Academy of Consciousness Studies
Any serious attempt to comprehend the nature of consciousness requires recognition of the multitude of scholarly vectors bearing on the topic. It also benefits from the acknowledgment that all scholarly disciplines, both in their contextual frameworks and their interpretation of information, are themselves products of consciousness rather than inherent characteristics of nature. Thus, the study of consciousness necessitates looking beyond the perspectives and insights peculiar to any specific fields of study to question the fundamental assumptions that underlie their respective representations of reality, the hypotheses that guide their interactions with their environments, and the methods by which they organize and utilize the information thus acquired.
Such a frankly interdisciplinary approach has characterized the efforts of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) program since its inception in 1979. The PEAR research staff is interdisciplinary both in its professional skills and in its style of creative interactions, and its study of the role of consciousness in the establishment of physical reality has combined empirical observation with theoretical methods, and pragmatic applications with philosophical perspectives, in mutually complementary dialogues. A similar approach has been employed in a number of PEAR’s collaborative programs with colleagues from other departments and institutions. One example is the Princeton Human Information Processing Group, which brings together researchers from several university laboratories to address the topic of human/machine interactions from the perspectives of engineering, cognitive science, psychology, linguistics, and philosophy. This group also offers a team-taught undergraduate course with opportunities for student research projects spanning these various programs. Another such enterprise is the International Consciousness Research Laboratories (ICRL), a small research consortium of scholars from five countries, whose members have well-established credentials in the fields of physics, biology, medicine, anthropology, archaeology, psychology, engineering, and the humanities, and share a common interest in the relevance of their work to the understanding of consciousness. This group meets semi-annually to exchange individual and cooperative research findings and to explore the theoretical implications of their work. In addition to the high level of intellectual stimulation provided by these meetings, the opportunities to interact in open-minded colloquy with others of common purpose in an environment of mutual respect has been richly rewarding. And, of course, the participation of many members of the PEAR staff in the formation, operation, and resource development of SSE has proved of great mutual benefit.
While these efforts to bridge established disciplinary boundaries have proven quite effective within their own professional circles, they have not addressed the huge number of inquiries received by PEAR and its ICRL colleagues over the years from young and mid-career scholars seeking to learn more about consciousness research and to become actively involved in its study. Given the limited academic options and funding resources available to support such initiatives, it became clear that a broader and more tutorial approach was also needed, one unencumbered by conventional academic architecture and preconceptions, that would provide a forum for a small group of such scholars to engage in incisive exploration of the full range of difficult and controversial aspects of this challenging issue. The Academy of Consciousness Studies was conceived in response to this interest as an intensive two-week multidisciplinary convocation wherein this theme could be developed in depth, in a fully holistic fashion and from a variety of academic perspectives. Equal emphasis was to be placed on the anomalous, metaphysical, and spiritual facets of the topic as on the more canonical issues of rigorous scientific methodology and comprehensive theoretical modelling. Beyond its educational aspirations, the Academy also set as major goals the provision of professional support and guidance to its participants in designing and carrying out subsequent research within their own related interests; the establishment of an ongoing network of collaborations of the highest scientific quality; and the development of an effective program for communication of this work to the broader scientific community and to the public.
The first Academy of Consciousness Studies was held on the Princeton University campus from June 26 through July 9, 1994, with financial support from the Fetzer Institute. Although the initial plan was to invite some 20 qualified “students” to interact with a “faculty” drawn primarily from ICRL, the overwhelming response to announcement of the Academy, both in quality and quantity, necessitated increasing the number of admissions to 35 and expanding the range of age and experience to include several more senior scholars. Nomenclature distinguishing “students” and “faculty” was replaced with the more generic term, “participants”, and the agenda was altered to reflect this egalitarian tone. Even with this increased size, a substantial number of highly qualified applicants still could not be accommodated, and the development of an outreach program to link the participant group with a broader “Academy Community” remains one of the major priorities for follow-on programs.
The selected 35 invited participants and 11 ICRL members serving as discussion leaders had a mean age of 39, and represented ten countries and 18 different fields of scholarship: anthropology, archaeology, architecture, biology, biophysics, cognitive science, computer science, education, engineering, environmental science, humanities, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, physics, psychology, sociology, and theology. In addition to its high level of professional sophistication, the group embodied an impressive array of experience in a broad variety of artistic and/or metaphysical disciplines. Several months prior to the Academy, these participants were asked to submit brief biographical statements which were compiled and distributed to all members of the group as an initial attempt to establish a sense of community. They were also provided with a selection of preparatory background reading, so that by the time the Academy convened much of the intellectual and interpersonal framework was already in place.
The formal program began with a introduction by Robert Jahn, Director of the PEAR program and Dean Emeritus of Princeton’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, presenting the history, context, and purpose of the Academy (Appendix). Each of the participants was then given an opportunity to present a synopsis of his or her own background, interests, and perspective on the topic of consciousness.
Out of all of this emerged a strong consensus that any comprehensive understanding of consciousness would inevitably require extensive multi-disciplinary study, and conversely, that consciousness must become an important component of virtually every domain of scholarship. The pragmatic ramifications of incorporating this view into the prevailing social paradigm via educational initiatives, communication networks, practical applications, and economic incentives were vigorously debated. Beyond the high level of intellectual excitement that prevailed throughout the entire two-week period, the Academy was notable for the extraordinary interpersonal dynamics that developed over its course and promised many enduring benefits. There was general agreement among the participants that the original goal of generating an interdisciplinary community of scholars had not only been more than fulfilled, but that it would better be described as a family of scholars, given the many close personal friendships that had been established.
Please also see the Appendix to this article.
This summary was originally prepared for use by the Journal of Scientific Exploration, and permission to redistribute the information here is gratefully acknowledged. Marsha Sims, Executive Editor, Journal of Scientific Exploration P.O. Box 5848, Stanford, CA 94309-5848 USA phone: 415-593-8581, fax: 415-595-4466 email email@example.com JSE Homepage & SSE Homepage