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What are the Noetic Sciences?

no•et•ic: From the Greek noēsis / noētikos, meaning inner wisdom, direct knowing, or subjective understanding.

sci•ence: Systems of acquiring knowledge that use observation, experimentation, and replication to describe and explain natural phenomena.

no•et•ic sci•ences: A multidisciplinary field that brings objective scientific tools and techniques together with subjective inner knowing to study the full range of human experiences.

For centuries, philosophers from Plato forward have used the term noetic to refer to experiences that pioneering psychologist William James (1902) described as:

…states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority.

The term noetic sciences was first coined in 1973 when the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) was founded by Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who two years earlier became the sixth man to walk on the moon. Ironically, it was the trip back home that Mitchell recalls most, during which he felt a profound sense of universal connectedness—what he later described as a samadhi experience. In Mitchell’s own words, “The presence of divinity became almost palpable, and I knew that life in the universe was not just an accident based on random processes. . . .The knowledge came to me directly.”

It led him to conclude that reality is more complex, subtle, and mysterious than conventional science had led him to believe. Perhaps a deeper understanding of consciousness (inner space) could lead to a new and expanded understanding of reality in which objective and subjective, outer and inner, are understood as co-equal aspects of the miracle of being. It was this intersection of knowledge systems that led Dr. Mitchell to launch the interdisciplinary field of noetic sciences.

Why Consciousness Matters

con•scious•ness: In our work, personal consciousness is awareness—how an individual perceives and interprets his or her environment, including beliefs, intentions, attitudes, emotions, and all aspects of his or her subjective experience. Collective consciousness is how a group (an institution, a society, a species) perceives and translates the world around them.

con•scious•ness trans•for•ma•tion: A fundamental shift in perspective or worldview that results in an expanded understanding of self and the nature of reality.

world•view: The beliefs, attitudes, perceptions, and assumptions through which we filter our understanding of the world and our place in it.

The essential hypothesis underlying the noetic sciences is simply that consciousness matters. The question is when, how, and why does it matter?

There are several ways we can know the world around us. Science focuses on external observation and is grounded in objective evaluation, measurement, and experimentation. This is useful in increasing objectivity and reducing bias and inaccuracy as we interpret what we observe. But another way of knowing is subjective or internal, including gut feelings, intuition, and hunches—the way you know you love your children, for example, or experiences you have that cannot be explained or proven “rationally” but feel absolutely real. This way of knowing is what we call noetic.

From a purely materialist, mechanistic perspective, all subjective—noetic—experience arises from physical matter, and consciousness is simply a byproduct of brain and body processes. But there is another perspective, suggesting a far more complex relationship between the physical and the nonphysical. The noetic sciences apply a scientific lens to the study of subjective experience and to ways that consciousness may influence the physical world, and the data to date have raised plenty of provocative new questions.

IONS sees noetic science as a growing field of valid inquiry. Every new discovery leads to more questions as the mystery of human consciousness slowly unfolds. In the areas of consciousness and healing, extended human capacities, and worldview transformation, IONS keeps pushing the boundaries of what we know, advancing our shared understanding of consciousness and why it matters in the 21st century.

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