The true function of consciousness is quite puzzling, and its relationship to the central nervous system is riddled with hard questions. Some regard consciousness as eluding rational explanation, while some like the late psychologist William James contend that consciousness does not exist, at least not in any substantive sense.
As to its causal powers, there is a spectrum of opinions, ranging from epiphenomenalism (consciousness as impotent brain offshoot) to hypophenomenalism (brain as somehow derivative from consciousness). Some say it is an emergent property, the result of a critical measure of brain complexity; others think it something implicit in being or nature, waiting to be teased into manifestation. Some call it a glorious excresence of chance, others see in its purity – God throwing off sparks of soul life. Dostoysevsky thought consciousness was a disease, a freakish pain, an impediment to life.
Obviously, there is no consensus here. This may be a clue to something important, a kind of wink daring us to push boldly onward. I will therefore take up the gauntlet and attempt an evocation of the extraordinary potential of human consciousness. Now the question we are asking is this: What might the world look like – what would it be like? -- if we used human consciousness at full throttle?
...Here I will sketch a model based on psychological data usually avoided if not repressed by mainstream science. My thought-experiment will draw on parapsychology, or psychical research – the study of certain unexplained or “paranormal” phenomena that clearly have dramatic implications for the primacy of consciousness. Since this is an exercise of the hypothetical imagination, we will not review the evidence for the phenomena... Our job is to imagine their implications for human life and ask how they may contain the seeds of human transformation.
Parapsychology is an embattled enterprise, generally unwelcomed by mainstream science or religion. True, great names in science and philosophy may be invoked who were sympathetic to the cause...but the majority of mainstream scientists keep their distance. With few exceptions, theologians are aloof, whereas religious fundamentalists tend to be hostile and somewhat paranoid about the claims of parapsychology. The latter often identify psychic phenomena as probably of diabolic origin.
...What then are the implications for human function of paranormal phenomena?... Telepathy, if it exists, names a huge extension of human consciousness (and indeed subconsciousness); in human relations it enables us to transcend the limits of sense life, suggesting that the boundaries separating our personalities may be more porous than we think.
...Suppose that some psychoactive agent, inner discipline, or genetic mutation raised the level of telepathic performance to a general human capacity. Of course, some might recoil from too much openness and transparency. On the positive side, the greater the mutual openness and transparency, the more likely that intimacy, empathy, and sympathy would emerge; it would be hard, for example, to witness the sufferings of others with indifference and detachment. Telepathy might also help us penetrate the interior worlds of nonhumans, thus intuitively supporting the notion of animal liberation. It would be more natural to acknowledge that nonhumans suffer as well as experience pleasure, and we would more readily share their pathos and enjoyments.
...Frederic Myers saw a link between love and telepathy. “Love,” he wrote, “is a kind of exalted and unspecialized telepathy.” It would be hard to ignore the misery of the other just as I find it hard to ignore the misery inflicted on me, my friends, or my loved ones. Compassionate social activism would cease being a rarity but become part of our normal response to the world. Generosity of spirit would be commonplace, not exceptional, and love a byproduct of the ordinary pathos of perception. Greed and other vicious psychic dispositions would shrivel in direct proportion to the new scope of pathos consciousness. Thus, in the flitting epiphanies of what today we call telepathy, we may be seeing signs of a new order of love.
Let us now ask what would happen if our clairvoyant capacity were dramatically enlarged. Genius, Myers thought, represented the true normality of future humanity: a state in which the waking self is in continuous vital relationship with the subliminal self. That deepened interaction is what he meant by genius. Clairvoyance implies a supernormal consciousness of distant scenes, objects, and, in Myers’ usage, planes, modes, as well as symbols of existence. As Myers linked love with telepathy, he linked genius with clairvoyance. Among other things, genius for Myers implied clairvoyant access to the subliminal mind, which in its totality contains the repository of world history, world-soul, and whatever timeless wisdom and inspiration is available to the mind of man.
Paranormal investigation further suggests that our consciousness of time is latently more flexible and certainly more puzzling than commonly supposed...Psychical researchers flummox us with reports of precognition and retrocognition; people occasionally seem to catch unmediated glimpses of past and future. Glimpses of the future especially raise questions about our conventional ideas of time. The obvious objection is that true precognition would reverse the customary causal sequence, creating the awkward idea of backward causation. But more to the point: What concrete life-difference would it make if we could expand our consciousness of time?
...What would it be like if we could experience the full presence of the present; in short, see ourselves more clearly, the impact of our words and deeds on the world around us, all the effects radiating outwardly?...What we mostly know in normal consciousness is the restless, scurrying picture of things under the shadow of the clock racing; if we could widen our consciousness sufficiently, we might learn something about “eternity,” – the “world” in Blake’s “grain of sand.” The eyelids of eternal vision flicker; we are enfolded in something greater than piecemeal time....
We find flickers of enlarged time sense in the anomalies of memory: reports of children who remember past lives and of people who nearly die and see “panoramic” visions of their whole lives before them. Surely we would dramatically change if we learned to see in one glance the pattern of our life, its shape and direction and dominant motifs.
So far we’ve looked at some possibilities of perceptual transformation. There is also the question of bodily transformation. ESP is receptive, but PK or psychokinesis is expressive, intentional, directed. Here consciousness performs what must seem like a miracle to our mainstream materialists: it seems to leap beyond its physical integument and exert influence on states of matter...An example are the famous dice-throwing experiments of J.B. Rhine, in which subjects “will” a particular die face to come out. Consciousness here expresses itself by directly transforming states of physical reality....
However, conscious volition is only one way that consciousness may express itself psychokinetically. There may be involuntary forms of psychic influence on living bodies or physical objects, for example, as in the metaphysically charged antics of poltergeists. Here, a living agent, often a youngster undergoing emotional turmoil, involuntarily causes objects to move, break, or otherwise behave anomalously. Sometimes the poltergeist agent learns to control the initially involuntary effects. The implications of this could be seen as frightening. These and other documentable cases suggest we may one day learn consciously to direct the matter-molding powers of the subliminal psyche. If and when that time comes, a new stage of the human adventure will have been launched.
Extreme forms of psychokinesis tell us something else about the powers of the human mind. In a few cases, evidence for levitation is very strong...Another example are the stigmata produced by saints known to have been focusing their attention on paintings or statues of the crucified Christ. Finally, there are cases of inedia, where a saintly individual lives without eating or drinking for months or even years.... We can call this “psychokinesis by symbolic action.”
These examples (there are other well-documented cases) illustrate the potential of consciousness to directly influence physical reality...All these suggest the power of mind for enhancing or of course damaging health and life itself.
One final conception of our thought-experiment compels us to contemplate the following: the psychokinetic powers of saints, yogis, physical mediums, and aboriginal “people of high degree” suggest the possibility of some kind of afterlife body and afterlife environment. Ecstasy or anxiety, love or enmity, may shape the kinds of mental body and environment – in traditional terms, hellish or heavenly – we are said to experience in the postmortem world.
The early psychical researchers sought to determine if there were empirical grounds for the belief in a life after death. So far, well over a hundred years of research have harvested much interesting (and various sorts of) data suggesting that we may (at least some of us for some time) survive bodily death. Now suppose survival was a fact of nature. What difference would it make? That of course will vary from individual to individual, but a few remarks might stimulate some thinking.
...We need to imagine a better use of a 21st-century science-based afterlife mythology.... For example, if we saw our passage to the next world as one of ever-deepening self-revelation, a kind of sudden and imposed openness and transparency, as a scene where the unconscious becomes conscious and the inner becomes the outer, I would think we might feel motivated to better know ourselves in preparation for what is to come. All experience here on earth would be charged with new significance, for we would know we are creating the future – planting seeds for unpredictable growths in possibly unknown environments. The idea of another round of existence on another plane of existence would force us to revise our attitude toward life – if, that is, we viscerally believed it. Whatever we did and whatever we thought would gain an intensity of meaning would become part of the myth of each of our personal world-lines as they drive and cut their tangled way through the jungle of space and time.
Consciousness is often said to be intentional; it is always about something. It always points to a world of one or another type or dimension. Consciousness, in short, is always a transparency, an opening. Now, its power to extend to a “next” world is also the power that can open us to this world. Here, in my opinion, is the greatest gift of consciousness; its freedom to choose, select, emphasize, reject, affirm, praise, and love. It is this power to highlight what is essential, what is vitally important to any world, that is the greatest thing about consciousness. It is our mental culture, the inner equipment deployed to interpret and transform experience.
The prospect of death concentrates the mind, Samuel Johnson once said; the prospect of an afterlife would concentrate our minds no less. For if this strange story, this uncanny adventure, goes on even after the body is reduced to lifeless atoms, then we have to be incredibly alert and totally alive to the dangers and wondrous possibilities that await us along the way. Add the provocative evidence of psychical research, and we are entitled to imagine continuous adventure as definitive of the human condition.
To sum up, in taking inventory of the paranormal potentials of human consciousness, we find grounds for undreamed of possibilities for enhancing life. Our telepathic potencies herald a new order of love based on the natural empathy between sentient beings. The unfolding of clairvoyant capacity points to a new democracy of genius, to deeper access to the many layers of self, and rapport with the natural world. Our enlarged consciousness of time will enrich the quality-of-life experience, adding depth, perspective, and complexity. The unfolding of our psychokinetic potential foreshadows radical changes in the manner of our embodiment on Earth. Emancipation from physical constraints will free us for the supreme pursuits of our lives as each of us sees them. Finally, we will learn to experience the timeless core of our consciousness. The old terror of death will be lifted – an albatross from our backs – and we will become citizens of the evolving universe, free to enjoy the gift and adventure of life.