Concepts of consciousness
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: January 25, 2018

section 3
the main concepts in tabular form

N.B. This text is the last in a series of three, and may not be fully understandable without reading first Section 1 and Section 2.

A tabular comparison

This exposition of concepts of consciousness will end with a table listing a number of differences between the physicalist mainstream view, which is based on the ordinary waking state, and the two Indian conceptualizations of consciousness, which are rooted in the living tradition of Indian spirituality.

As indicated in the beginning of this article, there is no consensus in Science on the nature of consciousness, but what I have tried to describe here as the mainstream view is the concept of consciousness that most non-specialists seem to use and that authors within the field tend to differentiate their own views from. Searle is one of the few professional philosophers to support most aspects of this view.

As mentioned earlier, for the Integral Indian View, I am basing myself largely on Sri Aurobindo.

The Pure Consciousness view used to be mainstream in the Indian tradition, though there seems to be a gradual shift towards a more integral position. [ADD FN with the need for research about this] For this view I've used various sources.

The differences between these three may look so great, especially if tabulated together like this, that it seems almost illegitimate to use the same term for all three. But if we look closer, then it becomes immediately clear that everywhere the mainstream science view and the pure consciousness view have opposite subsets of the gamut of consciousness described in the integral view. This gives them a certain simplicity and strength, but it also robs them of the possibility of arriving at a comprehensive and enduring sense of meaning and fulfilment in life.



Three Concepts of Consciousness

on the nature of reality


mainstream physicalism

integral spirituality

exclusive spirituality


consciousness and matter


The ultimate reality is matter.

The ultimate reality is saccidānanda: consciousness and delight are intrinsic to ultimate reality.


Matter is taken for granted. The existence and relevance of consciousness are open to doubt.

Both Matter and Consciousness are equally real and divine.

Consciousness is taken for granted. The existence and relevance of matter are open to doubt.


Matter is primary. Consciousness "emerges" out of unconscious material processes at a certain level of complexity.

Consciousness is primary. Matter and physical energy are the end product of a process of exclusive concentration within the conscious existence of the Divine.

Consciousness is primary and the ultimate cause of everything. The existence of matter and energy is in doubt and widely ascribed to Māyā.


Matter is unconscious (except, perhaps, the human nervous system).

Everything is conscious. The consciousness in inanimate things is the secret cause of their "name and form."

Vedānta: ditto
Sāṁkhya: Matter (as part of prakṛti) is unconscious.1


Thoughts and feelings exist only in our (physical) nervous system.

Thoughts and feelings can have their own existence, independent of any individual human being sensing or expressing them.
Humans "think" and "feel" when they (in their ignorance) identify their consciousness with thoughts and feelings that take place in some gross or subtle physical inner world.


the prevalence of consciousness


Consciousness is the exception in an otherwise unconscious universe.

Consciousness is all-pervasive.

Consciousness is. The universe may or may not be.


Consciousness occurs only in humans or at most in a few other animals and machines.

Consciousness exists not only in individuals, but throughout the cosmos and even in the transcendent beyond.

Table 1. The nature of reality



Three Concepts of Consciousness

on the relation between consciousness and mind


mainstream physicalism

integral spirituality

exclusive spirituality


mind and consciousness


Mind is the wider concept: consciousness is a property of some mental states and processes.

Consciousness is the wider concept: mind is just one form of consciousness.

Vedānta: ditto
Sāṁkhya: Consciousness belongs to the Self; mind (consisting of manas, buddhi and ahaṅkāra) is part of Nature (prakṛti).




Intentionality and the distinction between subject and object are considered defining characteristics of consciousness as such.

Intentionality etc., are considered typical only for the ordinary mental consciousness, but are absent in most other types of consciousness.

Intentionality belongs to the mind. Consciousness has no intentionality; it simply is. (Thinking that consciousness has intentionality is due to the error of mixing up consciousness with its content.)


types of consciousness


There is basically only one type of consciousness: our ordinary, mental awareness of ourselves and our surrounding.

There are many different types of consciousness, both "higher" and "lower" than the ordinary human sense-mind.

Consciousness is pure awareness: no types, no content, no movement.


The few states recognized as different from the ordinary waking consciousness, such as dream, sleep, coma, trance, and altered states, tend to be considered as less than the ordinary waking state.

Other states, of which there are many, are considered different in type; many of them are considered higher than the ordinary mental state in the sense of being more conscious, more beautiful, more true, more loving, more pure, and more powerful.

Only pure consciousness is a true state of being conscious. All other states, including the ordinary waking state, are degraded, lower forms of being conscious.


the subliminal


The physical and mental processes of which we are not aware are classified as preconscious or as unconscious.

The physical, vital, mental, psychic and spiritual processes of which we are normally not aware may be subconscious or superconscious to us, but they are not unconscious in themselves.

Sāṁkhya: All mental processes are by themselves unconscious; they appear conscious when lighted up by consciousness.


Preconscious processes are being explored by cognitive psychology in laboratory experiments. Some dark corners of the unconscious are studied by depth-psychology through free-association, dream-analysis and sometimes hypnosis.

Through the various processes of yoga, one gets access not only to darker and lesser types of consciousness but also to higher forms, and to whole worlds of inner light, power, beauty, knowledge, love and joy, that go way beyond anything one can even imagine in the ordinary waking state.

One strives to arrive at pure consciousness. All intermediate worlds are equally irrelevant as the physical world.

Table 2. Consciousness and mind



Three Concepts of Consciousness

on the relation between consciousness, identity, power and love


mainstream physicalism

integral spirituality

exclusive spirituality


consciousness as the centre of one's identity


One's identity is one's "self-construct"—an assemblage of contents of consciousness.

One's ultimate identity is the (eternal, immutable) Self, which is the very essence of one's consciousness.


Consciousness is located in the individual.

Consciousness is the individual.


When the body loses its ability to maintain sensori-motor contact with its surrounding, e.g. under narcosis or in death, it is said that the person "is losing consciousness". In other words, the mainstream view identifies the person with the body.

In the same situations, it is said that the person "withdraws from the body". In other words, the Integral Indian View identifies the person with the centre of his consciousness, and asserts that it can continue to exist without the body.2

Vedānta: ditto.
Saṁkhya: The language used is the same as in Vedānta, but here it is the subtle body that withdraws and moves from life to life. The self (and its consciousness) never moves or changes.


Consciousness is only individual

There is also a cosmic & a transcendent consciousness




consciousness is one


There are many egos, each with his/her own consciousness.

There is only one ultimate Self, the paramātman, for all.
There is also a distinct, individual Self, the jivātman, which is an eternal portion of the Divine with its own, unique, svadharma and svabhava. (At that level, oneness and multiplicity do not contradict; they are different aspects of the same underlying reality.)

Vedānta: ultimately, there is only one Self. The jivātman merges and effectively disappears into the Divine once ignorance is left behind.
Saṁkhya: There are many Selves. Each self is pure.


The unitary character of consciousness has been acknowledged as the "binding problem", the as yet unanswered question how a mass of parallel neurological processes gives rise to a single conscious experience.

The unitary character of consciousness has been acknowledged as the oneness of the individual consciousness with the consciousness of the Divine (and all other beings).

Vedānta: ditto.


the other as object of psychological enquiry


Behaviourism: If you want to be objective, then "you…must describe the behavior of man in no other terms than those you use in describing the behavior of the ox you slaughter" (Watson, 1930).

Other schools are more respectful (e.g. client-centred therapy, collaborative inquiry).

If one goes deep enough inside, one recognises others as oneself, and one can know them as well as one can know oneself through knowledge by identity (vidyā).


human relationships


Relationships tend to be seen pragmatically in terms of their evolutionary functionality. (Fortunately, as mentioned earlier, there are not that many "full-time" physicalists.)

As we are all part-manifestations of the same Divine consciousness, one can recognize (and love) the Divine equally in oneself, in everyone else and in everything.


the many


We are, undoubtedly and inescapably, many — sometimes collaborating, sometimes competing for survival.

One and many are not contradictory. To live wisely is to do both: to love and feel oneness.3

Ultimately there is only One. On the way, different positions are accepted: some take the many serious; some see the many simply as an illusion. Some consider others a support (the sanga); some consider them a distracting encumbrance. For a few, there are only two: oneself and the Divine.4


awareness and agency


Consciousness is only awareness.

Consciousness is both awareness and force
(Cit is also Cit-Śakti).

Consciousness is only awareness.5


Consciousness is epiphenomenal (not causally active).

The human consciousness is habituated to be enslaved to the workings of the nervous system, but it can liberate itself and then become both free and active.

The human consciousness is habituated to be enslaved to the workings of the nervous system, but it can liberate itself and become free.


delight and love


Emotional states are dependent on brain states and tend to be described in functional terms.

Consciousness is by itself intrinsically blissful. Suffering arises through identification with the ego. Happiness arises out of detachment.6


Selfless, "true" Love is not understandable and whatever can be understood instead tends to be described in utilitarian and pragmatic terms.

Love is simply the dynamic side of Delight, and as such intrinsic to existence and pervasive throughout the universe. In humans, however, it tends to be corrupted by ignorance and other leftovers from our evolutionary past.

In its stress on purity and inaction, love tends to disappear out of sight, though perhaps more in theory than in practice.
In Buddhism, compassion is stressed, related to Love but not the same.

Table 3. Identity, power and love



Three Concepts of Consciousness

and their implications


mainstream physicalism

integral spirituality

exclusive spirituality


the purpose and meaning of life


If consciousness exists only subjectively, then it is only natural to consider related qualities like truth, love, and beauty, as secondary, and worth pursuing mainly for purely pragmatic, commercial or hedonistic purposes.

If consciousness, truth, love, and beauty exist independently, as part of the primary reality, then they are obviously of the greatest value, and most worth pursuing for their own sake.

If consciousness is all, nothing else matters.


If nature is an unconscious machine, evolving through brute laws of chance and survival, then pursuing one's own (or one's group's) fitness, survival (and procreation), even at the cost of others, is the legitimate and most appropriate expression of the laws of nature.

If nature is gradually evolving towards an ever more perfect and complete manifestation of consciousness, truth, love, and beauty, then our individual aspiration for them is the most natural expression of nature's own will.

If consciousness is all, then ascetic withdrawal is the only thing that makes sense.


If our ordinary waking consciousness is the best way of being conscious, then striving for anything higher is a romantic, but ultimately pathological error.

If there are ranges of consciousness far beyond our ordinary state, then pursuing them is the most sensible thing to do.

If pure consciousness is the only thing real, then all other human pursuits are vain.


If our present nature is all there is, then satisfaction of our desires is the only thing we can reasonably strive for.

If growth of consciousness is the overriding aim of life, then every event, "good, bad or indifferent", is an occasion for growth; there are no limits to the intensities of joy, light, love, right action one can develop.

If consciousness is the only thing real, then withdrawing from activity is the best thing to do.


the future


If each centre of consciousness is intrinsically locked up in a separate brain, and entirely dependent on its survival, then people are intrinsically separate from nature and from each other, and doomed to an unending battle for resources.

If consciousness is ultimately one, and quite independent of the body-minds with which individual portions of it temporarily and ignorantly identify, then people are intrinsically and intimately one with each other, one with nature and one with the Divine. Love and cooperation are then the natural outflow of the underlying unity, and Nature's own striving after truth, love and beauty will inevitably prevail in the end.

If consciousness is the only thing real, then striving not to be reborn is the obvious thing to do, whether individually (as in most schools of exclusive Indian spirituality) or collectively (as in Mahayana Buddhism).

Table 4. Implications



To end it may be useful to summarise the main differences between the present mainstream view as presented by Searle and the Integral Indian view as presented by Sri Aurobindo. They are as follows:

  1. The mainstream view is based on the appearance of consciousness in the ordinary waking state.
    The Integral view is based on the spiritual experience of consciousness in which self and world are seen as one with the transcendent Absolute.
  2. As a result the mainstream view identifies consciousness with the small portion of all mental processes of which we are aware in our ordinary waking state.
    The Vedic tradition sees consciousness as a core-element of reality, responsible for "name and form", and it sees our mental consciousness as just one particular type of consciousness.
  3. In the ordinary waking state, matter looks unconscious and spirit superconscious.
    In the Vedic view, our mental consciousness is a middle term, approximately halfway in an extensive hierarchy of different types of conscious existence ranging from spirit to matter.
  4. In the mainstream view, consciousness is an exception, occurring only in the complex nervous systems of mammals and perhaps a few other types of animals. (Some restrict it to humans, and others extend it even to sufficiently complex machines.)
    In the Vedic view, consciousness is pervasive throughout existence: it manifests subjectively as puruṣa (self) and objectively as prakṛti (nature).7 In the ultimate Transcendent it is still there as an integral part of the indivisible unity of sat, chit and ānanda (existence, consciousness and joy).
  5. In the mainstream view, consciousness is a late entrant in the play: it is a (difficult to explain) result emerging from an essentially chance-driven evolution.
    In the Vedic view, consciousness is there from before time; as such it is the main guiding principle behind the slow evolution of increasingly complex biological forms that manifest increasingly emancipated forms of itself.
  6. In the mainstream view, consciousness is basically one-dimensional: there is essentially only one type of consciousness, of which one can have more or less (leading to the states of wakefulness, dream, sleep and coma).
    In the Vedic view there are many different varieties of consciousness, which form together a complex spectrum of different worlds, each representing a different type of relationship between puruṣa and prakṛti.
  7. In the mainstream view, consciousness is centred in the ego and identified with the mind. As such it is intrinsically intentional: it always maintains a difference between subject and object.8
    In the Vedic view, consciousness can be centred in the ego, in the atman, the Brahman or even nowhere at all; as such it can be dual, biune, unitary, or even "empty".
  8. In the mainstream view, consciousness is limited to awareness.
    In the Vedic view, at least the way Sri Aurobindo interprets it, consciousness is also a power: chit is also chit-shakti (or chit-tapas).9
  9. In the mainstream view, consciousness is nothing more than an epiphenomenon caused by physical processes, but without any possibility of affecting the physical world.
    In the Vedic view, consciousness is the essential nature of reality. As long as our consciousness is tied to its physical embodiment, we are, indeed, the puppets of the (seemingly) unconscious processes of nature. However, when we free ourselves from those bonds, we attain the state of a pure witness, and when we take one further step and identify with the cosmic consciousness supporting and inhabiting the manifestation, we can affect events out of a genuine freedom, not from without, but from within.

Or, to put the same points in one last table:

mainstream view

integral indian view


view derived from mind
as experienced in
the ordinary waking state

view derived from cit
as experienced in
a state of cosmic consciousness


consciousness is less than mind:
only a few mental processes are conscious.

consciousness is more than mind:
mind is only one type of consciousness


only the ordinary waking state is fully conscious; matter is unconscious, the spirit ineffable

the ordinary waking state is a middle term in a long range from spirit to matter


an exception

pervasive, in & beyond space


a late arrival

from before time



many types and levels


centred in the ego

centred in the ātman (Self)


only awareness

awareness as well as power:
cit as well as cit-tapas


an epiphenomenon

the essence of self & world

Table 5. Summary

Considering these differences one could get the impression that naming both concepts as "consciousness" is simply a mistake, but looking closer it becomes clear that the mainstream conceptualisation of consciousness simply covers one amongst many forms of consciousness recognised as such in the Vedic view. In the rest of this book I will use the word "consciousness" in the wider, more comprehensive, integral Indian sense unless specifically mentioned otherwise.


Consciousness seems to be as hard to understand for humans as water must be for fish, but given its central role in every aspect of human life, it may be crucial for our collective development if not survival to have a deep and comprehensive understanding of its nature and possibilities. Our concept of consciousness has a direct bearing on our most basic sense of who we are, how we relate to others, our environment and the Divine, on our values and on what we see as the ultimate nature of reality and the aim of life. The concept of consciousness that presently prevails in mainstream science takes it as an epiphenomenon of physical processes in the brain without known purpose or function, and this can only add to an increasing sense of psychological alienation and futility, or to a growing disenchantment with science, not exactly the type of developments society can sensibly look forward to. As long as psychology sticks to this limited view of consciousness, it will have no chance of any major theoretical breakthrough. It will be like what physics would have been, if it had limited itself to the study of rocks, arguing that fluids and gasses (not to speak of electricity and electromagnetism) are not solid enough to be considered legitimate objects of scientific enquiry, or if it would have dispensed with mathematics on the ground that so few can fully master its mysteries. All major problems humanity faces are essentially psychological, and humanity can simply not afford much longer a psychology that is crippled by such a limited understanding of its core subject area. Only if our basic understanding of who we are begins to match the greatness of our descent, we can have a legitimate hope that

[our] tread one day shall change the suffering earth
And justify the light on Nature's face.

—Savitri, p. 344


1.   Though physicalism and Sāṁkhya both hold matter to be unconscious, their positions are radically different. For the Physicalist, matter is all, and consciousness is at best an ephemeral side-effect of chemical processes in the brain. For Sāṁkhya, consciousness is the one thing that "matters". Matter, on the other hand, is something one has to contend with in the early stages of one's inner development but it has to be left behind in the end.

2.   This point of view is of course not limited to integral Indian spirituality. The same expression is used by people with many different religious and spiritual backgrounds.

3.   Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, p. 724.

4.   The sweetest expression of this position is probably Sri Ramakrishna's, who is supposed to have exclaimed: "I don't want to become sugar; I want to eat sugar!"

5.   Though physicalism and the exclusive schools of Indian spirituality both hold consciousness to be inactive, their positions are radically different. As mentioned before, for the Physicalist, matter is all, and consciousness is at best an ephemeral side-effect of chemical processes in the brain, while for virtually all schools of Indian spirituality, consciousness is the one thing that "matters". For adherents to an exclusive form of spirituality, matter is at best something one has to contend with in the early stages of one's inner development: it has to be left behind in the end.

6.   The word detachment can be used for different things. What I mean here is not the same as indifference, which belongs to the same "level" as like and dislike. It is rather a stepping into the peace and delight of the free consciousness of the Divine, from where the world can be seen, enjoyed, and loved, free from egoïc distortions. As such, it is not incompatible with commitment, though this combination is difficult to achieve.

7.   In contrast to the Tāntric literature, in which Śiva and Śaktī imply and include each other, Sāṃkhya takes its division between puruṣa and prakṛti (Self and Nature) as almost absolute: it sees consciousness as the central power of the puruṣa, and nature as empty of consciousness. The idea that matter is void of consciousness is common even amongst Vedāntins, but it goes against many passages in the Vedas and older Upaniṣads, which assert that everything is a manifestation of consciousness.

8.   Searle (2005) acknowledges that there are non-intentional states of consciousness even in the waking state, but in this he seems to be the exception.

9.   There are other schools of Vedānta that limit consciousness to its witness aspect. In Sri Aurobindo's view this is a useful, even necessary device in the earlier stages of sādhanā, but it cannot be the ultimate truth, as the manifestation could not have come into existence unless power was an essential element of the ultimate nature of Brahman.



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