Is consciousness a field

A further innovative contribution to the phenomenology of consciousness was made about a century ago by William James (1842-1910). In his Gifford Lectures of 1901-02, which were later published as The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), he states that humans have 'fields of consciousness', so as to indicate that the unbroken, ever-changing flow of ideas, perceptions, feelings, and emotions that make up our lives, are going far beyond our narrow conception of the self. This is to say that our consciousness is simply a kind of filtering down, some form of what Richard Maurice Bucke first called 'cosmic consciousness' (Bucke 1901).

With the words 'fields of consciousness', well ahead of both his time and ours, I believe William James seized upon the mechanism essential to the understanding of consciousness, as an 'extended' phenomenon. More recently, Rupert Sheldrake has formulated a theory of the 'extended mind' (Sheldrake 2003; Sheldrake and Smart 2005). In his book The Sense of Being Stared at and Other Aspects of the Extended Mind (2003), he suggests that minds are not confined to the insides of our heads, but stretch out beyond them. The images we experience as we look around us are just where they seem to be. He wrote: 'If you feel the pressure of your bottom on a chair, this sensation is located inside the head and not where they seem to be. By contrast, I suggest that these feelings are just where they seem to be' (ibid.: 281). He gives the example of an amoeba, well known as a representative unicellular organism, which moves about by sending out projections into the world around it:

In all other animals, amoeboid cells are vital for our survival. The most extreme example of amoeboid cells is the nerves. Some nerve cells have enormously elongated pseudopod-like projections, which serve as the nerve fibers that conduct nerve impulses. These pseudopodia, called axons, can be several feet in length, such as those that connect the sciatic nerve with our toes. As axons grow, they send out many thin, hair-like projections (called filopodia) that explore the area around the tip of the growing axon. Nerve cells have many axons, some of which project out toward the surface of other nerve cells, forming a network of interconnection. It is no coincidence that the mind is rooted in networks of nerve cells, with pseudopod-like axons stretching out far beyond the main part of the cell body. The mind in turn is capable of sending out mental pseu-dopodia into the world beyond the body, and it is forming networks of interconnections with other minds.

He went a step further observing that: 'If there is an outwards movement of the mind to touch that which is perceived, then perhaps we can affect things or people just by looking at them. Can we test this? Can we affect people just by looking at them?' (Sheldrake and Fox 1996: 78). Sheldrake has called this phenomenon 'the sense of being stared at'. He observed that 'when we look at anything, fields of perception link us to what we see. Hence we might affect things or people just by looking at them'. The sense of being stared at provides us with evidence for this (Sheldrake 2003: 170). In previous publications, he suggested that the extensions of the mind take place through what he called 'morphic fields':

I became convinced that living organisms were organized by fields when I was doing research on plants. How do plants grow from simple embryos inside seeds into foxgloves, sequoias, or bamboos? How do leaves, flowers, and fruits take up their characteristic forms? These questions are about what biologists call morphogenesis, the coming into being of form (from Greek morphe = form; genesis = coming into being).

The naïve answer is to say that everything is genetically programmed. Somehow each developing plant or animal follows the instructions coded in its genes. Nevertheless, since the 20s many biologists who have studied the development of plants and animals have been convinced that in addition to the genes, there must be organizing fields within the developing organism, called 'morphogenetic fields'. These fields contain, as it were, invisible plans or blueprints for the various organs and for the organism as a whole.

According to Sheldrake (2003), the contrast between brain theory and 'field' theory is clearest in the case of 'phantom limbs'.7 Sheldrake comments: 'I suggest that phantom limbs are fields of the missing limbs', while the conventional theory says that they are in the brain (ibid.: 281). The British biologist is currently studying the implications of morphogenetic fields for various phenomena, such as telepathy (Sheldrake and Smart 2005).

These theories represent a new development in consciousness studies, but they do not reject dualism completely, for they accept some kind of duality between mind and body. I would like to suggest here that the term 'extended body', rather than 'extended mind' may be more appropriate to describe the phenomenon. Such a notion probably originated with the work of Edward Hall, when he observed that the most characteristic feature of human beings is their capacity to develop corporeal extensions. In The Hidden Dimension, he wrote:

Man is an organism with an extraordinary past. He is distinguished from the other animals by virtue of the fact that he has elaborated what I have termed extensions of the organism. By developing his extensions, man has been able to improve or specialize various functions. The computer is an extension of part of his brain, the telephone is an extension of the voice, the wheel extends the legs and feet. Language extends experience in time and space while writing extends language. Man has elaborated his extensions to such a degree that we are apt to forget that his human-ness is rooted in his animal nature.

In a way, the theory that the body could extend in space can be further traced back to the 1950s work of Weston La Barre. In his book entitled The Human Animal (1955), he argues that men and women have accelerated their evolutionary process by shifting evolution from their bodies to their extensions. As he put it: 'The real evolutionary unit now is not man's mere body; it is all-mankind's-brains-together-with-all-the-extrabodily-materials-

that-come-under-the-manipulation-of-their-hands' (ibid.: 91). He called this ongoing process 'evolution-by-prosthesis', which has the function to enhance our evolutionary variation:

The evolution-by-prosthesis is uniquely human and uniquely freed from the slowness of reproduction and of evolutionary variation into blind alleys from which there is no retreat. Man with tools as his projected body and machines the prosthetic creatures of his hands, is not merely a promising animal biologically: he makes every other animal wholly obsolete, except as they serve his purposes of prosthetic metabolism, locomotion, manufacture of materials and of biological medicine. This new kind of human evolution is fully proved in the positive sense by man's conquest of reality.

In other words, for La Barre, tools and machines are not only useful, but they have an additional advantage in evolutionary terms. This view supports many aspects of Ichikawa's theory of the extended body ('Body-space') by arguing in favour of both a 'semi-definite body-space' (junkoseiteki shin-tai kukan) and an 'indefinitely varying body-space' (fukakuteki na kahenteki shintai kukan). La Barre wrote:

It is an error to suppose that a spider's web is in this sense a tool. For, besides being instinctive (a genetically given function), the spider web is merely an autoplastic extension into space of its own-living substance or metaplasm. No more is a bird's nest a 'tool' since neither insight nor tuition and neither memory nor experience plays any part in this instinctual activity.

The evolution-by-prosthesis is not only a new kind of evolution, but it has greatly accelerated evolution itself:

It took millions and millions of years from fish to whale to evolve a warmblooded marine mammal: but man evolved submarines from dream to actuality in a mere few centuries and at no genetic price in physical specialization.

So it was for the human dream of flying. An airplane for La Barre has a strong evolutionary meaning because it 'is part of a larger kinaesthetic and functional self; it is a larger ownership of reality by the questing ego of life. And airplanes are biologically cheap' (ibid.: 91). In an age of technological discoveries, the notion of an extended body is becoming increasingly important. Not only does the concept enable us to glimpse a bit of a new worldview by giving a better understanding of what a human being is, but also about what it can be. The concept of corporeal extensions will be further developed later on in this book. I would like to carry on the ongoing discussion on the origins of contemporary study of consciousness.

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