash away at incautious and “sloppy” thinking about the nature of consciousness and its emergence from matter. I enjoyed diving into the academic fray, pursuing the “no mercy” approach to the search for truth. If others were bemused, cornered, or offended by the sharpness of my philosopher’s tongue that was an acceptable—even necessary—price to pay for truth (See Footnote).

Single-mindedly, I dissected all the competing views on the mind-body problem—slicing through the conceptual knots befuddling dualism, materialism, and idealizm, finding serious flaws in all of them. But I was still looking for an answer.

Shortly after my fortieth birthday the “eureka” arrived like a thunderbolt when I rediscovered the work of Alfred North Whitehead—one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers, a thinker who recognized the profound importance of feeling at all levels of reality (Reference 1). After all this time, the answer to my lifelong question “Where in the great unfolding of evolution did consciousness first appear?” was simple—nowhere! Consciousness was always there, no matter how far back along the path of evolution you went. Back beyond the fishes and jellyfishes, back beyond even the bacteria and infusoria—further still, back beyond the organic chemicals of life, DNA and proteins, back beyond the molecules and their constituent atoms, back to the elementary particles, and back to the quarks or quanta or whatever the fundamental constituents of the entire cosmos of matter and energy might be.

Where the worldviews of dualism, materialism, and idealizm failed me, I now had a rational and coherent story of consciousness and evolution in the worldview called panpsychism—where all matter possesses some form of mind. Consciousness, I now could see, must go all the way down.


Of all the worldviews attempting to account for the mind-body relation, this was the most controversial, and the least academically respectable. Few philosophical books or articles gave even passing notice to the ideas of panpsychism. And those that did mention it tended to dismiss it as unworthy of serious consideration. Throwaway comments such as “panpsychism asks us to believe that rocks and trees have thoughts” implied we were being asked to accept that lowly clumps of matter could think like humans: “How absurd to believe rocks could spin out sonnets like Shakespeare’s or equations like Einstein’s.” But such criticisms completely misrepresented panpsychism—and consciousness. Its critics rarely, if ever, took the trouble to find out first-hand just what Whitehead and other panpsychist philosophers were actually saying.

I did take the trouble, and I found what seemed to me to be the most coherent and sensible philosophical position on the mind-body problem. And because panpsychism was so controversial and misunderstood, I took extra trouble to make sure I could offer a respectable defense against inevitable attacks. The best line of defense I came to believe—typical of academic philosophy—was to be rigorous and ruthless in attack. So I spent years mastering and dissecting the opposing views of dualism, materialism, and idealizm. The bottom-line failures of each of these worldviews could be expressed simply: They all require a supernatural intervention.

Major Worldviews on Mind and Body

Dualism: The metaphysical view that both mind and matter are real, but separate. Here, the core problem is interaction. Dualism requires a miracle to "explain" how two utterly different and separate substances could ever interact. Yet, plainly, mind and body do interact moment by moment in our own experience.

Dualism makes no sense if we cannot explain how the "ghost enters the machine." It asks us to accept that supernatural soul or spirit "somehow" interacts with the natural world of matter. Dualism defends the position that half of reality is supernatural.

Materialism: The view that only matter (or physical energy) is ultimately real. Here, the core problem is emergence. Materialism faces the insuperable problem of explaining how mind could emerge from mindless matter. It asks us to accept not only that mind is wholly natural, but that it is also wholly physical and objective—which completely leaves the undeniable subjectivity of consciousness wholly unaccounted for.

Materialism, thus, also requires a miracle to "explain" how sentient, subjective minds could ever evolve or emerge out of matter that was wholly insentient and objective to begin with. For mind to emerge from matter, for consciousness to appear in the natural world, would require some kind of miraculous intervention. Materialism defends the paradoxical position that everything real is natural, physical, and objective—including mind, which is undeniably subjective. But in a world made up wholly of objective physical stuff the appearance of subjective mind could not happen naturally. Such emergence would require an inexplicable ontological jump—a miracle. In a purely physical world, the appearance of mind would be a supernatural event.

idealizm: The view that only mind or consciousness is real. Here, the core problem is realizm. idealizm denies that the physical world has any reality of its own, independent of a perceiving mind.

idealizm, too, requires a miracle of one kind or another: either the unreality of physical reality, or the creation of real matter from pure spirit. It asks us to believe either that all matter is ultimately illusion (maya), or that matter emanates from pure mind or spirit. The first option leaves unresolved the pragmatic problem of living in the world if we do not treat matter as real. Matter forces us to acknowledge its reality, despite the claims of idealizts. The second option is merely the flipside of materialism: It asks us to believe physical matter could evolve or emerge or emanate from wholly nonphysical mind or spirit.

idealizm, then, asks us to reject the natural world as having any substantial reality in its own right. According to this position everything is ultimately supernatural—all physical manifestation, the entire panorama of nature, derives all its reality from the mind that creates it. What we call the natural world is merely appearance or illusion generated by pure mind. In idealizm, nature is merely an epiphenomenon of mind.

Pansychism: The view that consciousness and matter are inseparable, and both go all the way down—so that even single cells, molecules, atoms, or electrons are bundles of sentient energy. In panpsychism, matter (or energy) itself intrinsically feels.

Panpsychism requires no miracles or supernaturalism. It takes the position: 1) Both mind and matter are real and natural (neither one has ontological priority over the other); and 2) it is inconceivable that subjectivity and sentience could ever evolve or emerge from wholly objective and insentient matter-energy (likewise, objectivity and physicality could never emerge from wholly nonobjective and nonphysical mind).


The more I investigated the various worldviews, the more I became convinced that the only rational explanation for the existence of both mind and matter is some form of panpsychism. Nature itself is sentient all the way down —and that explains the common-sense experience of a world where both consciousness and matter-energy are obviously real.

I delighted in responding to critics of panpsychism by pointing out flaws in all the other positions. I felt like a warrior for truth, a defender of a philosophical underdog and outcast. I crusaded for rational coherence in any attempt to solve the mind-body problem—and, very simply, that meant: “no miracles.”

But I wasn’t only a philosopher: I was also, first and foremost, a human being. And I knew very well from personal experience that the road to truth was not only via reason. It was perfectly possible that, despite the best efforts of reason, the deep nature of reality would elude rational understanding. I knew I had at least three options: 1) Reason could penetrate the mind-body mystery (the rationalist position); 2) reason could not comprehend that mystery (the position of so-called mysterians); or 3) reason alone would be insufficient to solve the mind-body problem, but supported by other ways of knowing, human consciousness could indeed penetrate the mystery (the noetic position).

Nevertheless, as a philospher, I believed I had a duty to honor the gift of reason and pursue it as far as it could take me.

I had developed the attitude: “If you do not respect the rules of logic and rational coherence—and take the trouble and effort to discover what others have said—you have no business talking about philosophical topics such as consciousness and the mind-body problem.” And if you did, I would show little mercy in pointing out inconsistencies in your reasoning, try to convince you of the errors in your thinking, and get you to give up your fractured and incoherent beliefs.

If accused of being unnecessarily harsh in my arguments, I would remind myself and my challengers that what mattered was the search for truth. If, along the way, we had to let go of cherished beliefs, and if this meant feeling upset, anxious, or diminished, so be it. Such experiences should be welcomed as valuable stages in the learning process. “No pain, no gain”—as true in philosophy as anywhere else.

And although this attitude may have been justified within its own limited context, it often felt flat and one-dimensional. It left out something precious about human relationship.


This realization came home to me with full force at a recent Tucson conference on consciousness. At one of the sessions, a young materialist enthusiastically presented his own defense of the emergence of mind from matter. He handled his material well, spoke eloquently, and beamed in delight as he passionately guided us through his insights. I could barely restrain myself as he spoke because it was so clear to me he was completely missing the point. Whatever he was talking about, it couldn’t have been consciousness.

As soon as he invited questions I rose to my feet and proceeded to harangue him with a merciless critique. Since consciousness is nothing if not subjective, how on Earth could his model account for the emergence of subjectivity from wholly objective matter? “Your whole thesis is built on shifting sands, mere castles in the air, and doesn’t even begin to tell us anything about consciousness. It is nothing more than tightly argued materialist supernaturalism—that is, utter hogwash.”

These were not my exact words, but they capture the essence of the tone and content of my response to his lecture. He sat off to the side, visibly shaken, as the next speaker took the podium. All the fire and enthusiasm had drained from his face. Just a few short minutes ago, this young man was vital and vibrant, excited by his ideas, putting forth something he passionately believed in. Now he looked shattered. “Oh my God, I did that?” I said to myself, burning with shame and guilt. If this was the price of truth, at that moment it became clear to me it wasn’t worth it. There must be another way to do philosophy.

And of course there is. Not all philosophers are so insensitive, though many are trained to be. For the rest of the day, and throughout the night, the image of that shaken young philosopher haunted me. I resolved to no longer search for truth “at all costs.” If the pursuit of truth leads to a bifurcation, separating it from wisdom and compassion, something must be wrong. If philosophy of mind produces fine, detailed, meticulous arguments but fails to embrace the fact that feeling is central to the very nature of consciousness—the “whatitfeelslike from within”—then, I was beginning to realize, the discipline is moribund.

The study of consciousness cannot rely exclusively on rational coherence—on connections between concepts and ideas. It must involve the ineffable, preverbal, prerational process I can best describe right now as “feeling our way into feeling,” of experiencing experience. And the more I pay attention to this, the more I come to realize that first-person exploration of experience sooner or later comes with a message: We are not alone. We are not isolated, solipsist bubbles of consciousness, experience, or subjectivity (pick your favorite word), we exist in a world of relationships. We are—consciousness is—intersubjective. Any comprehensive investigation of consciousness must include the second-person perspective of engaged presence, of being-in-relationship.

The next day I looked around for the young materialist, and when I found him the light had come back into his eyes. I apologized, and he looked at me surprised. He hardly remembered the incident, and he expected no apology (the philosopher’s training!). Maybe my verbal attack did not, after all, faze him as I thought; maybe I imagined, or projected, the whole thing. Real or imagined, the encounter served up an important lesson nonetheless.


The lesson deepened that afternoon. Between lectures, I strolled around the poster sessions, and was struck by one presentation in particular—“Preconquest Consciousness” by a Stanford University anthropologist, E Richard Sorenson. His paper was also a chapter in a just-published book Tribal Epistemologies (Reference 2). I didn’t have time to read the entire piece, but what I saw caught my attention. Sorenson distinguished between two very different forms of consciousness: “preconquest,” characteristic of the minds of indigenous peoples, and “postconquest,” typified by modern rationalism. “Conquest” refers to what happened to indigenous consciousness and ways of life when Spanish conquistadors invaded the New World.

I picked up a copy of the book to read on the flight back to San Francisco. Sorenson’s thesis, based on many years of field study with numerous “isolates” or indigenous cultures, shocked me. Preconquest consciousness is rooted in feeling, a form of liminal awareness hardly recognized in modern scholarship. Shaped by a “lush sensuality”—where from infancy primal peoples grow up accustomed to a great deal of body-to-body contact—preconquest consciousness aims not for abstract truth but for what feels good. Individuals in such societies are highly sensitive to changes in muscle tension in others indicating shifts in mood. If others feel good, they feel good; if others feel bad, they feel bad—Sorenson calls it “sociosensual” awareness. In other words, the entire thrust and motivation of this form of consciousness is to optimize feelings of well-being in the community. What is “real” or “right” (we might call it “true”) is what feels good. In such cultures, the “right” or the “true” or the “real” is a question of value not a correspondence between some pattern of abstract concepts and empirical fact.

Significantly, postconquest consciousness is radically different. Based on dialectical reasoning, it intrinsically involves domination or conquest: A thesis is confronted and “conquered” by its antithesis, which in turn is overcome by a new synthesis. By its very nature, then, dialectic, rational, postconquest consciousness is confrontational. This insight alone stopped me in my tracks—particularly following my experience with the young materialist philosopher.

But what I learned next shook me to my core. Given the different dynamics and intrinsic motivations underlying both forms of consciousness, when postconquest rationalism meets preconquest feeling the result is outright suppression and conquest of feeling by reason—inevitably.

In its search for truth, reason operates via conquistadorial dialectic: One idea, or one person’s “truth,” is confronted and overcome by an opposite idea or someone else’s “truth.” The clash or struggle between them produces the new synthesis—perceived as a creative advance in knowledge.

Reason works very differently when we feel our thinking.

By contrast, liminal or preconquest consciousness, in striving for what feels right for the collective, seeks to accommodate differences. When confronted by reason, it naturally wants to please the other, and so invariably yields. Reason strives to conquer, feeling strives to please, and the result: obliteration or suppression of liminal consciousness by reason.

Even more disturbing to me was the realization that none of this implies malicious intent on the part of reason. Simply encountering an epistemology of feeling, reason will automatically overshadow it—even if its intent is honorable.

As I looked back on my own career, I found plenty of confirming instances. In my work, I have had many occasions to engage people interested in consciousness from perspectives other than philosophy or science—mysticism, shamanism, aesthetics, for example. More often than not—even if I was trying to be considerate of their different ways of knowing—these people left the encounter feeling abused or squashed by having to match accounts of their experiences against the rigorous logic of rational analysis. When a search for truth pits dialectic reason against dialogic experience the feeling component of the other’s knowledge can rarely withstand the encounter. Feeling feels invalidated. Wisdom is blocked by “truth.”

Sorenson’s thesis allowed me to understand this dynamic in a way I hadn’t before. And his paper didn’t leave me with merely an intellectual appreciation of the preconquest-postconquest dynamic. He backed his thesis with a truly moving and shocking first-hand account of the disintegration of an entire way of life of a New Guinea tribe when their remote island was discovered by Western tourists after World War II.

Before the “invasion,” the Neolithic hunter-gatherer tribe lived with a “heart-felt rapprochement based on integrated trust”—a sensual “intuitive rapport” among the people. Their communication was spontaneous, open, and honest. For them, “truth-talk” was talk” because it worked only when “personal feelings were above board and accurately expressed, which required transparency in aspirations, interests, and desires. . . . What mattered was the magnitude of collective joy produced.”

In the real life of these preconquest people, feeling and awareness are focused on at-the-moment, point-blank sensory experience—as if the nub of life lay within that complex flux of collective sentient immediacy. Into that flux individuals thrust their inner thoughts and aspirations for all to see, appreciate, and relate to. This unabashed open honesty is the foundation on which their highly honed integrative empathy and rapport become possible. When that openness gives way, empathy and rapport shrivel. Where deceit becomes a common practice, they disintegrate.(Reference 2)

Within a week of the tourists’ arrival on the island, a way of life and a form of consciousness that had lasted for hundreds, if not thousands, of years collapsed—irreversibly. Sorenson describes a “grand cultural amnesia” where whole populations forgot even recent past events, and made “gross factual errors in reporting them. In some cases, they even forgot what type and style of garment they had worn a few years earlier or (in New Guinea) that they had been using stone axes and eating their dead close relatives a few years back. . . . The selfless unity that seemed so firm and self-repairing in their isolated enclaves vanished like a summer breeze as a truth-based type of consciousness gave way to one that lied to live.”

Thirty thousand feet up, Sorenson’s account of the crisis point in this people’s cultural collapse brought tears to my eyes:

In a single crucial week a spirit that all the world would want, not just for themselves but for all others, was lost, one that had taken millennia to create. It was suddenly just gone.

Epidemic sleeplessness, frenzied dance throughout the night, reddening burned-out eyes getting narrower and more vacant as the days and nights wore on, dysphasias of various sorts, sudden mini-epidemics of spontaneous estrangement, lacunae in perception, hyperkinesis, loss of sensuality, collapse of love, impotence, bewildered frantic looks like those on buffalo in India just as they’re clubbed to death; 14 year olds (and others) collapsing on the beach. . . . Such was the general scene that week, a week that no imagination could have forewarned, the week in which the subtle sociosensual glue of the island’s traditional way-of-life became unstuck.(Reference 2)

I had gone to that Tucson conference to present a detailed paper calling for the inclusion of intersubjectivity, for a relational-based approach to understanding the nature and dynamics of consciousness. I was moved to include the second-person perspective because for years I felt something important was being left out in the debate between first-person (subjective/experiential) and third-person (objective) investigations of consciousness. Since most of our day-to-day experiences involve relationships of one sort or another, it seemed to me that overlooking this common aspect of consciousness remains a conspicuous gap in philosophy of mind and consciousness studies in general.

The paradox or irony of my situation did not escape me. I was there to champion the primacy of relationship in consciousness—implying a mutuality of shared feeling—yet the contrast between my intellectual analysis of intersubjectivity and my lack of experienced relational consciousness was stark. Not only in my relationships with others, but within myself, I had been using reason to the virtual exclusion of any real depth of feeling. My own professional life was a microcosm of the encounter between postconquest and preconquest consciousness—between the modern rational mind and the traditional intuitive mind. I was accumulating philosophical knowledge about consciousness, but losing touch with the living roots of wisdom.


If Sorenson’s analysis of the fateful clash between postconquest and preconquest consciousness is correct, the prospect for nonrational ways of knowing seems bleak—but only if we accept the (rather unlikely) premise that rationality is the epistemological endgame. Clearly, we have abundant evidence from the perennial philosophy and from modern spiritual teachers and practitioners that mystical experience transcends reason. We can evolve beyond reason, and when we do so we do not obliterate the benefits we’ve gained from reason over the past four or five thousand years.

Put another way: Even though historically—as Sorenson’s work documents—when primal feeling-based knowing meets modern reason-based knowing, the encounter invariably decimates the former, this need not be the end of the story Beyond reason, we all have the potential to develop transmodern spiritual or mystical intuition—and this way of knowing includes and integrates all the others.

From below, reason is grounded in preverbal feelings and intuitions; above, reason projects imagination toward transverbal and transrational experiences. Prior to reason, interconnected feelings and altered states of consciousness appear to reason as magic—the undefinable domain of the shaman. Beyond reason, unities and communions of experiences and higher states of consciousness appear to reason as ineffable and noetic—the infinite domain of the mystic.

Whereas reason dominates feeling, mystical knowing does not “conquer” reason—it envelops it, embraces it, transcends it. Thus, mystical or spiritual intuition is integrative: It includes, while transcending, both reason and somatic feeling.

Furthermore, reason doesn’t have to decimate feeling—it does so only when unplugged from its roots in the deep wisdom of the body. Reason is optimally effective when it retains or regains contact with its preverbal, somatic roots. Reason works very differently when we feel our thinking.


Clearly, I had developed an over-reliance on reason, and I had failed to see that that is not at all rational. It is a distortion of reason.

This is not a new insight. Some of our best philosophers have recognized this imbalance between what we may call “clear reason” and “distorted reason.” Right back at the dawn of Western philosophy, Socrates and Plato knew that reason was limited, and that before anyone could know what those limits were they had to master reason to get there. Only then could they move to the next stage. In the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant took on this challenge as his life’s major project and demonstrated the imbalance in his great work Critique of Pure Reason(Reference 3). Whitehead, too, was a master of reason, perhaps the best, because he moved far enough along to know that clear reason is rooted in feeling.

Clear reason knows that the limits of reason are not the limits of knowledge—and certainly not the limits of reality. And failing to recognize this is a major part of the problem—not just my problem, but a dilemma for the modern world in general.

Here’s the dilemma: On the one hand, we have lost touch with the deep foundation of reason in the feelings of the body, and the network of feelings in nature. On the other hand, we have not made full use of the gift of reason we already have. This second problem is rooted in the first. But both must be worked on together. Our problem, then, is not really too much, but not enough, reason—not enough of the right kind: clear reason rooted in the feelings of the body and open to transcendental shafts of wisdom.

So much of academic philosophy of mind is about finding flaws in the other guy’s logic, and taking no prisoners. It operates from the assumption that progress is built on discovering what is wrong and putting it right. We might even call it a “via negativa”—except that would distort the meaning of that phrase in spiritual practice.

But philosophy need not be built on conflict, on clashing worldviews, as John Stuart Mill noted when he said (paraphrased): “Philosophers tend to be right in what they affirm, and tend to be wrong in what they deny.” Perceptive and wise insights like that show that philosophy can live up to its name.

Imagine practicing philosophy by looking for what is right about the other's position. That kind of attitudinal shift begins to pull philosophy and spirituality closer, and truth approaches wisdom. My own variation on this insight is:

Every worldview expresses some deep truth—and is in error only if it claims possession of the whole truth. . . . That is, there is probably some deep kernel of uncommon truth in every worldview—whether scientific materialism, spiritual idealizm, mind-body dualism, or panpsychism—and the task of honest philosophers is to uncover such truths. The task of great philosophers is to find how these uncommon truths cohere in a common reality.(Reference 4).

Footnote: By "truth" I mean: i) propositional truth where language is rigorously self-consistent and noncontradictory; and ii) correspondence truth where propositional truth (expressed in ideas/words) is confirmed by empirical evidence. The kind of awareness needed to pursue logical and rational rigor is frequently incompatible with the kind of awareness essential to spiritual wisdom. By "wisdom" I mean an often ineffable knowing born of direct experience, a kind of intuitive pragmatism that works to the extent it takes account of the whole. It is inclusive and integrative, and invariably involves empathy and compassion. (Return to main text)

References for this article:

1. A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. Corrected edition, ed. David Ray Griffin & Donald Sherburne. Free Press (1979).

2. E R. Sorenson, “Preconquest Consciousness,” in Tribal Epistimologies, ed. Helmut Wautischer. Ashgate (1998).

3. I. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason. Modern Library. (1977. First published 1780).

4. C. de Quincey, “Past Matter, Present Mind,” Journal of Consciousness Studies (1999 6(1), 91-106).

Christian de Quincey, managing editor of IONS Review, also teaches philosophy of mind and consciousness studies at John F. Kennedy University. He is co-author with Willis Harman of The Scientific Exploration of Consciousness, available from IONS.

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