Concepts of Consciousness
part one: Introduction
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: February 21, 2017

This text is still in process
Comments and suggestions welcome!

The differences between mainstream psychology and the various Indian approaches to the subject tend to be related to the different ideas they have about consciousness and its role in the manifestation. So it will be helpful to have a close look at what different people actually mean when they talk about consciousness.

Consciousness is notoriously difficult to define. Dictionaries tend to become self-referential when they try to define consciousness. The New Oxford Dictionary of English, for example, defines consciousness in terms of awareness, awareness in terms of perception and perception again in terms of consciousness. Professional dictionaries hardly fare better: the Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy escapes the problem by simply omitting the term. This ostrich like behaviour is, strangely enough, not an isolated phenomenon: to ignore consciousness has been the general policy of science for much of the 20th century.[REF to Guzeldere] It is said that during the last 30 years or so, consciousness has again become a legitimate subject of scientific and philosophical enquiry, but if one looks a little more closely, it becomes clear that most of this research is not about consciousness at all, but only about its physical correlates, which is what mainstream science knows how to research. [REF to Cambridge resolution]

The inability of science to deal in a meaningful way with consciousness is tragic since consciousness is central to our existence as human beings. So central in fact that it is impossible to describe what human life would be without consciousness, because it would simply not be there. Though some hard-core physicalists continue to trivialize consciousness as a more or less incidental side-effect of the complexity of our brains, it is good to realize that without consciousness we would not be aware of anything: the world would not exist for us, and neither would we exist for ourselves. Without consciousness there would not only be no point to our individual life, but there would be no point to anything. After all, even the most "objective" scientific explanations need to exist in "in the eye of a beholder" to be noticed by anyone. If consciousness would not be there to support them, not only beauty, love, experience, and truth would lose their meaning, but even scientific theories would dissolve into unobserved paper, ink, and fleeting plops of brain-chemistry. There would be nothing that would make any "sense", and it is not clear whether or how anything could exist. There is an Upanishad which expresses it well:

"Matter or object is related to spirit or subject, and the subject or spirit is equally related to the object or matter. If there were no object, there would be no subject, and if there were no subject, there would be no object, for on either side alone nothing could be achieved."
Kaushitaki Upanishad, III, 8.

While to think of a completely unconscious universe is incoherent as without consciousness there would be nobody around to do that thinking, to think of a largely unconscious universe in which conscious beings like us are the exception, is at least logically conceivable, and at present it might well be the majority view in the field of Consciousness Studies, but it is still not very convincing. It is hard to imagine how a huge, unconscious, and thus inherently meaningless, dead machine suddenly, after billions of years, in an almost inconceivably tiny corner of itself, could produce not only consciousness, but embedded in that, truth, love, and beauty – qualities that in spite of our own puny size and life span, never fail to give us a sense of eternity, infinity, connectedness. One of the great strengths of modern science is that it presumes that its laws and constants are universal and unchanging throughout the entire immensity of space and time. It is hard to conceive why comparatively small and unimportant details like most of the known physical laws and constants would be universal, while the fundamentals of truth, love, and beauty would suddenly pop-up ("emerge") out of nowhere in an otherwise chance-driven universe due to nothing more than the complexity of our tiny, fragile, and exceedingly short-lived human brains. Though perhaps not entirely impossible, the view that limits consciousness to human brains (and/or human-made machines) looks suspiciously like the flat earth theory in medieval astronomy: Just as the flat earth view took the little patch of land on which we stand as the centre of the physical universe, so the contemporary mainstream view of consciousness presumes that consciousness is limited to how it occurs in our human brains. This narrow, physicalist conceptualization of consciousness is in the Indian tradition considered a beginner's error,1 and it is somewhat hard to accept that it is still so common, as a far more coherent, meaningful alternative vision of consciousness is available in the Vedic tradition.

In the newly developing field of "Consciousness Studies" there is nothing remotely like a consensus on what consciousness is or does, and it is not for nothing that the subtitle of the Journal of Consciousness Studies is “controversies in science and the humanities”. In the much older Indian tradition there is no consensus either, but the Indian tradition has perfected a remarkably effective way to resolve differences between viewpoints. It presumes that the underlying structure of reality as well as of truth is essentially hierarchical, that the upper ranges of the hierarchy are ineffable, and that human theories can never be more than partial expressions on a lower level of the single but ineffable truth at the summit. This allows one to look at our many different ideas about the divine and his manifestation as a family of ideas in which each member represents some truth; no one can claim to have the one and only truth; and dogmatism and excessive scepticism are equally avoided. It may be clear how wholesome (if not indispensable) such a wide-open approach to truth and reality is for the developing multicultural global civilization, and in this article I will try to show how the Indian conceptualization of truth and reality can help to provide an amazingly beautiful, rich, and comprehensive understanding of consciousness and its role in the world.

When we try to understand ancient Indian approaches to consciousness, there is however the additional problem of translation. If one compares works by different scholars writing in English about the Indian tradition, one encounters an amazing variety (if not plain looseness) in the manner in which Sanskrit terms related to mind and consciousness are translated. The word “consciousness” tends to serve, like its cousin “mind”, as a rather vague catch-all that is used for a staggering number of different words in Sanskrit. Each of these Sanskrit words has, moreover, its own history, meanings and connotations, and as the Indian tradition spans a long period, and consists of many conflicting schools of thought, many terms are used with different meanings at different times by different authors. In line with Sri Aurobindo, I will use "consciousness" mainly as translation for cit, the cit that is there in saccidānanda, which as ultimate reality transcends, originates and permeates all that is. Again in line with Sri Aurobindo, I also use it for the consciousness of the puruṣa. Linguistically and in its Upanishadic origin the puruṣa is the Self as carrier of consciousness, but it is not unusual to see the word puruṣa itself translated as consciousness, especially amongst philosophers with a Sāṁkhya orientation.

The core of the problem with consciousness is, that it is not out there for everybody to see. In some sense it is not part of the objective side of reality at all: it belongs to the subjective half. In physical things it is the power that enables them to retain their form and function. In us, human beings, it is that from where we deal with ourselves and the world around us. In this sense, consciousness has been described as the stage on which the drama of our life is played out, or as the light, within which everything that we are aware of takes place [refs to Baars and traditional sources?]. Though these are catching images that appear at first sight to be right, they do not tell the whole story: Consciousness is not only our awareness, it is also the source of our identity. In a very deep and essential sense, consciousness is simply what we are.

While it is very difficult (and perhaps  impossible) to define consciousness, people still feel that in some strange, implicit way, they actually do know what it is. The Kena Upanishad says it in a rather stark and strikingly post-modern way: “If you say you know, you haven’t understood the problem yet; but if you say you don’t know, then that isn't quite true either.” [REF get exact translation] One consequence of the deep link between consciousness and identity is, that somewhere deep down, everyone thinks he is an expert, and has a right to claim that what he thinks about consciousness is true.

As a result of all this, there are many different concepts of consciousness, but there are three that stand out as they can be considered typical for whole civilizations, or at least for very large sections of thinkers within them. I will call them here physicalism, exclusive spirituality, and integral spirituality.2 Of these three, physicalism and exclusive spirituality are in many ways each other's opposite, while the integral spiritual view attempts to include what it sees as most useful in the other two into a higher-level synthesis, without accepting their denial of each other. Though there are exponents of extreme positions on all three dimensions in all major intellectual traditions, various forms of physicalism are the main stay of contemporary Science, while the various schools of the Indian tradition tend to locate themselves between the poles of exclusive and integral spirituality. Integral spirituality is the position this text will champion because it seems to me to be the only one that does full justice to the marvellous complexity of our human lives and the world in which we live. It is however the most difficult position to formulate intellectually, because one can, strictly speaking, only do justice to the Indian concept of integrality from the highest possible point in the Vedic hierarchy of consciousness, as it is only at that level that one can "integrate" the lower forms of consciousness without violating their own intrinsic value and dignity. If one tries to achieve integrality horizontally or from too low a position in the hierarchy, one is bound to err through one or more of the many errors of transpersonal theory Jorge N. Ferrer quite rightly protests against (2002, p. 87). This is one of the main reasons this text makes such extensive use of Sri Aurobindo's work.

Before we have a closer look at these three complex positions of physicalism, exclusive and integral spirituality, it will be useful to have first a look at the three basic ideas about the nature and the role of consciousness that form the core of these more complex thought-systems.


1.One wonderful story which looks at it in this way is the story of Indra and Virochana in the Chandogya Upanishad.[REF AND LINK]

2. The basic idea of these three major positions is derived from the second and third chapters of The Life Divine, in which Sri Aurobindo differentiates between the “Materialist Denial” and the “Refusal of the Ascetic” and then advocates an older, more integral approach.