The Quality of Consciousness: Thomas Metzinger's "The Elephant and the Blind"

Tom Clark
Book Title: 
The Elephant and the Blind
Book Author: 
Thomas Metzinger

In a ground-breaking, open access analysis of deep meditative experience, philosopher Thomas Metzinger demonstrates its relevance for the scientific study of consciousness and argues that cultivating our potential for intrinsically valuable conscious states should be a goal of an enlightened culture.


The nature of consciousness presents an intriguing puzzle for those seeking a scientific account of how mind fits into the world. The brain is material, but consciousness – sensations, emotions, thoughts – less obviously so. It isn’t clear why only certain neural goings-on and not others would give rise to the experiential qualities of sight, sound, touch, and thought that constitute your current awareness as you read and react to this text. And those qualities are yours alone, not observationally available to anyone else, unlike your brain.

In his most recent book, philosopher Thomas Metzinger, long engaged in the quest to solve consciousness, proposes that we might get a grip on its essence by researching the simplest kind of experience: the pure, non-dual awareness reported by skilled practitioners of meditation. Having a “minimal model of consciousness” in terms of such experiences could be key to its understanding. To this end, The Elephant and the Blind takes as its primary data hundreds of first-person descriptions of pure awareness episodes gathered in an anonymous online survey, the first of its kind. (The book is open access and has a companion website that links to the survey questionnaire for those wanting to participate.)

Despite the prima facie simplicity of an experience stripped of sensory and emotional contents, the sense of self, and occurrent thoughts, these descriptions nevertheless encompass a diverse set of metaphors aimed at the ineffable, among them “luminous,” “empty,” “pure,” “silent”, “lucid,” “boundless,” and “timeless.” The elephant of the book’s title is the phenomenology of pure awareness – its qualitative character – experientially “touched” from hundreds of individual perspectives, none of which can claim to have captured its entirety. But something fundamental is there:

…there clearly is a distinct phenomenal character of awareness itself, and for now, it does remain the prime candidate for the simplest and subtlest form of conscious experience that human beings are capable of. The elephant does, apparently, exist. (457)

Pure Awareness in Philosophical, Scientific, and Historical Context

Since what Metzinger calls a “minimal phenomenal experience” (MPE), is private, not publicly accessible, the best we can do is categorize descriptions of it to see how they converge. The bulk of the book is therefore a qualitative typology of MPEs, both as stand-alone episodes and as a background experiential mode present in more complex conscious states. The varieties of pure awareness are analyzed in the context of the history and practice of Eastern and Christian contemplative traditions, current philosophy of mind, and recent developments in cognitive neuroscience. Metzinger himself is a life-long meditator, and although his personal experience rarely intrudes, it’s clear he has first-hand acquaintance with the phenomenology in question. Only by taking it seriously, he says, can we get a fresh start in approaching the question of consciousness. In doing so we must put aside our metaphysical, religious, and cultural presuppositions about what the experience of pure awareness reveals, either about consciousness itself or the reality we inhabit. Metzinger sets an admirably explicit standard of intellectual honesty and self-awareness, cautioning against unwarranted assumptions and conclusions, so the book is a gem of good philosophical method. But he has a playful side as well, posing provocative, koan-like questions that will catch you up short, perhaps inducing a bit of cognitive vertigo.

He demurs at the outset that this is not a “scholarly” work, but the depth and breadth of his philosophical, scientific, and historical expertise on consciousness makes this an extraordinarily rich exploration; some sections will be fairly demanding for readers not familiar with the territory. Fortunately, he includes a glossary of terms and concepts that arise in the text. Some of these, original with him, will be new even to professional investigators of consciousness if they’ve not encountered his previous work, in particular his 2013 opus, Being No One. (His 2009 book The Ego Tunnel is a good introduction to his views for non-professionals.) Various “conceptual tools” are introduced in successive chapters and also summarized in the last chapter, an overview of what’s come before. This too is fortunate since the preceding material, as Metzinger advises in the introduction, is perhaps best read selectively and after one reads the introduction and last chapter. The experiential nuances that both distinguish and connect the several dimensions of pure awareness are many, and each gets a very detailed treatment with an abundance of phenomenological subtleties, some of which overlap considerably as the picture emerges. Not all readers will share Metzinger’s sensitivity to the differences he claims to have identified.

The Quality of Pure Awareness

What then is pure awareness? As abstracted from meditators’ reports, the root phenomenology of what he calls “full absorption episodes” is that of bare, alert wakefulness without any perceptual or cognitive content. The qualitative “feel” of such wakefulness is, he suggests, the experiential correlate of a kind of meta-awareness: an awareness of the open, as yet unpopulated space of awareness itself prior to the arrival of any specific content, including that of anyone having the experience. Such awareness thus constitutes what he calls the “zero-person perspective”: at its most basic, consciousness need not involve the sense of being a subject. The felt quality of a minimal phenomenal experience – open, unbounded, centerless, non-dual – is that of instantiating what William James called sciousness: a state of knowing the potential for knowledge but without a knower – what Metzinger calls the epistemic agent – being consciously represented as part of that state. What’s left is “the experience of a clear and unobstructed space of knowing” (460), the felt quality of “epistemic openness” (464).

In its essence, therefore, pure consciousness as a phenomenal (qualitatively experienced) phenomenon is the experiential correlate of a basic epistemic (knowledge-bearing) capacity that he suggests is always active behind the scenes but generally not experienced as such. Most of the time we’re necessarily preoccupied with the cognitive job of maintaining bodily integrity in a complex, risky world, which requires a lot of diverse content be present in consciousness. He speculates (and emphasizes it’s just speculation at this point) that the physical correlate of content-free wakefulness might just be the activation of the ascending reticular activation system (ARAS) in the brain stem. This is the first necessary step in making biological systems like us alert and in a position to process perceptual input, a basic cognitive function. Consciousness is thus closely tied to representation: having a behavior-guiding model of whatever it is we’re trying to anticipate and control, and basic consciousness might be the bare knowledge (awareness) that a neurally instantiated model of being an organism in the world exists, awaiting activation.

Pure Awareness Demystified

Perhaps to some spiritual seekers’ discomfort, Metzinger demystifies non-dual consciousness by placing it within a naturalistic, evidenced-based research program that may eventually pin down the physical and functional basis for phenomenal experience. The religious and metaphysical context of meditative practice going back millennia is accorded all due respect, as are its experiential findings, but pure awareness is, he says, “a fully embodied phenomenon” (459). But why should there be a conscious aspect to cognition, basic or not, in the first place? Why and how does the brain open up an inner “phenomenal state space” (464)? That’s the most troublesome problem for the science of consciousness, so troublesome that some philosophers, committed to physicalism as a metaphysics, argue that there’s really nothing phenomenal (qualitative) to be explained. They see no hope of physicalizing subjective feels, so hypothesize that they are illusory. These so-called illusionists thus part company with Metzinger – a phenomenal realist – at a very basic level. Realists, still the majority of philosophers and scientists, have floated a number of hypotheses connecting the phenomenal to the functional and the physical, but none have yet closed the “explanatory gap,” at least to most researchers’ satisfaction: no theory has gained anything like majority support. Metzinger doesn’t spend much time adjudicating theories of consciousness in this book but gives theorists plenty to chew on, including those exploring predictive processing and active inference explanations, to which he seems partial (476).

Why It Matters

Aside from posing an irresistible puzzle the solution to which would go a long way toward naturalizing the mind, why does the quest for consciousness matter? Conscious experiences themselves matter greatly to us, so understanding why and how they arise promises more control over them. We want to minimize negative states – pain, emotional distress – and maximize those affording us pleasure (of course) but also those associated with exploration, mastery, and insight. Experiences of non-duality, according to the descriptions Metzinger quotes, are largely positive states which can include bliss, equanimity, completeness, and clarity, aspects of “the depth and beauty that can come along with the experience of pure awareness” (455). They also, perhaps, reflect a basic truth about consciousness and our fundamental nature as organisms representing reality: the experienced self looking out at the world in ordinary waking consciousness is not an essence, but a construction within consciousness that can be let go. Metzinger suggests that non-dual experience is closer to the scientific view of ourselves, which finds no such essence, than worldviews which posit a soul or abiding substantial self. It also aligns with a naturalized version of spiritual self-transcendence: the experiential realization, all metaphysical concepts set aside (since no thinking is going on), of being fully embedded in an all-encompassing reality. For these reasons – affective, epistemic, spiritual – the experience of non-dual awareness recommends itself as a state worth cultivating. And indeed, meditation as a secular, non-denominational practice has been growing rapidly in popularity, even as affiliation with organized religion in the West has declined.

Toward a Culture of Consciousness

In a wide-ranging epilogue, Metzinger addresses the cultural significance of conscious experience as each person’s subjective, and inescapable, domain of affective and cognitive possibilities. Many of us may realize only a fraction of our positive experiential potential due to economic and social factors, and the very idea of developing that potential has seldom been proposed as a priority, at least in the cultural mainstream. (Timothy Leary and the psychonauts of the 1960s and 70s never persuaded most regular folk that the intentional pursuit of altered states was legitimate.) Metzinger suggests we embark on the creation of an ethical and rational “culture of consciousness”: identifying and cultivating intrinsically valuable conscious states while protecting each person’s mental autonomy. He understands the challenges such a project faces given rapid advances in psychoactive pharmacology, virtual reality systems, mind-brain interfaces, social media, and other technologies that can be used to capture and control our attention for corporate profit, not necessarily for our own good. The deliberate exploration of our conscious potential also raises difficult legal and regulatory questions about what sorts of experiences, if any, are too dangerous or destabilizing to permit.

An ethical culture of consciousness must, he suggests, confront the problem of animal suffering and the possibility that artificial intelligences too might become capable of it. Here, understanding the basis for consciousness becomes particularly important in determining which animals, and what sorts of non-biological systems, are conscious beings and thus moral subjects whose interests we should respect. In advance of a settled theory of consciousness, the pursuit of general machine intelligence thus risks the creation of artificial, but very real suffering about which we might remain blissfully unaware. For this reason, Metzinger advocates a global moratorium on developing artificial sentience.

On the positive side, he invites us to consider what routes we might take to maximize our conscious potential, including teaching secular meditation in school, the safe use of psychedelics, and developing technology-assisted aids such as neurofeedback. And what might a good conscious death involve? In closing, he calls for a naturalized spirituality in which meditative practice and intellectual honesty, by affording us some personal dignity, can help us cope with the looming existential crisis of climate change, what he describes as a manifest failure of collective responsibility.


Whether or not anything like a culture of consciousness emerges, Metzinger gives us an encyclopedic first cut at describing the experiential essence of advanced meditative practice, its possible basis in our embodied cognitive architecture, the role it might play in understanding consciousness, and its significance for personal and social good. He says, in typically modest fashion, that he’s merely provided an appetizer in advance of the main course, yet to come, on consciousness research and the cultivation of desirable conscious states. Perhaps, but in addition to his careful analysis of non-dual awareness, Metzinger sets an ambitious agenda for exploring and developing our experiential potential within a secular, scientific, and ethically informed framework. For anyone interested in consciousness and its possibilities, whether from a personal, cultural, or theoretical standpoint, this book is a unique and ground-breaking resource.

 - Tom Clark, March, 2024