Metasubjective Cognition Beyond the Brain: Subjective Awareness and the Location of Concepts of Consciousness

by Titus Rivas

Consciousness has irreducible qualitative and subjective aspects that cannot be represented in a physical, purely quantitative system. This implies that an exhaustive conceptual ‘metasubjective’ representation (i.e. a representation of the defining properties of conscious experiences) in the brain as an exclusively physical system is impossible. Similarly, individual memories of conscious experiences must contain information about qualitative and subjective aspects as well, since concepts of consciousness ultimately derive from such information abstracted from episodic memories. Therefore, the stored bases from which such individual memories of conscious experiences are reconstructed must also contain elements that cannot be represented in the brain. Both metasubjective concepts and bases of our individual memories of subjective experiences can only be stored in a personal non-physical memory linked to consciousness. There must be a personal mind or psyche that embraces consciousness, metasubjective concepts and bases of episodical memories of one’s subjective experiences.

I would like to thank Anny Dirven, Jamuna Prasad, B. Shamsukha, Kirti Swaroop Rawat, Hein van Dongen, Marcel Engeringh, René van Delft, Arnold Ziegelaar, John Gregg, Lian Sidorov, Esteban Rivas, Karl Pribram, and Ian Stevenson for their constructive criticisms, support, and inspiration.

1. Introduction
Conscious experiences are often characterised as qualia, i.e. as entities that are irreducibly qualitative and subjective (Beloff, 1962; Popper & Eccles, 1977; Rivas, 2003a). This is relevant for the status of consciousness within the philosophy of mind. In a completely physical universe, consciousness could only exist if our definition of physicality embraced qualitative and subjective dimensions. This is a major problem, as being physical is usually understood as being non-qualitative and non-subjective. In fact, this classical definition goes back to the notions of so-called primary and secondary properties, based on the doctrines of the Greek atomists such as Demokritus and Leucippus and developed by Galileo, Descartes, Boyle, and Locke (1961). Some (so-called “primary”) mathematically measurable properties of the physical world such as size, shape, number and momentum are intrinsical to that world, and other (so-called “secondary”) apparently non-mathematical aspects, such as redness or sweetness, only exist in our subjective perception of it.

The main reason for this basic distinction is that the phenomenal or subjective, qualitative way a physical object is perceived cannot be an inherent physical property of that object itself. For example, although both a congenitally blind person and a person with normal eyesight may in principle have access to the same quantitative information generated by a camera, their understanding of what can be seen subjectively is radically different. In other words, subjectively seeing an object implies more than having physical visual information about that object (Nagel, 1979; Jackendoff, 1987). There is an irreducible conscious visual mode which allows us to have subjective visual experiences, e.g. of what an object’s spatial dimensions and colour look like for a conscious subject. These experiences are not part of the object’s properties themselves but exclusively of our conscious vision.

Not all philosophers accept the validity of the distinction between primary and secondary properties. For instance, Berkeley (1998) claims that all perceived properties exclusively belong to the mind. Improbable as it may seem, this idealistic ontological view is not incoherent (Rivas, 2003a). However, it is incompatible with postulating a real physical world that exists independently of our perception, which is one of the basic assumptions of this paper.

Then, there are also scholars who believe that any type of distinction between appearance and reality is baseless. Anything we perceive would really exist in the world outside. This view makes it impossible to distinguish between illusions or hallucinations and realistic impressions of the physical realm. In contrast, it is almost generally accepted that our subjective normal perception of the physical world is created on the basis of non-subjective neurological processing of physical stimuli. In other words, we do not perceive the physical world outside directly or immediately, but we consciously experience the outcome of neurological perceptual processes, which in turn exclusively use mathematical properties of physical patterns that reach the brain through our senses and nervous pathways. Even if the physical world had non-mathematical characteristics, in normal perception we would never be able to perceive them directly as our sensory perception is always mediated by the nervous system.

All this has had important consequences for our understanding of matter (the “stuff” the physical world is assumed to be made of) and consciousness. It has led to the three main fundamental positions within the philosophy of mind:
- “Both the physical world and the realm of consciousness are real and cannot be reduced to one another” or dualism. (In this literal sense, certain types of emergentism may also be regarded as forms of dualism.)
- “Only the physical world is irreducibly real” or materialism.
- “Only consciousness is irreducibly real” or idealism.

2. The reality of consciousness
Some scholars, such as Dennett (1995), claim that what we understand by a conscious mind is really an abstraction of complex neurological processing in our brain. In other words, there would be no irreducibly real conscious experiences. Others (Rosenthal, 1994) claim that consciousness is really nothing more than the way we experience the brain from the inside. The brain as an objective physical system has no qualitative, subjective dimensions, which thereby would only appear to be objectively real by our ‘first-person perspective’.
In other words, all of these theorists reduce consciousness to a kind of illusion with no ultimate reality or they simply deny the existence of an irreducible consciousness altogether, even in the sense of an irreducibly subjective illusion. All of them concur in their view that consciousness is not a real part of the ‘objective’ world.

Many scholars will not accept the ‘scientific’ reduction of their personal consciousness to something that is ultimately non-conscious or merely illusory. This explains the appeal of a position that does acknowledge the reality of consciousness as more than an illusion even though it also claims that consciousness has no impact on reality or ‘efficacy’ (Jackendoff, 1987; Chalmers, 1996, 2002), a position commonly known as epiphenomenalism. However, this position contains a fatal inner contradiction. If conscious experiences do not have any causal impact upon memory, we cannot possibly have formed a concept of consciousness on the basis of those conscious experiences (Rivas & Van Dongen, 2001, 2003; Rivas, 2003b). In other words, we could not have any valid reason to believe that we are conscious beings, whereas this belief is a prerequisite of the very position of epiphenomenalism. Therefore, if we acknowledge the reality of consciousness, we also have to accept that our conscious experiences have a real impact on the world. In fact, this is also an important argument against the theory that consciousness only exists as an illusion -or identity theory-, since, accordingly, conscious experiences would not be part of the real world and therefore they would not be able to exercise any real influence either (Rivas & Van Dongen, 2003).

In sum, I think that starting from a criterion of coherence, we can only choose between a full-blown acceptance of the reality of conscious experiences and their impact on the world and a total denial of the reality of consciousness (and its causal efficacy). This is only problematic for those who believe that the world simply must be primarily or even exclusively physical in nature, which is really a matter of convention rather than logic.

Some have tried to redefine the physical world so that it may embrace consciousness. A new definition would have to allow for a real consciousness with an equally real impact on the world. As we have seen, the important problem with this approach is that the distinction between mathematical and non-mathematical properties cannot be regarded as arbitrary, as it is a precondition for the distinction between the qualitative, subjective way we perceive a physical object and the object’s reality separate from our phenomenal perception of it. A real physical world with real (rather than just apparent) inherent qualitative and subjective properties would not be a completely physical world anymore as commonly understood (Rivas, 2003a). As mentioned above, one of the main premises of this paper is that there is an irreducible physical reality.

3. Memory

3.1. Concepts of consciousness and the brain
Anyone who acknowledges the reality of consciousness implicitly accepts that our concepts of conscious experiences cannot be empty. They must refer to the diverse qualitative and subjective events we undergo as conscious subjects. Now we may ask in what medium these concepts of consciousness or metasubjective concepts are stored. Presupposing the basic (dualist) assumption of the physical reality of the central nervous system, are metasubjective concepts part of a conceptual memory located in the brain?

Let me first explain the term metasubjective as it is used in this paper. The word simply means ‘about subjective experiences’ or ‘about consciousness’. So there is no link here with other meanings such as ‘transcendent’ or ‘belonging to a social or cultural context larger than one’s own personal experience’. My use of the term is related to the word ‘metacognition’. A possible synonym could be ‘metaphenomenal’.
However, the word ‘phenomenal memory’ is not a good equivalent, as it implies that a memory is subjective rather than metasubjective (i.e. about consciousness). For instance a memory of a physical equation may temporarily be ‘phenomenal’ (consciously recalled), but it is not metasubjective (about consciousness).

To complicate things a bit, I’m aware that in the literature of the philosophy of mind the term phenomenal concept is sometimes used to denote what I call here ‘metasubjective concepts’ (Carruthers, 2004). The term can be found in discussions about the irreducible qualities of consciousness or in debates about physicalism.
As said, I object to the use of the word ‘phenomenal’ in this sense, as taken literally it seems to suggest that metasubjective concepts would always have to be experienced ‘phenomenally’ (i.e. subjectively), just as ‘phenomenal’ experiences are conscious experiences.

3.2. Storage of metasubjective concepts
In any possible physical memory, concepts are necessarily stored as physical, quantitative patterns. The question therefore becomes whether concepts of consciousness can be stored as physical, quantitative patterns.
Adequate, sufficient storage of any concept in a conceptual memory must be such that its activation permits cognitive access to its main conceptual dimensions. For example, if we store a concept of bats as flying mammals that use echolocation, all of these three aspects (flying, mammals, echolocation) must be included in the concept as it is stored.

Our scientific concepts of physical entities can only contain information about physical (so-called primary) properties. This should not be a problem for any physical system of conceptual representation; as such a system is in principle capable of representing any type of physical entity.
The same cannot be said about metasubjective concepts, i.e. concepts of consciousness that also contain representations of non-mathematical properties. In fact, such qualitative and subjective properties (including for example intentionality (Searle, 1983, 1997)) are essential to our understanding of consciousness (Jackendoff, 1987). If we did not have access to these defining conceptual dimensions of our concepts of consciousness, it would be completely impossible to think about consciousness and its manifestations as such.

Can we imagine a physical system that contains exhaustive representations of the defining qualitative and subjective dimensions of consciousness?

Note that we’re not talking here about the presence of consciousness itself in the brain as a physical system, but about the location of exhaustive concepts of consciousness.

To rephrase our question once more: Can exhaustive metasubjective concepts be physical? The answer obviously depends on whether we accept that consciousness possesses non-quantitative aspects or not. As we have already seen above, if we do not, consciousness itself may in principle be regarded as a physical phenomenon. If we do, the non-quantitative aspects of consciousness cannot be exhaustively represented quantitatively. If we could give an exhaustive quantitative description of consciousness, there simply would not be any irreducible non-quantitative aspects to it. This means that if we accept that consciousness has other than purely quantitative aspects, it is impossible to conceive of an exhaustive physical representation of concepts of consciousness in the brain or anywhere else. An exhaustive representation of metasubjective concepts can in principle only be realised in a non-physical medium (Rivas, 1999).

4. Possible objections
Let us take a look at possible objections to my line of reasoning.
Some of these objections were expressed by real opponents, whereas others are only hypothetical.

4.1. Do concepts of consciousness have to be exhaustive?
Some may want to escape from my conclusion by acknowledging that metasubjective concepts cannot be exhaustively represented in the brain, while asserting that we do not need an exhaustive, defining concept of consciousness to be able to use it. We might reconstruct what we mean by diverse metasubjective terms from our immediate subjective experience of the types of consciousness they refer to.
However, we can never conceptually distinguish between the diverse types of consciousness we experience if we have not already formed the concepts beforehand. In other words, we cannot understand what a term refers to if there is no defining conceptual representation in our memory linked to that term. We need exhaustive [in the sense of sufficiently defining (addition 2009)] concepts of consciousness, since otherwise we could not use metasubjective terms in a distinctive way.

4.2. Innate concepts of consciousness
Another escape route that might be proposed is that metasubjective concepts are not formed on the basis of consciousness. Instead, they would be innate elements belonging to the blueprint of the human brain. Thus, the brain does not need to abstract information about consciousness but it already possesses all the relevant metasubjective concepts as part of its basic tools.
However, this does not solve the problem either, as any innate concept of consciousness located in the brain would still have to be completely quantitative and therefore lacking several necessary dimensions.

4.3. Quantifiable dimensions of consciousness
Some might object to my analysis, pointing at the fact that consciousness can indeed often be quantified. For example, subjects in psychological tests are able to rate the intensity of a conscious feeling in quantitative terms.
However, my claim is not that conscious experiences possess no quantifiable dimensions whatsoever, but only that they possess non-quantitative, qualitative and subjective aspects as well.

4.4. Metasubjective concepts and other concepts
Another objection that some might want to raise against my argumentation would be that all concepts as we subjectively experience them can only exist in consciousness. This is not specific for metasubjective concepts. So if we believe that non-metasubjective concepts -for example of specific types of physical objects- can be stored in a physical system, but only experienced subjectively through consciousness, what would be the relevant difference between metasubjective and other concepts?
However, my point is not that metasubjective concepts are different from other concepts because they would have to be experienced subjectively. My point concerns the content of metasubjective concepts. Contrary to other concepts, this content has to include information about the non-physical aspects of consciousness, i.e. information that cannot be represented in a purely quantitative manner. In this crucial respect, metasubjective concepts are very different from other concepts.

4.5. An interactionist alternative to the storage of metasubjective concepts?
A rather sophisticated objection to my analysis runs as follows. There can be no metasubjective information in the brain, but perhaps specific types of consciousness automatically cause specific neuronal changes through some type of psychokinesis. Such changes would not involve information about the specific types of consciousness, but via natural laws of brain-mind interaction the changed cerebral patterns would ‘conjure up’ memories of subjective experiences whenever they’re activated. The laws of interaction would be similar to the ones governing normal perception in which physical patterns lead to conscious impressions. Metasubjective concepts would in turn be directly abstracted from the subjective experiences recalled.

However, the supposed analogy with normal perception is false, because in normal perception the physical patterns certainly do provide specific information about the objects in question reflected in consciousness. Whereas in the supposed case of memory there would be no informational relation to the subjective experiences (as such) recalled. In this respect, the relation would be causal but not informational, as the non-quantitative information about the subjective experiences would not be stored in the hypothetical physical patterns. The information contained in such patterns could exclusively represent the non-subjective, quantitative aspects of the subjective experiences. The subjective, qualitative aspects of the subjective experiences would be solely recollected in consciousness by activation of the hypothetical physical patterns, rather than being represented in the patterns themselves.

By the way, if the supposed physical patterns would merely repeat the (perceptual) physical pattern that caused the conscious experience to be recalled, the hypothetical process would not constitute real memory anymore, as we could not really remember the conscious experience as such. Real memory of a subjective experience presupposes some direct causal relation between the experience (itself) and its recollection, which is absent if the supposed physical memory representation is not caused by the conscious experience but only by its physical precursor. As the subjective experience cannot be represented physically, its non-physical aspects might at best cause a non-informational pattern in the brain.

Secondly, and this is a conclusive argument against the alternative hypothesis, metasubjective concepts must be based on non-quantitative information about subjective experiences, rather than on hypothetical markers in the brain which themselves contain no non-physical information. Information that would only be present in the individual conscious memories of subjective experiences cannot be used for abstraction. As soon as the individual conscious memory of one subjective experience would be replaced by the individual conscious memory of another subjective experience, the information contained in the first conscious memory would immediately be lost. Thus, information from one conscious memory could never be compared with information from another conscious memory, and therefore no metasubjective concept based on such a comparison could ever arise.

The possibility of a mere ‘working memory’ dealing with metasubjective cognition would not count as an alternative for non-physical memory, as such a hypothetical working memory would itself have to be non-physical in order to handle metasubjective concepts!

4.6. Understanding the nature of metasubjective conceptual memory
Some philosophers who read my manuscript complained that if the conceptual representation of consciousness stored in memory is not physical, we could not possibly imagine what metasubjective conceptual memory would ‘look like’. We cannot make any physical model of it, or simulate its representation in a computer. Also, we cannot understand exactly how a non-physical memory should interact with the brain as a physical system. These thinkers hold that we should not postulate any theoretical entities unless we fully grasp their precise nature and interaction with the rest of the world.
However, in the physical sciences some entities are postulated because their existence seems necessary from a theoretical point of view. There is no reason why this should be fundamentally different in the philosophy of mind or theoretical psychology. If the existence of a non-physical metasubjective conceptual memory logically follows from our analysis, we ought not avoid postulating it, even if we do not understand its exact nature or functioning.

4.7. Mathematics is part of the mind
Responding to the manuscript of this essay, Dr. Karl Pribram has stressed that mathematics is part of the mind rather than of the physical world. However, it is not my intention to reduce mathematics to anything physical. Within ontology and the (physical) sciences, the physical world is generally described in mathematical terms, but this does not mean that the mathematical should be regarded as physical. Perceptual subjective experiences usually have quantitative aspects and we even derive the quantitative properties of physical objects from our subjective experiences of them. Thus, the idealist claim that even the apparent primary properties of matter only exist in the mind is rationally tenable.
In other words, there is an important asymmetry in the relation between matter and mathematical properties: anything physical possesses mathematical properties, but not everything with mathematical properties is physical.

5. Memories of conscious experiences
My analysis also applies to the building blocks of our episodical memories of individual conscious experiences. Our metasubjective concepts are based on our conscious experiences that are somehow stored in episodical memory. This can only work, if during the process of storage, information about qualitative and subjective aspects of those conscious experiences is not left out. As we have already seen, qualitative and subjective aspects cannot be exhaustively represented in physical memory.

Note that I’m not claiming that individual memories are always retrieved as complete and unchanging entities. I acknowledge that to a large extent individual memories seem to be continuously reconstructed and that they may change over time. However, what I am claiming is that the ingredients from which individual memories of conscious experiences are recreated must necessarily include representations of the specifically qualitative and subjective dimensions of those experiences.

This is not a mere repetition of my claim that concepts about consciousness must be stored in a non-physical memory. I also claim that metasubjective concepts are abstracted from episodical memories of conscious experiences, and that the building blocks from which those episodical memories are reconstructed must already contain information about the non-quantitative aspects of such experiences. We must be able to recognize the qualitative and subjective aspects of consciousness from our (reconstructed) memories of subjective experiences. Without such recognition, these aspects cannot make any sense to us. For example, without memories of conscious olfactory experiences, we would be unable to form any adequate idea of what it generally means to smell something subjectively.

Glenberg (1997) believes that the classical, sharp distinction between episodic and ‘semantic’ or conceptual memory as two distinct and separate memory systems is untenable. Episodic and semantic memories would all belong to the same system. Be this as it may, metasubjective concepts clearly relate to episodic memories of subjective experiences.

6. Non-physical memory and the psyche
Another question is how the non-physical memory in which conceptual and episodical metasubjective memories must be stored, relates to consciousness. It seems obvious that we only recall our own subjective experiences. This means that there must be a personal psychical or mental memory intimately related to consciousness.
I see this analytical conclusion as a firm basis for a rehabilitation of the psyche or personal non-physical mind, which has to include consciousness, but also metasubjective conceptual memories and building blocks of metasubjective episodical memories (Rivas, 2003a, 2005; Bergson, 1908; Bozzano, 1994; Gauld, 1982; Wade, 1996).

This also has an interesting consequence for fundamental theories about telepathy. F.B. Dilley (1990) has tried to conceptualise telepathy as a form of psychically ‘reading’ another person’s brain, i.e. a subtype of clairvoyance of the physical world. However, this is inconceivable if telepathy involves metasubjective memories or cognition. In that case, telepathy must consist of a direct interaction between two or more psyches (Rivas, 1990).

7. The brain and metasubjective cognition
Many contemporary psychologists believe that psychological theory should always be “neurologically implementable”, which means that their constructs should ultimately correspond to physical events in the brain and accord with its neurological laws.
My analysis shows that this basic assumption must be wrong. Conceptual memories and bases of episodical memories of subjective experiences cannot possibly be exhaustively implemented in the brain as a physical system, and yet their role in cognition is clearly very important. This means that a large part of psychological theory can never be translated into neurological terms. Psychology cannot be reduced to neurology (Rivas, 2003a). All of our metasubjective cognitive processes must be psychogenic and primarily ruled by specific psychological mechanisms.

As the brain can contain no exhaustive concept of consciousness, it can literally have no idea of what it means to be conscious. Therefore, the brain cannot possibly be the primary source of metasubjective cognition. The brain will often follow the mind, i.e. neurology will often follow psychology.

All of this must not only hold for human psychology, but equally for the psychology of individual animals of all other species that possess subjective experiences (Rivas, 2003c).

Regardless of the exact role of the brain in memory processes, it cannot be the location where metasubjective memories are stored. Also, as conceptual and episodical memories about conscious experiences are not located in the brain, brain death certainly does not automatically imply destruction of these memories (Rivas, 1999a, 2000, 2003d; Van Lommel et al., 2001; Parnia et al., 2001; Stevenson, 1987, 1997; Rawat & Rivas, 2005). Storage of metasubjective memory outside the brain during physical life implies that memories can be preserved without a specific physical pattern or ‘substrate’ to account for this. Also, as processes of metasubjective cognition are psychogenic it is a priori conceivable that a psyche continues to function cognitively after brain activity has ceased.

Although the brain may -by some kind of natural laws of interaction- facilitate or obstruct storage and retrieval of metasubjective concepts and bases of the reconstruction of individual metasubjective memories in the mind (Rivas, 1999b), such storage and retrieval cannot be embodied in the brain itself. Thus, despite popular materialist doctrine on this issue (Augustine, 1997; Braude, 2003), no amount of somatogenic impairment of our metasubjective memories can ever make them physical or ultimately dependent on our brains.

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About the author
Titus Rivas, MA (Phil.), Msc (Psych.) (1964) is a graduate of systematic philosophy and theoretical psychology. His main fields of theoretical interest include, in alphabetical order: animal psychology and ethics, axiology, general psychology, metaphysics, and parapsychology. He has published articles about various topics within these and other domains, and books on the philosophy of mind, parapsychological reincarnation and survival research, general parapsychology, and animal liberation.

Correspondence should go to: Titus Rivas, Darrenhof 9, 6533 RT
Nijmegen, The Netherlands,

This interview in JNLRMI, II, 3 is related to my article.

This article was published in 2006 by the Journal of Non-Locality and Remote Mental Interactions, IV (1).