Critiquing "The Science of Superconsciousness"

by Paul O'Brien

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Tony Kassir, the author of "The Science of Superconsciousness," some fours year ago at Mount San Antonio College. I found him to be a personable gentleman, and having read a rough draft of his article, I was anxious to voice some questions about his ideas. We spoke briefly about the idea of this "science of superconsciousness," and I felt then as I feel now that such a science, if successful, would be a true enrichment to academia, science, and humanity in general. Unfortunately, I couldn't help but feel dissatisfied with his overall execution in trying to show that such a science is plausible.

Though a few years have passed, I read his article now with the same nagging dissatisfaction. There are too many questions it leaves unanswered, too many loose ends and vague suggestions that lead me to believe that this idea is still just an idea, little more. I hope to articulate some of the problems I have with Dr. Kassir's article, but not with any intention of disrespecting or discouraging him or others from pursuing this line of enquiry. I only hope to express some honest questions, and perhaps offer some constructive criticism in the hopes that something more plausible --or at least clearer-- can be developed in the future.

It would probably help to sum up the gist of Kassir's argument first. His main thesis seems to be fairly simple: Superconsciousness can be studied scientifically. First of all, we must ask what exactly is "superconsciousness?" He defines it as, "a genuine state of expanded perception" which "satisfies each of the four properties," which are the following: 1) it's a state which "gives knowledge the ordinary cognitive state cannot give;" 2) a state which "gives knowledge of the real world with all its attributes;" 3) a state which "experienced by different individuals" shows "complete identity, when these individuals use the same means of expanding perception," yielding "independently- experienced" results that will be "completely identical;" and lastly, 4) a state which is "sometimes totally illogical from our ordinary point of view" because it is a state which is "super- logical, involving logic superior to our ordinary logic."

With this definition, we have something to help us understand the first half of his thesis. What about the second half, though? What makes something capable of being studied scientifically? Kassir argues that if a theory can fulfill the three requirements of the scientific method, then it can be studied scientifically. The three requirements of the scientific method are: 1) "the formulation of a hypothesis based on present knowledge;" 2) "testing the hypothesis by way of a procedure specifically designed for this purpose; and finally, 3) "evaluation of the experimental data or results, thereby proving or disproving the hypothesis."

With the definition of superconsciousness in one hand and the criteria for being a science in the other, the argument is just a issue of fitting the two together to show that the idea of superconsciousness fulfills all the requirements of the scientific method. Kassir claims to show this; (1) a student can formulate a hypothesis about superconsciousness (he offers an example of just such an hypothesis, such as "the supposition that superconsciousness (and super-logic) can be explained"); 2) a procedure is available that allows one to test this hypothesis; and 3) the student gets results which they can then compare to their original hypothesis. Therefore, superconsciousness fulfills all three requirements of the scientific method, and the science of superconsciousness seems quite plausible.

But not just yet. There are many questions and problems about the way superconsciousness is defined and characterized; about the way the scientific method is applied to superconsciousness; and about what exactly Kassir is trying to argue for here, and how he argues for it. Let me go through each of these main problems one by one.

First of all, the idea of superconsciousness is questionable from the start. Kassir offers a detailed definition of this concept, especially concerning its four essential characteristics. The first part of the definition invokes the phrase "genuine state of expanded perception." What, then, is an "expanded perception," and what makes some perceptions "genuine" while others are, presumably, inauthentic? To answer the second question we must answer the first.

Kassir discusses how science typically deals with knowledge that is derived from one or more of the five senses, either naked, or extended through technology (as a microscope extends sight, for example). Nonetheless, he says "we should... recognize the possibility of worlds existing outside our realm of experience, " worlds that may "lie outside the domain of our senses, and cannot therefore be recognized to exist unless we are able to somehow expand the arena of our perceptions." This, then, is the context of his idea behind "expanded perception;" presumably normal perception is that which we experience through the five senses, and expanded perception is something that extends beyond those five senses. I thought that perhaps expanded perception might simply a new height or intensity of our ordinary senses, but he clearly suggests otherwise when he says that "the expansion of perception is the only course that will not limit us to the discovery of potential worlds existing only in the domain of our five senses."

To comment upon this idea as it so far stands, I agree that there is a possibility that there are things or pieces of knowledge that may exist, but which may not be available to our ordinary perception. It seems hasty to dismiss the possibility of their existence just because we can't perceive them, just as it would be premature and presumptuous if blind people were to deny the existence of colors on the grounds that they can't see them.

Still, Kassir's characterization of expanded perception is confusing. He offers the imaginary world where its inhabitants ("flatlings") have all five senses and perceive things in 2-D terms. A "top-eyed" flatling named Joe, however, can perceive beyond the two dimensions into the third one, seeing depth that the other flatlings fail to perceive. I presume that Dr. Kassir wants Joe to be an analogous figure for those who reach expanded perception. If so, how closely is this imaginary model meant to be to what I presume is Kassir's real one?

I wonder this because seeing into the third dimension is certainly a perceptual expansion of sorts, but it's still very much an extension of the ordinary five senses. This must be clear even to Kassir who says that 3-D seeing Joe is extra-perceptive due to a "top-eye," which, though special among flatlings, is still a sensory organ. The third dimension is also an expansion of sorts when compared to the second one, but this too is a mere addition, an extension of what already exists, just as someone with four senses gains expanded perception when they gain the use of a fifth one.

I don't find this much different than Kassir's earlier example of the savage who disbelieves in radio waves because he can't see them. The savage disbelieves because he can't perceive them, but of course, we believe they exist because we have certain tools and technologies he doesn't have. These tools, however, don't really take us "beyond" the five senses; they merely expand them and extend them. Is the 3-D world much different than the savage example, then? It doesn't defy any of the five senses at all, because seeing in 3-D is just a sensory extension of seeing in 2-D. If these examples are as similar as they seem, and if these models are meant to be proper analogies to what Kassir means by expanded perception, then we haven't gone beyond the five senses at all. We still remain in the domain he told us we had to leave; the expanded world still exists "only within the domain of our five senses" and thus, still "limits" our pursuit of "potential worlds." Worlds beyond the five senses still remain hidden.

I don't want to be too quick to hold Kassir's real model too closely to this imaginary flatling one, but in a way, I have no choice. He bases the four characterizations of expanded perception on that flatling model because, I presume, it adequately shows those characteristics he believes relate to superconsciousness. If the flatling model is a direct perceptual analogy to superconsciousness, then superconsciousness is a mere extension of the five senses just as the flatling model is. If, on the other hand, superconsciousness is an expansion beyond the five senses even though the flatling model illustrates a mere sensory extension, then his model is an inadequate analogy. Either way, I would like to see an illustration or at least consider an analogy that shows exactly how superconsciousness works.

Maybe, Kassir might say, I am thinking too much like the two- dimensional flatlings when they consider 3-D Joe's reports of the 3-D world. Bound by my limited perception, I may not be able to understand expanded perception. Kassir even goes so far as to say that logic in the ordinary perceptual world has trouble understanding and applying to expanded perception logic ("super- logic," as he calls it). Therefore, maybe my logic doesn't apply to this super-logical idea.

Let me respond to this. Even though the savage cannot see radio waves with his naked eye, I could try very hard to describe radio waves to him without showing him any special tools. Even if he doesn't perfectly understand them the way I do, it will still make some sense, even if it's just hypothetical to him. Language and logic are such that I can, with some degree of success, communicate the ideas behind this extended perception to someone who has never perceived them directly. This can especially succeed in light of the fact that the savage knows about certain things and ideas that the extended idea can be understood in terms of. What I mean is, he may not see radio waves, but he has seen waves in a pond; I can use the waves he can see to help him understand what I mean about those waves he can't.

If the extended perception is in no way included anything lesser than it, that is, nothing more basic that in can be explained in terms of, then maybe we have a serious problem articulating it. I would find it immensely difficult to explain what the color red is to a person who has been blind all their life, for example, because the perception of color is something that can't be easily broken down into any of the other four senses. I would have much greater success explaining the round image of a ball, because I could easily invoke their sense of touch and roughly explain the image in those terms.

But in the savage case, the radio waves aren't so distant from what he does see, so we do have common ground to discuss them on. Similarly, the 3-D world of Joe is not completely separate from the flatling 2-D world; after all, it includes the 2-D world. He thus has common tools to discuss the 3-D world with, namely 2-D ones. I'm not saying he can make a direct 2-D translation of the 3-D world, but he certainly can try and partially succeed. Maybe he can draw the images of boxes on a sheet of paper, for example, like artists do to mimic depth on a two-dimensional canvas... I don't know. The point is, even if it seems a bit strange (just as radio waves seem strange to the savage), logic and language still apply to some degree. The premises to be logically considered change, to be sure, just as the ideas to be expressed must also change. Nonetheless, the formal processes of logic and language still work as well as they always do, and someone who doesn't share direct experience of those premises or expressions can still consider them clearly as hypotheses and apply their own logic and language.

Yet somehow the same cannot be said about superconsciousness, for some reason. Though we may not have direct experiences of these so- called superconscious, expanded perceptions --and in turn, have no clear terms to express them in yet, just as flatlings have no terms for three-dimensional depth-- that does not make them "sound totally illogical" as Kassir says. He says the logic of the three- dimensional world would be superior to that of the two-dimensional world because it would "be consistent with all aspects" of the real, three-dimensional world whereas two-dimensional logic would only apply to two-dimensions and ignore a very real third one. He calls the logic based on similarly expanded perception "super- logic," as opposed to ordinary logic.

I have great difficulty with this distinction, however, because as I see it, logic hasn't changed; only the premises have. Logic is a formal organization of premises, a system that processes statements but is not bound by them. Even if the premises seem radically strange and foreign to an outsider, logic still applies. I don't understand what makes the logic applied to superconscious premises so "super," then. I also don't understand why some say that language also fails completely (as Kassir intimates at when he says, "nothing can adequately describe the beauty, the joy, the boundless love [of superconsciousness"). But only words change, not language; the elements to be expressed change, not the process of expression itself. If these superconscious states cannot be applied to logic at all, then you can't say they have their own "super- logic." Ordinary logic may have limited premises, but to step beyond the form of logic altogether is to become, literally and by definition, nonlogical. You get "super-nonlogic," maybe, I don't know.

To recapitulate my point then, you have two possibilities: either so-called "super-logic" is just a premise-extended version of logic and language, in which case the outsider is still privy to the reasoning and hypothetical understanding of the idea, even if limited due to lack of experience; or "super-logic" doesn't use the formal structure of logic and language, in which case it isn't "super-logical" anymore but "super-something-else-that-can't-be- expressed-nor-made-logical." I find either horn problematic to Kassir's discussion.

Though the road was long, I would like to come back to the original port and say that "expanded perception" is still a bit unclear so far as Dr. Kassir expresses it in this article. (I hope to have shown a little bit of why just now.) Consequently, their quality of being "genuine" or not is equally unclear. This covers the first half of the definition of superconsciousness, then, but what about the second half, the four essential characteristics he lists? I questioned the fourth one about being "super-logical" already. I would like to question the third criteria (having identical test results from independent individuals) in my discussion of how scientific superconsciousness can be in a moment. Let me just leave this definition for now with my original concern related to how closely the flatland model is supposed to relate to the superconsciousness one. After all, I only understand Kassir's four criteria based upon that analogy, and yet that analogy shows, as I said, an extending of the five senses, no reaching "beyond" them. The basis of characterizing expanded perception in this model, and in all the models presented in this article, is that of sensory extension and nothing more. How can I understand going beyond the five senses, then, when all I am offered is a consideration of dissimilar models expressing mere extension?

Let's consider just how well the scientific method applies to superconsciousness. Kassir says that "we may... define a science as any field which relies exclusively upon the 3-part scientific method to obtain new knowledge." Furthermore, "the conclusions put forth by this science are not based on faith," "nor are they based on the imperfect logic and reasoning of our waking state." In part, he bases this definition of science on the fact that biology, chemistry, and physics are all fields that rely on the 3-part scientific method, and which are all considered sciences.

First of all, any science must "formulate a hypothesis." Superconsciousness might be in trouble right away, then, because to formulate a hypothesis, I assume you have to be able to in some way express what you're looking for or testing for. To hypothesize that "superconsciousness... can be experienced," as he suggests for an example, is awfully vague, especially considering we're unclear about what superconsciousness means. How will I know superconsciousness when I find it? Will I just automatically know? If so, how can I formulate a clear hypothesis beforehand? Will you be able to tell me when I'm superconscious since I'm unclear (that is, if I describe to you what I experience)? If so, then you must be able to recognize verbal descriptions of superconsciousness as true marks of the state, which makes me wonder why you couldn't describe the state to me before, as well.

Also, how can I formulate a hypothesis about super-logic when I am bound by my so-called ordinary logic in so doing? It's much too general to formulate the hypothesis that "super-logic can be experienced," because that assumes I know what super-logic is (which if I already knew, I wouldn't be testing for, nor questioning right now) and what a super-logic experience feels like (which I don't, because it supposedly makes no sense to my ordinary logic). To formulate a more specific hypothesis would require a super-logical hypothesis, but again, such a formulation would make no sense to me going into the experiment. If you say that it will only make sense after the experiment, that raises the question of what validates a hypothesis and what falsifies it; does waiting for the experience mean that the moment the hypothesis makes sense is when super-logic has worked? If so, this strange self-validation is rather circular. If the hypothesis continues to make no sense, even after the procedure, then how can I tell if the hypothesis is falsified versus the possibility that I experimented wrongly? (And how would you know if I experimented rightly or wrongly when it's a private procedure?)

There are far too many questions based on the first criteria for the scientific method alone. Let's tackle the second requirement, however, just to, oxymoronically, make the confusion even clearer. Any science must "design and perform a procedure to test the hypothesis." I do not doubt that such procedures are said to exist; although Kassir never directly says it, I assume he's referring to some variety of mystical procedures, like breath control, diet, sitting postures, focusing the mind, etc.

Even if you grant that a hypothesis can be formulated, this procedure and test is questionable. There are at least two problems with the test to begin with, as I see it; it's only private, and the formulation of the hypothesis interferes with the experiment itself. In biology, chemistry, or physics, the results are shared by many people, and these observers not only have a shared language for their observation, but a shared experience (with normal, subjective variations, of course, like one's unique angle of seeing the experiment due to one's specific location in relation to it, etc.).

The superconsciousness state is experienced alone, however, or so I presume from Kassir's article. I do not mean that others are not supposed to have their own similar experiences, but that the object of what is being experienced is singular to each observer. I would like to say that observations among different meditators can be compared, and thus verified or falsified, but the procedure itself is too private and subjective. I can't figure out how one could know if, when two individuals due to the same procedure see two different things, that this a sign that one or both of the visions is wrong... maybe they are, in some mystic's opinion, astrally travelling in different, but equally valid places. What if the visions correspond? How do we know if it's accidental or not?

The tool with which make this experiment --our own mind-- is so inconsistent, so mercurial and unpredictable. It would be difficult to compare the state of mind of one person from week to week, much less comparing states of mind among different individuals. The tool is so intertwined with the observer, I can't help but feel that it interferes with the results. Tests for the law of gravity will work despite our moods and expectations; be as hopeful, ambivalent, or cynical as you want, and the apple falls. But testing for superconscious states is very dependent on these attitudes. The cynical can criticize to such an extent as to nullify anything, and the hopeful can hope to such an extent as to make the experience a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Indeed, I have a theory that those who try to experiment with these expanded mental/ mystical states are already hopeful else they wouldn't have bothered, and have thus psychologically willed themselves halfway into the subjective experience.)

Since science is so concerned with falsifiability, superconsciousness makes a very unclear science if it even deserves to be called that (which I doubt it does). Questioning the first and second requirements for the scientific method, there's virtually no need to criticize the third. How can I compare my experimental results with my hypothesis to draw conclusions when the hypothesis, the experiment, and the experimental results are so unclear? Anyone creative enough could derive anything from such vague attempts at experiments.

This covers my criticism of the general content of the article, leaving some controversial issues untouched for now (like his brief discussion of drugs). Let me finish this critique by taking a step back from the argument and analyzing the argument's style and intention. What exactly is Dr. Kassir really arguing here, and how does he do so?

I'm wary of Kassir's style. He offers clear analogies and invokes scientific terminology, but the link from them to his ideas is so tenuous, I'm shocked it hasn't already snapped. He makes such incredible jumps at times, I feel like I'm reading a whole other article hidden not-so-subliminally in one meant to appear scholarly and scientific. An example of this can be found under the subsection entitled "The Superconscious State." The first paragraph is fairly clear; it reminds the reader that superconsciousness may appear illogical, when it in fact may be quite possible under super-logic (and never mind for now that super-logic is so confusing).

Then the next eight paragraphs look like something right out of Indian mysticism. He claims that superconsciousness reveals that there is "a [soul-like] subtle body," that we each have the ability "to vacate the physical body with no adverse effects," that leaving the body in this way leads one to "traverse the regions commonly referred to as the heavens," that "death is conquered, for death is no longer an adversary;" that it makes participants "forgiving, humble, temperate," "without attachment to any material possession," and lets them "instantly rejoice in the brilliant radiance and the delightful sounds of the regions to which they have gained admittance." After all of that description, which is stated as if it were as factual as the sun rising each day, he says in the final paragraph that "still... mere words fall miserably short of the incredible truth" and that "nothing can adequately describe the beauty, the joy, the boundless love."

Never mind that that last statement suggests again just how strange it would be to formulate a clear hypothesis about superconsciousness to be tested. Also never mind that even though "nothing can adequately describe the beauty," he, like so many mystics, nonetheless devotes much description to its beauty. Just consider the style. The article began so clearly, so directly; it ends with the sentence "indeed, the superconscious experience can be best described only in terms of love." We aren't just talking about a new field of science now. No scientist I know of would ever professionally use this vague, imprecise, subjective language to discuss their science, nor suggest that "love" is the only method of describing their discipline.

I don't say this to suggest that this specific dissimilarity rules something like superconsciousness out of being a true science, but that superconsciousness, as it presently stands, bends the scientific method too far for comfort. Science is noted for its clarity, practical results, repeatability, falsifiability, and precision... all of these qualities are so unclear when you consider superconsciousness. I commend the effort to make something like mysticism clearer and more precise, especially to outsiders, but the effort itself must be clear, even if the discipline is not.

I can't help but wonder, even though it's far too speculative to answer and almost presumptuous to ask: Is Dr. Kassir, like so many others, trying to resolve his own ideological tug-of-war between the scientific method his mind holds so firmly (indeed, as a medical doctor) with the mysticism that so clearly holds his heart (clearly suggested by his dedication to the Indian guru, Charan Singh)? Is this the modern day equivalent of medieval Christian scholars trying to make philosophical sense of their faith-based views? Did Dr. Kassir come across these beliefs in the superconscious via an experiment, or did he have a more personal experience that led him into this field? I can only wonder.

I also fear that the casual reader will use the scientific rhetoric, though incomplete, and believe it too swiftly in light of what superconsciousness promises. After all, few would not be eager to accept a system that supposedly helps you "conquer death" and gain "infinite love." Though I regret criticizing this gentleman and this general idea that he (and others dear to me) hold, it's almost because this field promises so much that I am compelled to criticize it.

I can envision a very different article that says the same thing, except more clearly and more honestly. First of all, it begins with what led the author to the belief in superconsciousness (presumably, it will be a personal testimonial); it proceeds to describe the merits of science; then the discussion leads to the possibility of the marriage of mysticism to science. I think this possibility is quite real, even if it is just vague for now. I read about too many attempts that try to pseudo-philosophize mysticism into a context that makes it looks undeniably scientific and real, when in fact, it's just cosmetic babble for a new recipe for New Age metaphysics that went stale years ago.

I'm happy to say that Dr. Kassir isn't one of those babblers. I may have serious concerns about his article and its thesis, but I would be foolish to rule his ideas out, especially when they potentially offer so much. That does not nor should not keep from asking honest questions, though; and that's all I wanted to do.