Dynamics of Brain Processing  The Homunculus Effect 
Questions of the Heart
Inner Empiricism as a Way to a Science of Consciousness
by Jacob Needleman 
Noetic Sciences Review, Summer 1993

A friend of mine told me recently that all his life he had been interested in the meaning of things and, naturally, that led him to a study of philosophy. What he found there, he said, was one of the greatest disappointments of his life. Instead of tackling the exciting questions, most philosophers seemed to be snared in the problems of dissecting language, and probing the nuances of grammar and semi­arbitrary logic. There was no vitality in this work; it was all dry academic, intellectual gamesmanship. He was looking for philosophers who, as he said, "really care about reality"; who would apply their philosophical training to help cut through the intellectual morass, clarify methodologies, and get back to the relationship between reality and experience. He very kindly described me as one of those philosophers who "really cares about reality".

As it happens, I believe there is a growing number of younger philosophers who are interested in getting to the heart of the matter--about what we mean by "reality" and the central role of experience. What draws them, and what originally drew me, to the whole area of philosophy is a quest for meaning. I discovered that the mind by itself cannot complete the philosophic quest. As Kant decisively argued, the mind can ask questions the mind alone cannot answer. For me, this is where the juice of real philosophical investigation begins to flow. I believe it is precisely where intellect hits its limits that the important questions of philosophy start to come alive.

Mainstream academic philosophy has for a long time tried to answer these fundamental questions with that part of the mind we call intellect. Frequently the difficulties encountered were so great, the logical tangles so confusing, that many philosophers decided such questions were meaningless, and some even began to ridicule anyone who dared ask "What is reality?" "What is the meaning of life?" "Is there life after death?" "What is the soul?" "Does God exist?" Yet these are the questions of the heart. These are the questions that matter most to people--not whether the syntax and deep structures of our language can ever truly represent real knowledge. The meaningful questions, these " questions of the heart", rise up in human beings because of something intrinsic to our nature, an innate striving which Plato called Eros.

One aspect of this is the striving to participate in a reality greater than ourselves. It is a yearning, a hunger, a force we may recognize as love. This drive is as much, if not more, a part of our nature as the sexual, physical and animal desires which psychoanalysis and mainstream psychiatry have identified as parts of our essential nature. Our drive for understanding, for participation in a higher reality, shapes our psyche as much as anything else.

But what can the mind do with this deep participatory urge? Even at its most brilliant, the intellect alone can only ask questions that skim the surface of Eros; it cannot answer these questions. Yet such questions--the meaning of life, the nature of the soul--need to be answered. If intellect is not up to the job, how can we penetrate these mysteries? The solution, I'm proposing, is that we can only extend the reach of intellect through experience. There is a certain type of experience that opens up the mind, expands our consciousness, and allows us to approach answers to many of these fundamental questions.

In this sense, as a philosopher who cares about questions of the heart, I'm essentially a student of consciousness. I'm talking about certain kinds of experiences that we have spontaneously as human beings, but which are all too uncommon and which are not valued or understood within our culture. But when they are approached from another angle, one sees that these experiences really point to an aspect of the mind, of the psyche, beyond reason and intellect. And they do more than that: They also point to the object of those experiences, that is, to a fundamental reality. These experiences present us with an alternative or complementary way of knowing the world around us as well as the world inside us. The philosophical approach I'm talking about values these "questions of the heart" as invitations to experience, as well as to cogitations of the cerebral intellect.

Appearances or Reality?

This is an unconventional approach to philosophy in our culture. Yet it is one that can throw light on many of the great classic questions of philosophy. For example, "Is the world real, or only a construct of appearances?" Behind the appearances presented to us by our senses, is there a real world? And if so, how can we ever know it? These problems have been argued over for centuries, often brilliantly; and nobody has argued better or more cleverly about these points than Immanuel Kant. There are many ways of looking at the issue; and what we find is a shifting mosaic of appearances depending on our point of view.

What I want to emphasize is that once we begin to take seriously the potential capacity of the human mind for other kinds of experiences--for other states of consciousness--and develop the proper language and understanding, we discover that the whole question of appearance versus reality itself shifts. Once we begin to realize that there is a selfhood that is more real, under what we usually call "my self ", we come to recognize that not only do we live in a world of appearances outside, we also live in an internal world of appearances.

At this point, the whole issue gets really interesting. Now we see that in order to know the world behind external appearances, we have to get behind the appearances of our inner world. The only way to gain real knowledge of the outer world is by penetrating the appearances of the inner world. Thus, if I want to know the numinous, the thing­in­itself, I need to activate that instrument in myself that is capable of perceiving it. This is the very "instrument" that Kant proved, so he believed, did not exist.

Kant proclaimed that there is no instrument in the human psyche for perceiving things as they are in themselves; and he presented his argument with such logical and metaphysical brilliance that one must bow to his awesome mind. The Critique of Pure Reason, in which he developed this thesis within the framework of a detailed and comprehensive system, is so astonishing that few people dared say anything different, except in the most circuitous way possible. Hegel tried, but that wasn't what survived of his work. Hardly anybody, particularly in the Anglo­American philosophical tradition, ever seriously challenged Kant's insistent proclamation, his proof, that we can ever know the Ding an sich--the thing­in­itself. Nobody would take on the awesome logic of Kant; and for more than a century his critique of empiricism reigned supreme, a monumental pinnacle of philosophical achievement-except it was wrong.

Kant's own instrument, his genius, was so brilliant it may have blinded him, at least in The Critique of Pure Reason, to the presence of that other instrument of investigation, his own inner experience. Certainly, the most highly developed capacity of reason and intellect could never, as Kant so brilliantly proved, burrow through the veils of appearances to the reality of the world-in­itself. But there is another way of knowing which Kant entirely omitted in The Critique.

The force of Kant's philosophy continues to shape much of Western thinking and science today. Positivism and Scientism are just two of the more recent manifestations of the Kantian underestimation of the cognitive capacities of the human psyche. Our culture is steeped in this paradigm. Freud, in his own way, perpetuated the Kantian myth of the mind.

The Need for Rigorous Empirical Standards

Because of the ubiquitousness of appearances in the outer world of objects, science has been driven to apply the most rigorous standards in a valiant effort to minimize the distortions of appearances. Science has developed a procedure, which I greatly respect, for asking questions designed to eliminate the biases of wishful thinking and to avoid fooling ourselves about the nature of the external world. The critical question I want to explore in this article is to what extent can we legitimately apply those same rigorous scientific standards to investigation of experience-to get beyond the appearances that shroud the landscape of the inner world?

I believe we can use scientific standards, and accompanying language, to guide our inner quest. Ultimately, it is a spiritual quest, and our understanding should be guided by the teachings and practice of the great spiritual traditions. We need to insure that our rigorous methodological standards do not squelch the very experiences we wish to investigate.

For centuries, science has perfected the tools of external empiricism. This empiricism of the senses has been directed toward the outer world--or what is in effect perceived as the "outer world"--organized by categories of logic and the conceptual powers of discursive intellect. From there, it leads us to theory and prediction, experimentation and generation of further observations. In the scientific enterprise, the experiential element--the knowledge and subjective perception--of the scientist is directed exclusively outward.

In order to reach beyond the epistemological barrier so solidly put in place by Kant, to reach more deeply into the world of experience, we now need to develop what I call an "inner empiricism"--the empiricism of looking inward and experiencing the inner world. This is the world within the psyche, within the mind and the heart; it is the world of feelings, of direct sensations. And this is the world that yields metaphysical truths. This is the world that Kant overlooked. Prior to Kant, there were philosophers who recognized the importance of this other "instrument". Great metaphysicians, such as Plato or the ninth­century Christian philosopher Duns Scotus, or the great Islamic philosophers-almost all, I believe, based their metaphysical claims about reality on what they discovered from internal experience.

Their state of meditation or contemplation, or whatever interior discipline they had, enabled them to see and experience things which they could say with absolute certainty were attributes of the universe, of reality itself. That is the application of inner empiricism. All great philosophy is based directly or indirectly on experience, just as much as modem science is. Only the focus of experience is different. Metaphysical philosophers have handed on to us the fruits of their experience of the internal world, not of the external world which is the domain of science. As anyone who has ventured into this interior domain knows, it is a vast realm, rich in the possibilities of experience which mystics and great teachers of all spiritual traditions, at all times, have told us about.

In the Western philosophical tradition the possibility of inner empiricism has been mostly forgotten. David Hume was able to shake the world (particularly the young Kant) with a smattering of self­observation. He reported that when he looked into himself he did not see causal connections, nor a "self " persisting through time. Such pronouncements flew in the face of both common sense and the science of the time. Admirers of Hume reacted to his unorthodox method and conclusions by exclaiming "What an honest, extraordinary man. He looks into himself and tells it like it is. He doesn't see what everybody thinks should be there and has the courage to say so. " But nobody asked "How did he look? What precisely was his method of inner observation? How long did he sit focused on his inner universe?" To Western minds, accustomed only to flights of intellect and the incessant dance of thoughts, Hume's quiet self­observation might have seemed remarkable. But a vipassana yoga teacher or a zen master might have advised: "David, you've only taken a few first steps. Stay with the process for another two, three, four or five years and you'll see a lot more. And even then, there's a lot you won't see."

Hume, in other words, was completely unaware that he was stepping onto the very bottom rung of a giant ladder of self-observation, familiar in many cultures as the practice of meditation. What is remarkable, however, is that although Hume just dipped his toe into the water, that one touch created waves that revolutionized major streams of Western philosophy, from Kant onwards-without any development of a methodology for self­investigation.

Modem academic philosophers practice inner empiricism even more primitively than Hume. They assume--as our culture assumes--that people have a natural capacity to look at themselves. All you need to do is stop and analyze or observe your thinking. But, as any serious practitioner of meditation knows, deep self­insight is not something that comes naturally to the mind. It needs to be cultivated over time and with careful guidance.

In Western culture, this faculty of self­observation is often completely overlooked, even denied. For instance, I had a colleague who professed an academically respectable stance that there are no such things as mental images. He was willing to argue and defend this philosophical position because he wasn't even aware how to put it to a test. At a party one evening, after a few drinks, I suggested he assist me in a card trick. I said "Take a card. Now, without looking at it, guess what it is and don't tell me." He took a card and an instant later exclaimed "My God, I just had a mental image!" That one moment of internal observation completely refuted his whole philosophy. He had never bothered to look into his own mind; he hadn't known how to. A little wine freed him of his customary prejudice about what was supposed to happen in his mind. The image just appeared and he saw it.

I mention that episode to underline the importance of the need for training in inner empiricism. When, after sustained guidance from an experienced teacher, you look deeply into yourself you see not only something about who you are; you see, also, something about the nature of reality, about the universe. Furthermore, what you see can be expressed in conceptual, abstract language, with precise logic and systematization. And that, in my opinion, is the true methodology of philosophy. It yields knowledge just as valid as any gained from the application of scientific empiricism. The only difference is that conventional science yields communicable information about the external world. In both cases, however, the investigators developed the capability to conduct careful observations and to report their findings in precise language as a result of years of dedicated training, guided by masters in their field.

Moving Deeper: Observing the Observer

There is one other aspect of the philosophical methodology I'm outlining here that needs to be addressed. Inner empiricism can lead to experience and knowledge of a very beautiful, compelling and often extraordinary interior world. This knowledge can also yield rich insights into the nature of the outer world. But beyond that, a persistent application of inner empiricism leads to another, deeper, aspect of self-knowledge. The "instrument" with which the investigator sees is itself conditioned, and changes in the process of observation. In the act of observation, the observer is changed.

When the "see­er" recognizes that he or she is being changed by the very process of seeing inward, the possibilities of inner empiricism shift to another level and a whole new area of investigation opens up. There comes a time, as one persists in the practice of meditation, when even the extraordinary and captivating phenomena of the interior landscape begin to lose their fascination. Instead, attention is drawn to the more encompassing and more powerful mystery of that which is doing the seeing. The question of "who" or "what" is seeing becomes more--much more--interesting and important than the content of what is being seen. At this stage, the science of inner empiricism leads the investigator to the threshold of what may be a spiritual journey.

Experience now moves beyond the capabilities of expression in scientific, or any other, language. It moves beyond the acquisition of knowledge distinct from the knower; it moves beyond theory or explanation, but becomes deeply meaningful as a profound transformation begins to take place at the core of one's being. In Hindu tradition, this is spoken of as the recognition of "purusha", which we may loosely translate as self­spirit, or the god within. A whole new level of inner development and inner struggle begins, perhaps leading to a deeper inner awakening; the meditator knows that the universe is permeated by a great consciousness, purusha, Buddha nature, Logos, God. I'm not aware that there are any limits to this process. The struggles and development can lead to extraordinary heights of Self awareness.

It is entirely inappropriate in an article such as this for me to attempt to say more about where this process might lead. My intention has been to draw attention to inner empiricism as a critical methodology for any true philosophy, and to intimate its limitless possibilities. Specifically, I wanted to suggest that even the initial stages of the process can lead to experience and knowledge of deeper realities. The question of who the see­er is is best left to the committed spiritual (inner­scientific) aspirant to discover for him­ or herself. However, I do want to emphasize that if you are motivated to explore the possibilities of inner empiricism, there comes a point where you realize that you can't access more fundamental levels until that which is seeing itself begins to be transformed. At that point, you realize that what is fundamental is not what you are seeing, but the see­er itself in all its forms. "Tat tvam asi, " the Hindu masters said: "Thou art That."

Inner Empiricism at the University?

Should universities and colleges of higher education establish courses in inner empiricism? The short answer is probably not. Meditation is not the sort of practice that would benefit from official encouragement or sanction. When colleges begin establishing Chairs and professorships in meditation, that would be the time to get concerned. Inner empiricism would not flourish within the strictures of academic bureaucracy. Pressure to get good grades in meditation would thoroughly disrupt and negate the practice. It doesn't need to be part of academic policy, it just needs to be permitted.

A university course in philosophy could point the way to such a path, but it could never be the path. The university can help open students' minds to the existence of the spiritual option, but from there it is up to individuals to find their own way and what works for them. A healthy culture would have special places for spiritual seekers to pursue their inner quest. (Our society already allows for this. There are, however, many cultures where Gurdjieff groups or vipassana meditation, for example, would not be permitted.)

What is missing from our educational system is not so much courses in meditation or inner empiricism but classes in how to think for ourselves and how to balance our whole lives. A university course designed to teach students how to think things through from fundamental principles--combining the psychology of perception with meaningful philosophy--could be added to the curriculum. There are signs that this is beginning to happen in academia--in philosophy, in comparative religion, in divinity studies, in anthropology, and in the humanities. It is possible, for example, to reframe perhaps as much as 90 percent of the world's great literature--from Homer to Shakespeare--as expressions of the spiritual quest for self knowledge. The emphasis on inner experience may even be already happening in the sciences. But wherever it occurs, it evolves through individuals, not through institutionalized mass movements.

Ultimately, though, individual seekers will not make it on their own without guidance and the support of peers. For that reason, it is important for serious and committed seekers to come together, not in the sense of an academic school, but as a spiritual school. The whole point of such a school would be to assist the development of the autonomous observer. Top of the agenda for any spiritual school would be disciplines aimed at developing the observer's instrument for perceiving the reality beyond inner appearances.

Jacob Needleman is professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University. Educated in philosophy at Harvard, Yale and the University of Freiburg, he has also served as Research Associate at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. His books include The New Religions, A Sense of the Cosmos, The Heart of Philosophy, and his latest, Money and the Meaning of Life, published by Doubleday in 1991.

Noetic Sciences Review, Summer 1993, pp. 4-9. Guest editor Christian de Quincey is a California­based writer specializing in science and consciousness.

Dynamics of Brain Processing 
Next: The Homunculus Effect
The Homunculus Effect 
 Return to CogSci index
Previous: Dynamics of Brain Processes
 Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California, Los Angeles