Concepts of consciousness
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: March 2019

section 1

Consciousness is hard to define

The differences between mainstream psychology and the various Indian approaches to psychology center around 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 use the word consciousness. Consciousness is notoriously difficult to define, and dictionaries tend to become self-referential when they try. 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 ] During the last 30 years or so, consciousness has again become a legitimate subject of scientific enquiry, but if one looks a little more closely, it becomes clear that most of this research has not been about consciousness itself, but about its physical correlates, which is what mainstream science knows how to research. It is only in recent years that we see consciousness more frequently described in terms of lived experience, but most of this work is still in an early stage of development and, from an Indian viewpoint, surprisingly naive.

Why physicalist reductionism is not enough

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, nor would we exist for ourselves. Without consciousness not only would there be no point to our individual life, 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". 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 blobs 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.

A common sense approach

While it is difficult (and perhaps impossible) to define consciousness in a fully satisfactory, scientific manner, most people still feel that in some strangely 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 it, you haven’t understood the problem yet; but if you say you don’t know it, that isn't quite true either.” [REF and exact translation]

The reason for the confusion is probably somewhat complex. The first factor is that there is a deep link between our consciousness and our identity. We are our consciousness and so, somewhere deep down, we all feel that we are the expert and that whatever we think about it simply is what it is. And yet, this is only very partially true, for we don't know ourselves well, and in the ordinary waking state, our own consciousness tends to be transparent to us. More or less in the same way that we normally don't "see" the interior of our own eyes, we are aware of the world, but not of our own consciousness itself. To get a sense of what consciousness is in itself, we should empty it of content, and this is actually possible. After all, we can be conscious of something, but we can also consciously be. But to fully enjoy this state, and be aware only of our own being, our mind must stop running around: we need to stop "thinking" and for most people this is not particularly easy.1 The second factor is that we are all different, so if we go inside to find out what our consciousness is, it is but natural that we all come to different conclusions. This too, is actually quite a complex issue and to what extent all of us are the same, or even one, and to what extent we are different we'll discuss later in different contexts.

Three basic concepts of consciousness

To simplify things and get a better understanding of what the different concepts of consciousness are actually about, we will in this chapter have a detailed look at three very basic concepts that stand out: two because they are typical of whole civilizations, or at least of large, representative sections of thinkers within them, and a third which is their synthesis. I will call these three concepts of consciousness physicalism, exclusive spirituality, and integral spirituality.2 Though there are exponents of all possible views in the West as well as in the East, one could say that various forms of physicalism are the mainstay of contemporary science, while in India pure materialism has been extremely rare. The various schools of the Indian tradition tend to locate themselves between the poles of exclusive and integral spirituality. [FN In one of the chapters of the appendix I've discussed how we can construct a three-dimensional concept space in which a larger variety of different concepts of consciousness can be located.]

Of these three concepts, physicalism and exclusive spirituality see consciousness as an entirely passive awareness, but they are each other's opposite in most other aspects. The integral spiritual view holds that consciousness is also active: in its view consciousness is not only awareness but also force. Beyond that, the integral view aims at a higher-level synthesis of what it sees as most true and useful in the other two concepts, without accepting their denial of each other. Integral spirituality is the position this text will champion because it appears 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, strictly speaking, one can only do justice to the Indian concept of integrality from the highest possible point in the Vedic hierarchy of consciousness. The reason for this is that it is only at that highest level that one can really understand, appreciate and integrate all lower forms of consciousness without violating their 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 errors of transpersonal theory which Jorge N. Ferrer quite rightly protests against (2002, p. 87).

So, what then is consciousness?

The first thing to note is that consciousness is not part of the objective side of reality, it is the subjective half. In us, human beings, consciousness is the center 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, as the light within which everything we are aware of takes place, or as the pool in which the Moon is reflected. [REFs to Baars etc] Though these are catching images that appear at first sight to be right, they do not tell the whole story.

The next thing to take into account is that consciousness is not only awareness. As we have already alluded to, consciousness is also the very core of our identity. In a very deep and essential sense, consciousness is simply what we are, and what we are has a passive and an active side to it. On the passive side, consciousness is, indeed, awareness and it is this which has been captured beautifully in the images of the light and the pool. But we are also active, creative creatures. We are not only into being, but we are also into doing things. This is part of the ordinary "common sense" view of our own human existence but in mainstream science there are many who think that consciousness is "epiphenomenal": they hold that consciousness is only awareness and that it can have no influence on anything in the physical world. In the Indian tradition too there are some who think that consciousness is by definition only awareness. There is for example the Samkhya tradition, which in recent years has become more influential because it is the background philosophy of the popular schools of hathayoga and Patanjali's rajayoga. It holds that all action is part of impersonal, universal Nature. . But as we will see later in more detail, one gets a more consistent and comprehensive understanding of reality if one assumes that consciousness is not only awareness but also power. This plays a role not only in the ancient Vedic understanding of the creation of the world [Philips and Exclusive C], but also in psychology where our individual consciousness is then not only the passive witness, but also the sanctioner, and ultimately the initiator of all we do. As Sri Aurobindo says:

Consciousness is not only power of awareness of self and things, it is or has also a dynamic and creative energy. It can determine its own reactions or abstain from reactions; it can not only answer to forces, but create or put out from itself forces. Consciousness is Chit but also Chit Shakti, awareness but also conscious force.
— Sri Aurobindo 1991, p. 234

In the more comprehensive image of the stage, the active side is represented by the actors and — behind the scenes — by the stage director and the author of the play.

The final issue to look at is that we cannot even begin to understand consciousness as long as we hold it to be limited to the peculiar and rather limited variety we humans happen to have. To understand how consciousness works, we have to accept that it is an essential constituent of the very stuff of existence, and that it is not a simple yes/no phenomenon but rather a hierarchy ranging from the apparent lack of consciousness in matter below, to the seemingly superconscient Spirit above.

In defence of panpsychism

To think of a completely unconscious universe is incoherent because 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 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 it, 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, of infinity, of 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 prevailing view which limits consciousness to human brains, some other mammals 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 mainstream, medical view of consciousness presumes that consciousness is dependent on (and limited to) how it occurs in a functioning human brain. And just as the earth-centered understanding of the solar system stood in the way of understanding the physical cosmos, so the human-centered view of consciousness stands in the way of understanding our selves, our human nature, and in fact our very existence. Fortunately there is a more coherent alternative vision of consciousness available in the Vedic tradition, a tradition in which the narrow, physicalist conceptualization of consciousness is considered a beginner's error3.

To conclude this first section

If we take all we have said till now together, we could then formulate the integral concept of consciousness on which Infinity in a drop is based as follows: Consciousness is pervasive throughout the cosmos and beyond, and for each entity, from the smallest subatomic particle to the absolute cosmic and transcendent Divine itself, consciousness is 1) the centre of its identity, 2) the support for its self-awareness, and 3) the ultimate origin of all its qualities and actions.

In the next two sections we will describe and compare the three main concepts of consciousness in some more detail.


1.   We'll discuss how to silence the mind and how to use the silent mind for psychological enquiry first in one of the chapters on cognition, and then in the one on yoga-based research.

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

3.   One wonderful story which looks at the physicalist worldview in this way is narrated in the Chandogya Upanishad (8. 7-12).



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