The Challenge of the Consciousness Taboo

safety unconsciousOne of the by-products of STEM-only thinking in safety is the taboo of consciousness. You won’t find this challenging issue being discussed anywhere in the industry. How strange, because if there was any one subject that should be of critical importance to this industry it would be about conscious awareness. When the topic of awareness (consciousness) does arise it is predictably about blaming, choice and free will.

Humans may be able to fly to the Moon and manufacture Artificial Intelligence but science know precious little about what comprises consciousness. No one knows why someone can be fully conscious (in awakeness) and yet be completely unaware of critical factors about them. Humans can be fully conscious but be completely lacking in self-awareness. Even when humans are aware of some things they cannot be fully aware of everything about them because of bounded rationality. The limits of human rationality and vulnerability are foundational for human fallibility.

Then again, humans can also be unconscious and asleep but be consciously aware of dreams and sensations. Humans hallucinate when deprived of liquid or when they overheat by only a few degrees, they can immerse into unconscious fantasy with a few milligrams of a psychedelic drug and be completely unaware of reality. What is this thing we call awareness?

Even though there has been some scientific research since the 1990s into consciousness through neuroscience, this has been plagued by the assumptions of cognitivism, behaviorism, rationalism and positivism. Under such assumptions it is presumed that mental and mind equate to the brain. The gestalt of mind-as-computer plagues the safety industry and inhibits any hope of an open discussion about the challenges of consciousness.

As yet there is little if any transdisciplinary research into consciousness, the following is indicative of where research is at:

Consciousness is about the subjective experience of living and its phenomenality. It is a blindness of STEM in the safety industry that it doesn’t engage with either methodologies of Existentialism or Phenomenalism that are required to think about consciousness. Unfortunately, with Safety anchored to STEM materialism, behaviourism and individualism, its not likely that it will venture far down the track in engaging in dialogue about consciousness/awareness. Safety still has no clue about why people are unaware of risk and hazards. So with head deeper in the sand we end up with nonsense like ‘lack of common sense’ or ‘people are stupid’ discourse.

The following serve as a catalogue of conscious experiences that could be of interest to Safety:

· Visual experiences

· Auditory experiences

· Tactile experiences

· Olfactory experiences

· Taste experiences

· Pain/Harm

· Bodily sensations

· Mental imagination

· Conscious thought

· Emotions

· A sense of self

· The nature of perception

· Intuition

· Dreams

· Lucid dreaming

· Fatigue-Arousal

· Psychedelics

· Substance abuse experiences

· Out of body experiences

· Déjà vu

· Spiritual experiences

· Epiphanies

· Suffering

Of course, each one of these experiences cannot be explained in purely materialistic ways, which is why the science industry has avoided its study for so long. Each one of these experiences could warrant decades of dedicated research and we still might not know much more about consciousness.

Perhaps the best attempt by STEM was undertaken by Chalmers (1996) The Conscious Mind, In Search of a Fundamental Theory but it fell well short of coming close to a transdisciplinary approach to consciousness. More recently there have been some Inter-disciplinary (not Transdisciplinary) attempts such as Durt, Fuchs and Tewes (2017) Embodiment, Enaction and Culture, Investigating the Constitution of the Shared World, but as yet we still know so little about human consciousness/awareness.

Meanwhile, the safety industry remains bogged down in simplistic approaches to consciousness with its head firmly shoved in the sand of functionalism. Here are just a few challenging questions which may be of interest to safety.

· What is it to be careful? How is carefulness defined and then enacted? Why do some people care and others not in identical circumstances?

· What is awareness? How is awareness triggered? Why are some people aware and others not in identical circumstances?

· Why are people un-aware? Despite all training and information, why are people unaware of?

· What turns on and off, when one states that one is aware?

· So you claim you are ‘aware’ of something, what does that mean? How do you transfer that ‘awareness’ to someone else?

· On what basis do we assume comprehension, knowledge and experience?

· When we say we are aware of something, does that mean it is the same as another’s awareness?

To venture down an investigation in any of these questions demands quite a philosophical, existential and phenomenological excursion. Meanwhile, in the blind world of ‘safety is a choice you make’ and ‘all accidents are preventable’ no one seems even interested in discussing the mystery of consciousness, or why people do what they do.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

Latest posts by Dr Rob Long (see all)

Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

5 Replies to “The Challenge of the Consciousness Taboo”

  1. You have just outlined an incredibly useful agenda for the next Safety conference, however it is unlikely that they would invite you.

    1. Hi Peter, I’m afraid in the land of blind compliance and no debate I am the devil. Trouble is, nothing changes that way, the fortress remains secure. Also, not sure who could speak on it, very few outside of STEM in the sector in safety and risk. Always happy to chat but never invited in Australia. I know lets get Patrick Hudson again to tell us what we already know.

  2. This article highlights the complexity of consciousnes in decision making and why it it is impossible to ascribe particular behaviours as controls to managing risk or making assumptions that people are in total control of their environment and the decision they make at all times. it highlights again the importance of questions when dealing with uncertainty rather than prescribing answers.

    1. Narelle, good observations. Attribution error is a sport in the safety industry. Amazing how easily people want to ascribe cause under the rubric of ‘safety is a choice you make’. No saying is more offensive than that simplistic aphorism.

  3. A mere attendance at a safety conference organised by any of our peak safety bodies destroys your integrity. I would sooner watch endless box sets of Walker Texas Ranger featuring Chuck Norris (ChOHSP), which has far more credibility.

Do you have any thoughts? Please share them below