A New Science of Consciousness?
Mankind is gaining a wholly new understanding of the mind and of reality itself. Intriguingly, these discoveries were intimated in the ancient Upanishads.
BY VARUN KHANNA, INDIA
THE STUDY OF CONSCIOUSNESS HAS BEEN of interest to scientists, philosophers and laypeople alike for millennia. But the struggle to define consciousness has been more perplexing than productive, due to its intangible nature.
How can we describe something that we cannot perceive with our senses? We can know what it is like to perceive, and what it is like to have consciousness, but for thousands of years scientists have failed to pinpoint with any measure of certainty what consciousness actually is. Furthermore, when attempting to study consciousness, the method by which we can study it is elusive. Is it necessarily limited to the philosophical realm? Can there be a hard science of consciousness?
By current empirical scientific standards, it is difficult to study consciousness objectively and holistically because either we do not know enough about the brain or there are seemingly nonphysical components to consciousness that are rendered totally subjective by the scientific method. We can ask: Must the methods employed to study consciousness be borrowed from the natural scientific disciplines, like biology, chemistry or physics, or can it be studied by the psychological or philosophical disciplines, with an independent epistemology and methodology? And do we know that the questions we are asking are valid, or are we missing something altogether?
The very definition of consciousness is a challenge, because different worldviews use similar terms to mean disparate things. Humans may have some common experience of being conscious, but the definition of consciousness and its origin differ, based as they are on divergent philosophies. In the West alone, varying theories regarding consciousness have been proposed by philosophers in the last several centuries—from Descartes (1596-1650) and Spinoza (1632-1677) to Nagel (b. 1937) and Chalmers (b. 1966). Today we have multiple distinct and arguable philosophies of consciousness.
It may be argued that a sufficiently similar definition has allowed us to begin performing meaningful research on consciousness. Yet, the field of consciousness studies clearly enjoys no true consensus. On that ambiguous note, we begin a review of the various contemporary theories, theories which will lead us compellingly into the main subject of our investigation—the Upanishadic approach to consciousness.
It’s not all in your head: Science is finding the mind is more than the brain’s neurons and biochemistry; (inset) artist Alex Grey depicts all-seeing consciousness as a golden Goddess kissing the third eye of a seeker to initiate an inner awakening
When studying consciousness from a Western scientific perspective, there appear to be two general approaches. One is an empirical method, which asks questions of an evidence-based kind, seeking to locate consciousness in a specific region of the brain, or to identify consciousness as a product of brain activity. This approach asks questions like “What parts of the brain are associated with conscious experience?” or “What does brain activity look like in different states of consciousness, like dream sleep and dreamless sleep?” or “When does a conscious experience arise, in relation to the associated neurological change?” Such a third-person objective method of study can reveal physical changes and characteristics in exquisite detail; it is useful in understanding the brain and its relationship to our conscious experiences, but it cannot examine causality between consciousness and changes in the brain, for example, or tell us anything about the fundamental nature of consciousness. Similarly, identifying the seat of “fear” in the brain can tell us nothing about the nature of fear itself.
The other general approach to the study of consciousness in the Western scientific model is a first-person method. This involves self-observation and is psychological in nature. Questions like “How does it feel to see the color blue?” or “What is it like to have a nose?” may be asked through this approach. This method reaches more into the subjective experience of being conscious, but it can at best only reveal qualities of being conscious, such as being happy, sad or curious. It is silent about the nature of consciousness itself. This method is useful in understanding the relationship between various stimuli and their associated feelings, or even the feeling of having various qualities, like joyfulness or tallness, but reaches its limit when we ask, “What is the nature of that which is experiencing these feelings?”
In the Western philosophical world, several theories about the nature and properties of consciousness have arisen over the centuries. For example, the theory called “substance dualism” holds that there are two distinct substances that cannot be reduced to any common existential ground: matter and consciousness. This theory, then, considers consciousness a nonphysical substance. Another theory, “property dualism,” proposes that consciousness evolves as a property of complex physical systems, yet (as in substance dualism) is itself nonphysical. A third methodology, “functionalism,” states that consciousness is just a function of the brain, and is not a separate substance.
The current popular paradigm within the Western scientific world is that of physicalism, which assumes that only the physical world exists, and that consciousness is a product of brain activity, inseparable from the brain. When the brain dies, consciousness ceases. Though this theory is currently in fashion, it is but one of many theories of consciousness that have come in and out of fashion. As Max Velmans observes, “Being out of current fashion does not mean they are entirely wrong.”
Within the world of Indian philosophies, there are even more ways to look at consciousness. According to Advaita Vedanta, a system of non-dualism, the entire perceived world is an “illusion” (maya) and, in fact, only consciousness (chit, chaitanya, jnana) exists; instead of being bodies with a consciousness, we are consciousness itself, inhabiting an illusory body, due to false identification (adhyasa) with the illusory world (samsara).
The experience common to all worldviews is that of being conscious. As Descartes pointed out, one finds it difficult to deny one’s own conscious existence. It follows that the study of consciousness is one of humankind’s most fundamental investigations, a quest confounded by the highly elusive nature of its subject.
Even though consciousness has finally moved to the forefront of 21st-century scientific inquiry, from a philosophical perspective the current methods of inquiry seem incapable of fully encapsulating the object of their study: we are using physical methods to pursue consciousness, and these methods can only reveal physical properties. If, as many believe, there is more to consciousness than electrical impulses and chemical interactions within the brain, then current scientific methods will prove insufficient in revealing the nature of consciousness.”
In the Upanishads
The Upanishads, written thousands of years ago in the Sanskrit language, can serve as new reference texts for this exploration, because the nature of reality, which includes the study of consciousness, is of vital interest to the ancient Indian philosophical texts. The Upanishads assert that consciousness is not limited to the physical realm, but rather pervades the physical realm, just as space pervades any object with a form. If this is the case, then a research method that reveals only physical properties will necessarily fail in this quest.
The Upanishads are the philosophical capstones of the Vedas. Since Veda means “knowledge,” the Upanishads are also traditionally referred to as Vedanta, or the “culmination (anta) of knowledge (veda).” These texts inquire into the nature of truth, consciousness and happiness, boldly questioning the commonly held notion of happiness residing in finite, worldly pleasures.
It is useful to examine a few instances where the Upanishads grapple with consciousness, both implicitly and explicitly. Through these examples we will attempt to show how the Upanishads address consciousness in a broader context, citing its definitions and the means and purposes of knowing it. Before highlighting these teachings, we must understand that the Upanishads, like many ancient texts, are cryptic. Quoting and translating them directly is not always enough to understand the full meaning; we must apply careful reasoning to extract meaning from them.
For that reason, numerous scholars have commented on them over the millennia. We turn for insight to Shankara, one of the most celebrated commentators on the core Vedantic texts. With his help, we explore what the Upanishads teach about consciousness. The interested reader will want to explore beyond this handful of examples.
Sacred knowledge: An illuminated palm-leaf, hand-written in Sanskrit
The Chandogya Upanishad is among the more ancient. Its sixth chapter contains a story about the student Svetaketu and his teacher and father, Uddalaka. Svetaketu returns home from his studies at the gurukula, arrogantly convinced that he knows everything worth knowing. Uddalaka challenges him, “Did you ask about that teaching through which the unheard becomes heard, the unfathomed becomes fathomed, and the unknown becomes known?” Svetaketu, unfamiliar with this instruction, asks his father to reveal it to him. Uddalaka obliges, and commences saying, “In the beginning, all this before you was Existence alone, only One, without a second.”
Saying “Existence” (sat) here, according to Shankara, implies a subtle, all-pervasive thing, which is without distinctions, singular, without parts, and is Consciousness. This word, sat, he states, is known from all the Upanishads. In other words, Existence is the primal substance from which the entire universe, made up of names, forms, qualities, actions, space and time, arises. But that is not to say that Existence is separate from creation, for creation is just Existence qualified by names and forms. Existence must pervade all things that exist, for if it does not, then those things it does not pervade would not exist. It must be without distinctions, for Existence is a binary—there is no range of existence. It can be said to be singular for the same reasons already mentioned, for if there were more than one existence, the question must still be asked, “Do they exist?” If they do, then they are within the realm of a higher, singular Existence.
Uddalaka proceeds to explain that sat, Existence, envisioned itself as becoming many, and it was this vision from which the universe arose. Here, an interesting discussion takes place. The very fact of Existence’s envisioning, according to Shankara, is justification enough to declare that Existence is also Consciousness (in other Upanishads called chit, or jnana). How can this be so? The Upanishads already established that Existence is singular, without a second, and beyond qualification in the beginning. Then how could it perform the action of envisioning? To do so it must be conscious. But being conscious implies a quality of Existence, and Existence has already been stated not to have qualities.
From this it follows, he concludes, that Existence does not have consciousness—it simply is Consciousness. How can it be said that these aspects are one and the same entity? If Existence were separate from Consciousness, then Consciousness, or the ability to envision, would not exist. And if Consciousness were separate from Existence, then Existence would not have the ability to envision. Thus, according to Shankara, Consciousness and Existence must be synonyms for each other.
Another text drives home the identity, the oneness, of Existence, Consciousness and Brahman: the Taittiriya Upanishad, which states, “Brahman is truth, knowledge and infinite.” Shankara sheds some light on this terse statement. He writes:
As for satya, a thing is said to be satya, true, when it does not change the nature that is ascertained to be its own; and a thing is said to be unreal when it changes the nature that is ascertained to be its own. Hence, a mutable thing is unreal… So the phrase satyam Brahma (Brahman is truth) distinguishes Brahman from unreal things.
From this it may follow that (the unchanging) Brahman is the (material) cause (of all subsequent changes); and since a material cause is a substance, it can be an accessory as well, thereby becoming insentient, like earth. Hence it is said that Brahman is jnanam. Jnana means knowledge, consciousness. The word jnana conveys the abstract notion of the verb (jna, to know); and being an attribute of Brahman along with truth and infinitude, it does not indicate the agent of knowing.
To the rishis, the authors of the Upanishads, an “end” or a “theory” was meaningless without a method of attaining it. So how can Consciousness be known? In answer to this question, the Aitareya Upanishad lists the ways in which Consciousness (prajnana), the all-perceiver, can be perceived; that is, the forms in which the effect of Consciousness can be witnessed. Here, the names and attributes of Consciousness are mentioned:
It is this heart (intellect) and this mind... It is sentience, rulership, secular knowledge, presence of mind, retentiveness, sense-perception, fortitude, thinking, genius, mental suffering, memory, ascertainment, resolution, life-activities, hankering, passion and such others. All these, verily, are the names of Consciousness. ...The universe has Consciousness as its eye, and Consciousness is its end. Consciousness is Brahman.
A logical question was first asked: We often mention Consciousness, Existence or Brahman as a final Truth, but how can we actually know it? Any activity related to living, knowledge and emotion is referred to here. Where there is life, there can be seen the effects of Consciousness. Through these effects, Consciousness can be known, for it is the principle that underlies them all. But does this just mean life as we know it? The Upanishad does not stop there. Those creatures that “do not move” are also included under the purview of Consciousness, which indicates that even inert objects are included as effects of Consciousness. The Upanishad goes on to state that the entire universe has Consciousness as its substratum and as its goal. Meditation on these effects of Consciousness brings one to the knowledge of Consciousness itself.
How to Realize Immortality
How else can one achieve the realization of Consciousness? In the Katha Upanishad it is said, “The unintelligent people follow the external desires. They get entangled in the snares of the widespread death. Therefore, the discriminating people, having known what true immortality is in the midst of impermanent things, do not pray for anything here.” Reducing one’s desires for objects of the external world is also a means to this realization.
Finally, King Yama, or Lord Death, tells Naciketas in the Katha Upanishad, “Arise, awake, and learn by approaching the excellent ones.” In the Mundaka Upanishad it is said, “For knowing that Reality, he should go, with sacrificial [twigs] in hand, to a teacher versed in the Vedas and absorbed in Brahman.” Value is placed upon learning directly from a teacher who is already a knower of Brahman, because according to Shankara, no means of knowledge pertaining to worldly things can be a valid means of knowing Brahman, for its scope must necessarily be limited to what can be perceived.
But then, why should one strive to achieve this realization? In Indian philosophical literature, no inquiry takes place without a clear purpose in mind. So what is the purpose of knowing Brahman? The purpose of this inquiry becomes clear at the end of the Aitareya Upanishad, when the text declares, “Consciousness is Brahman.” In fact, nothing other than Consciousness truly exists. What is the practical application of this knowledge for a person? The final section makes it clear:
Through this Self that is Consciousness, he ascended higher up from this world; and, getting all desires fulfilled in that heavenly world, he became immortal. He became immortal.
Immortality is the goal. Immortality is the end. Identification with Consciousness means that one is finally identified with Brahman, with Truth Itself, the unchanging, eternal Reality, and is freed from the suffering of limitation. This immortality, or identification with Brahman, gives rise to fearlessness and bliss. The Kena Upanishad corroborates this attainment:
It (Brahman) is really known when It is known with (i.e. as the Self of) each state of consciousness, because thereby one gets immortality. (Since) through one’s own Self is acquired strength, (therefore) through knowledge is attained immortality.
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad also verifies this ideal: “This (Self-knowledge) is (the means of) immortality,” and also, “I believe that Self alone to be the immortal Brahman… Knowing (It), I am immortal.”
What is consciousness?: The human eye is but one of the pathways of perception being explored by scientists.
What is that person like who sees this Consciousness in all? How does he behave? The Katha Upanishad offers a simple description: “He is akratu, without desires.” Desirelessness is the quality of the man who can see the infinitude of the Self. If he knows himself to be infinite, then nothing can possibly be desired, for he already has and indeed is everything. The Taittiriya Upanishad describes him as fearless: “The enlightened man is not afraid of anything after realizing that Bliss of Brahman, failing to reach which, words turn back along with the mind. Him, indeed, this remorse does not afflict: ‘Why did I not perform good deeds, and why did I perform bad deeds?’”
With all this in mind, the Upanishadic understanding of Consciousness may be summarized as follows: Consciousness is the underlying principle of awareness, the ultimate witness, of all of creation and beyond. It is one with the fundamental Existence of all things, and is one with Brahman, the most subtle substratum of all. It is the Self. The Upanishads do not philosophize about some “other,” but rather expound the Self that is within all of us, available for realization here and now. It is the “I” within all.
How can Consciousness be realized? By meditating upon its effects in the world and knowing them to be nothing but the effects of a higher Consciousness. It is realized through the cessation of desire for finite objects, but also the inculcation of desire for knowledge of that through which everything becomes known. It is realized by finding a teacher of this knowledge who is well versed in the Vedas and established in knowledge of Brahman.
Why should one strive to realize Consciousness? To gain immortality. To befriend infinite bliss. To perceive the ultimate knowledge. To transcend duality. Consciousness, one with Existence, one with Brahman, is the cause of the universe, and to know it implies, according to the Chandogya Upanishad, knowledge of the nature of everything. To know Consciousness is to be free from the sorrow of suffering and to be free from the cycle of birth and rebirth. It is liberation. To know Consciousness, according to the Upanishads, is to be free of the suffering associated with finitude forever by identifying oneself with the infinite, immutable, immortal glory of Brahman.
Varun Khanna grew up in Chicago and studied Neuroscience and Mathematics at Saint Louis University. He studied Sanskrit in depth from many gurus in India, and with their blessings he obtained his MPhil in Sanskrit from Cambridge University, UK, and then completed his PhD in Hinduism (Vedanta) from Cambridge University. He is professor of Sanskrit, Vedanta and Social Justice at the new Chinmaya University in Kochi, India. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For a Consciousness-Based Science
By Deepak Chopra, Menas Kafatos and Rudolph E. Tanzi
The greatest mystery of existence is existence itself. There is the existence of the universe and there is the existence of awareness. Were it not for awareness, even if the universe existed as an external reality, we would not be aware of its existence, so for all practical purposes it would not exist.
Traditional science assumes, for the most part, that an objective, observer-independent reality exists—that the universe, stars, galaxies, sun, moon and earth would still be there if no one was looking. However, modern quantum theory, the most successful of all scientific creations of the human mind, disagrees. The properties of a particle, quantum theory tells us, actually do not exist until an observation takes place. Quantum theory contradicts traditional, Newtonian physics.
Most scientists, although respecting quantum theory, do not follow its implications. The result is a kind of schizophrenia between what scientists believe and what they practice. When we examine the materialistic hypothesis of traditional science, we find it more a metaphysical assumption than a scientific assertion. How can we assert that an observer-independent reality exists if the assertion itself depends on the existence of a conscious observer? This raises an additional dilemma: Who or what is the observer, and where is this observer located?
When scientists in general describe empirical facts and formulate scientific theories, they forget that neither facts nor theories are an insight into the true nature of fundamental reality apart from any observer. According to quantum theory, what we consider to be empirical facts are entirely dependent on observation. The scientific observer in this case is an activity of the universe called Homo sapiens, usually with a Ph.D. in physics, biology, neuroscience or other branches of science. However, many scientists have never really asked the question, “Who am I?”
Many neuroscientists still don’t believe that quantum theory has anything to do with the brain. They would assert that “I,” the conscious observer, is solely an epiphenomenon of the brain—that consciousness is produced by the brain, just as gastric juices are produced by the stomach and bile is produced by the gall bladder. But any neuroscientist worth his or her tenure will admit that there is no satisfactory theory in neuroscience to explain how neurochemistry translates into conscious experience. How do electrochemical phenomena in the brain create the appreciation of the beauty of a red rose, the taste of garlic, the smell of onions, the feeling of love, compassion, joy, insight, intuition, imagination, creativity, free will, or awareness of existence of self and the universe? There is no physicalist theory based on classical physics to explain these subjective experiences. Nor is there any obvious means for coming up with such a theory.
With traditional science in this impasse, it might be time to question some of the basic assumptions about so-called independently existing reality. We must remind ourselves that science is a methodology and not an ontology. Current science is based on a physicalist ontology—the basic belief that reality is physical and mind is an epiphenomenon of matter (the nervous system). Nonetheless we are baffled when asked to explain how matter becomes mind.
We suggest here a fundamental revision in our most cherished scientific assumptions. We boldly suggest that matter, force fields, particles, waves, even the fabric of space and time are not denizens of fundamental reality but that they are perceptual and cognitive experiences in consciousness. This proposal concurs with the theories of most of the great physicists who founded quantum theory almost a hundred years ago.
But we are also going beyond, taking the statements of quantum theory to the next level: All of physical reality is a perceptual experience in consciousness alone. The experience may turn out to be different for different species. What is physical reality to a bat, a honey bee, a nematode, a whale, a dolphin, an eagle, an insect with numerous eyes? There is no fixed physical reality, no single perception of the world, just numerous ways of interpreting worldviews as dictated by one’s nervous system and the specific environment of our planetary existence.
We propose that there is a basic flaw in the current scientific worldview, which assumes that facts emanating from human perception and particularly from observations made with human scientific methods are the only fundamental truth. Furthermore, the subject/object split that is the basic premise of current scientific methods has led to the creation of arguably detrimental technologies including mechanized death, petroleum products in our food, genetically modified foods, global warming, extinction of species, and even the possible extinction of the human species.
Building on the quantum view of the cosmos, which accepts a non-local, entangled reality in which observers are fundamental, we suggest the next natural step—a new science rooted in consciousness. This new science will strive to interpret the entire universe, with all its observers, all modes of observation and all objects observed, as nothing other than consciousness and its manifestations. We believe this is the most reasonable and rational approach; that rejecting it will lead nowhere and force us to accept randomness and lack of purpose as the hallmarks of the universe. Ultimately, such a rejection leads to the conclusion that our own very existence has no meaning. We suggest that perceptual objects experienced in consciousness, including our very brains, are not the source of consciousness. We suggest rigorous testing of this radically different ontology. We feel a holistic science that does not separate observer from that which is observed would lead to the unraveling of the mysteries of the universe which presently seem beyond reach, leading to an understanding of a conscious universe in which all are differentiated activities of a single field that is an undivided wholeness and in some sense bridges external reality with inner being.
“The mind is harder to hunt down than the mythical unicorn, because the hunter and the hunted are
the same.” Chopra & Tanzi
Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, (left) is founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing. He is the author of more than 85 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers, and he is co-author with Rudolph Tanzi of the international bestsellers, Super Brain and Super Genes.
Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D., (center) an internationally acclaimed quantum physicist and cosmologist, is a Professor of Computational Physics at Chapman University, He has authored over 315 articles and is author or editor of 15 books, including The Conscious Universe (Springer) and Looking In, Seeing Out (Theosophical Publishing House).
Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D. (right) is a Professor of Neurology at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital and an internationally acclaimed expert on Alzheimers disease and neurogenetics. He is the author of over 500 articles and the co-author with Deepak Chopra of Super Brain and Super Genes.