Concepts of Consciousness
part two: A three-dimensional space for concepts of consciousness
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: February 21, 2017

N.B. This text is the second in a series of four, and may not be fully understandable without reading Part One first.

This text is still in process
Comments and suggestions welcome!

There are three simple ideas about the nature of consciousness that form the core of the three complex thought-systems of physicalism, exclusive spirituality and integral spirituality. They can be used to define a three-dimensional conceptual space in which a wide variety of concepts of consciousness can be placed at well-defined locations. We'll call these three dimensions M) Matter, C) Consciousness, and P) Power.

Fig. 1. A three-dimensional conceptual space for
concepts of consciousness
 

  • The "Matter" dimension indicates to what extent a concept of consciousness is based on the idea that matter is fundamental and real.
  • The "Consciousness" dimension indicates to what extent a concept of consciousness is based on the idea that consciousness is fundamental and real.
  • "The "Power" dimension indicates to what extent a concept of consciousness accepts that consciousness is not only awareness but also power.

For simplicity's sake we limit all numbers to the range from -1 (not there at all) to +1 (fully there), with 0 indicating agnosticism (nothing to say about it). All numbers are ordinal: they only indicate a rank-order, a rather vague and ill-defined "more or less", but definitely not exact quantities. Readers with an allergy for numbers can safely skip the rest of this section and proceed directly to the next section, which is called, “The three main concepts of consciousness”.)

The focus of science on Matter

Within the scientific mainstream there is hardly anyone who denies the primary and independent reality of matter. If this full acceptance of Matter is combined with a denial of the primary, independent reality of consciousness, one gets the strong physicalist position which holds that the physical nervous system "produces" consciousness and as such is essential for its existence. In such a view consciousness is thus limited to individuals with a working brain. This view tends to go together with a one-dimensional concept of consciousness where our ordinary waking state is the summit.

The focus of the Indian civilization on Consciousness

Within the Indian tradition there is hardly anyone who denies the primary and independent reality of consciousness [FN to Charaka]. There are, however, many in the Indian tradition who deny the independent reality of matter: some in the limited sense of holding that matter is ultimately the product of consciousness and as such dependent on it; others in the strong, exclusive sense that matter is simply not real at all. Amongst those who score high on this dimension, there tends to be a hierarchical understanding of consciousness where a completely "pure" transcendent consciousness is considered the highest, and the ordinary body-bound consciousness amongst the lowest. There also tends to be an acceptance of the ontological reality of subtle, nonphysical planes of existence.

Why it matters whether consciousness has power

The Power dimension is perhaps the most intriguing. In both East and West, there is a tendency to see consciousness only as awareness and deny power to it. This, however, robs life of its meaning as it leaves the world — in the language of science — as a causally closed mechanical machine, or — in the language of Indian spirituality — as a fate-driven product of karma and māyā on which the individual can have no real influence. If one accepts the possibility of consciousness independent of matter as well as the reality of consciousness as power, there arises the possibility of genuine agency. Consciousness is the carrier of our sense of identity and — in the Indian systems of thought — it belongs to (or is) the element in us that is potentially eternal (the puruṣa). Accepting that consciousness has power, implies then that even our eternal being may have qualities, intentions and "work to do". This in turn might open up the possibility of our svabhava and svadharma belonging to the soul, rather than to one of the subtle worlds, and with that of a unique, eternal, qualitied, and evolving soul. We'll come back to this in the following section, where we'll give a more detailed description of the world's three main positions regarding consciousness.

A three dimensional grid that is based on the kind of simplified concepts given above, will obviously not do justice to all the subtle differences between the various positions and there is no claim that the often finely nuanced positions of individual authors will all fit exactly under any one of these three labels. Its only purpose is to clarify the basic lay of the land. The only suggestion made is that different theories will score differently on the three dimensions and will find a distinct place somewhere in this three-dimensional space that is defined by three numbers that indicate to what extent the concepts subscribe to the three positions.

The meaning of the endpoints and the centres

Matter = 1 The physical reality is the primary reality
Consciousness = 1 Pure, transcendent consciousness is the primary reality
Power = 1 Consciousness is not only awareness but also a power. (In other words: cit implies cit-śakti or cit-tapas.)

 

Matter = -1 The physical reality has no existence of its own; it exists only as an illusion imposed by māyā on the infinite perfection of brahman.
Consciousness = -1 Consciousness has no existence of its own; it exists only as a subjective illusion created by the chemical reactions in the brain.
Power = -1 Consciousness, as far as it exists, is pure awareness, it is “ephiphenomenal” (can have no effect on the material reality).

 

Matter = 0Nothing to say about material reality.
Consciousness = 0 Nothing to say about pure, transcendent consciousness.
Power = 0 Nothing to say about consciousness as power.

 

Examples of a few commonly held positions

Positions in mainstream science

1, 0.5, 0.25
The modern, common sense position of people without too much spiritual experience: Matter is primary; consciousness is also real, but it is dependent on a well-functioning physical brain. The content of consciousness is largely determined by our physical senses plus brain-based memories and processes. Subjectively, it feels as if we have a free will and agency, but that may be an illusion. If it is real, this might indicate the power of consciousness.  Either way, this power is very limited and has only a small effect on the physical, social and even mental reality we live in.

1, -1, -1
The hardline, exclusive physicalist position of Patricia Churchland[REF]: only matter exists.

1, 0.1, -1
The “epiphenomenal”, physicalist position of Daniel Dennet and John R. Searl[REFs]: consciousness exists, but only just: it exists only in a relative, subjective sense and is dependent on a well-functioning brain; it has no effect on the material world.
Positions in the Indian tradition

-1, 1, -1
The exclusive māyāvādin position: only the spirit exists.

.5, 1, -1
Sāṁkhya: matter exists (as part of prakṛti, Nature), but is less important than consciousness (puruṣa). There is no power aspect to consciousness: the puruṣa is pure awareness; all energy and action belong to unconscious prakṛti.

0, 1, -1
The endpoint or aim in many Indian spiritual traditions (other than the integral). In different conceptions of nirvāṇa and mokṣa, the Matter and Power dimensions can vary from say 0.25 (“seemingly real as long as karma lasts”, or “out of compassion to be regarded as real as long as any sentient being remains unliberated”) to a pure -1 (māyāvādin traditions that have as ideal “not to be reborn”).

.5, .4, 1  
The starting point for Tantra: conscious energy is the main reality and main instrument used for sadhana; the physical world is real, but ultimately subservient to power. While consciousness is seen as primary in theory, in practice it follows physical methods. The endpoint tends to be, as in most of the Indian tradition, (0, 1, 0), as the ultimate aim is still formulated as mokṣa.

1, 1, 1
The fully integral position: the physical and spiritual realities are equally important and real; consciousness is power. Even within the integral position there is a tendency to see consciousness as primary and matter as real but dependent on consciousness (.5, 1, 1).