Concepts of consciousness
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: May 5, 2019

section 3
the main concepts in tabular form

If you haven't read Sections 1 and 2,
you may like to read those sections first:

Introduction to the tables

In this third section, we will present the three concepts of consciousness we discussed earlier in the form of a series of tables, listing their differences and similarities on a variety of issues.

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 many authors within the field use to differentiate their own views from. It is basically the one medical staff uses in an emergency ward to determine if a patient is conscious or not.

The Pure Consciousness view used to be mainstream in the Indian tradition, but in recent years there seems to be a marked shift towards a more integral position. There are many varieties of it, but I'll limit myself to how it occurs in Advaita Vedānta and Samkhya.

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

The differences between these three views may look so great, especially when tabulated together like this, that it seems almost illegitimate to use the same term for all three. But if we look closer, it becomes 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 understanding of life in all its marvellous complexity.

core characteristics



consciousness as awareness

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

1

Consciousness is awareness of what the physical senses report about the external world and of one's own thoughts, feelings and sensations.

Consciousness is primarily pure, content-free awareness. In us as human beings it can become pure and content-free, but as long as Ignorance lasts, it is an egocentric awareness of our own being and of things and processes in a variety of subtle and physical worlds.

Consciousness is the self-awareness of the Divine. In us as human beings, it can become like the self-awareness of the Divine, but as long as ignorance lasts, it is a more limited, egocentric awareness of our own being and of things and processes in a variety of subtle and physical worlds.



consciousness as the centre of one's identity

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

2

One's identity is one's "self-construct": an assemblage of contents of consciousness related to one's ego.

While Ignorance lasts, one identifies first with the ego and later with the jīvātman. After overcoming the Ignorance, one realises one's identity with the universal paramātman, which is the same for everyone, eternal, immutable and one with Brahman.

While Ignorance lasts, one identifies with the ego. After overcoming the Ignorance, one realises one's identity with the individual jīvātman, as well as with the universal paramātman. Both are eternal, immutable and in their essence one with Brahman. .
(See 19.)

A short note on how jīvātman and paramātman are related to each other can be found here, or here.


consciousness as power

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

3

Consciousness is only awareness.

Consciousness is only awareness.2

Consciousness is both awareness and force (cit is also cit-śakti).

the presence and role of consciousness



the presence of consciousness in the world

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

4

Consciousness is the exception in an otherwise unconscious universe. It occurs only in humans or at most in a few other animals and machines.

Consciousness is primary and its existence is not questioned.
Vedānta: The existence of the universe is dubious as it is seen as a product of māyā.
Sāṁkhya: The universe (prakṛti) also exists (eternally), but it is unconscious (and not very interesting).

Consciousness is all-pervasive. It exists not only in individuals, but throughout the cosmos and even in the transcendent beyond. While it is understandable why the physical world looks unconscious to some and unreal to others, it actually is conscious in its own way.



ultimate reality: consciousness or matter

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

5

The ultimate reality is matter.

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

Same as Exclusive Indian Spirituality.



what is taken for granted and what is in doubt

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

6

Matter is primary and taken for granted. The existence and relevance of consciousness are open to doubt. According to some, consciousness "emerges" out of unconscious material processes at a certain level of complexity.

Consciousness is primary and its existence not doubted.
Vedānta: Ultimately, a divine consciousness is the cause of everything, but matter and energy are in doubt and widely ascribed to Māyā.
Sāṁkhya: Matter and Energy (both part of prakṛti) are eternal and uncreated.

Consciousness is primary and not doubted. Matter and physical energy are the end product of a process of exclusive concentration within the conscious existence of the Divine. Both Matter and Consciousness are real and divine.



consciousness in matter

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

7

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

Vedānta: Everything is conscious. The consciousness in inanimate things is the secret cause of their "name and form."
Sāṁkhya: Matter (as part of prakṛti) is unconscious.4

Same as Vedānta

conceptual issues and secondary characteristics



consciousness and mind

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

8

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

Vedānta: Consciousness (cit) is a fundamental aspect of reality. Mind (manas) is used for a type or plane of consciousness (as in the manomaya kośa of the Taittirīya Upaniṣad) or, more commonly, in the narrower sense of the sense-mind.
Sāṁkhya: Consciousness belongs to the Self (purusha). Mind (consisting of manas, buddhi and ahaṅkāra, sense-mind, intellect and ego-sense) is part of Nature (prakṛti).

Ultimately same as Vedānta, but occasionally using the conceptualisation of Sāṁkhya.



consciousness, happiness and suffering

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

9

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

Consciousness is intrinsically blissful. Suffering arises through identification with the ego. Happiness arises out of detachment.3

Same as Exclusive Indian Spirituality.



consciousness and love

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

10

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

Except for love for the Divine, its stress is on purity and inaction. This tends to push love out of sight, though perhaps more in theory than in practice.
In Buddhism, love's "elderly sister" compassion is encouraged.

Love is 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 ego, ignorance and other leftovers from our evolutionary past.



consciousness, thoughts and feelings

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

11

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

Humans think they think and feel they feel when when (in their ignorance) they identify with thoughts and feelings, which may well have their own existence, independent of any individual human being who hosts or expresses them.

Same as Exclusive Indian Spirituality.



consciousness as power in the human being

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

12

Consciousness is only awareness. In the field of Consciousness Studies one would say, consciousness is epiphenomenal, that is, it is not causally active.

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

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



consciousness and the individual

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

13

Consciousness is located in the individual.

Consciousness is the individual (but see 2 and 19).

Consciousness is the individual (but see 2 and 19).



consciousness and the brain

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

14

Consciousness is dependent on a working nervous system. As such it has to belong to a living human being (or other animal).

Consciousness as such is not dependent on a working nervous system. As long as it is ignorant, the individual, human consciousness identifies with the workings of a nervous system.

Same as Exclusive Indian Spirituality.



types of consciousness

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

15

The ordinary, mental awareness of ourselves and our surrounding is the norm. 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.

Consciousness is pure awareness: no types, no content, no movement. Any intrusion of content is ultimately a sign of ignorance.

There are many different types of consciousness. Some of them are considered lower than our ordinary waking state, some higher in the sense of being more conscious, beautiful, true, loving, pure, and powerful.



intentionality

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

16

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

Intentionality belongs to the mind. Consciousness has no intentionality; it simply is. (The idea that consciousness has intentionality is due to the error of confusing consciousness with the mind.)

Intentionality and the distinction between subject and object are considered typical of the ordinary mental consciousness, but are absent in most other types of consciousness.



the subliminal

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

17

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

One strives to arrive at pure consciousness. The subtle worlds are as irrelevant as the physical world. Sāṁkhya: All mental processes are by themselves unconscious; they appear conscious when lighted up by consciousness.

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. 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, which go far beyond anything one can even imagine in the ordinary waking state.

Numerical issues: none, one and many



Emptiness: the transcendent

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

18

Consciousness is dependent on a working brain; so, consciousness is intrinsically individual.

Besides the individual and the cosmic consciousness, there is also a transcendent consciousness.

Same as Exclusive Indian Spirituality.



one, two and many

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

19

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

It depends on the school. According to Advaita Vedānta there is ultimately only One: once Ignorance is left behind, the jivātman merges and effectively disappears into the Divine. Saṁkhya takes the many seriously; others see the many simply as an illusion. Some consider others a support (the sanga); others consider them a distracting encumbrance. For the bhaktas, there are only two: oneself and the Divine.6

Each individual has a distinct, individual Self, the jivātman, which is an eternal portion of the Divine with its own, unique, svadharma and svabhava.
There is also a single, identical Self for all, the paramātman.
In the end, oneness and multiplicity do not contradict; they are different aspects of the same underlying reality.
To live wisely is both: to love and feel oneness.5



the unitary character of consciousness

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

20

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.

Vedānta: The unitary character of consciousness has been acknowledged as the possibility for the individual to merge back into the Divine.

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



human relationships

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

21

Relationships tend to be seen pragmatically in terms of their evolutionary functionality.
(Fortunately, as mentioned earlier, there are not that many physicalists who are willing to live their theoretical convictions.)

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 (see also 10).

Same as Exclusive Indian Spirituality.



the other as object of psychological enquiry

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

22

Classical 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).

Later 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 (vijñāna).

Same as Exclusive Indian Spirituality.

Consequences and implications



consciousness at the time of death

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

23

When the body loses its ability to maintain sensorimotor contact with its surrounding, e.g. under narcosis or at the time of 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 situation, it is said that the person "withdraws from the body". In other words, the integral spiritual view identifies the person with the centre of his consciousness, and asserts that it can continue to exist without the body.1

Same as Exclusive Indian Spirituality, except for a different conceptualisation of the Self.



the purpose and meaning of life

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

24

If nature is an unconscious machine, evolving through brute laws of chance, then pursuing one's own (or one's group's) desires, survival, fitness and ability to procreate, even at the cost of others, is the most appropriate natural expression of the laws of nature, while qualities like truth, love, and beauty are secondary and worth pursuing at most for pragmatic, commercial or hedonistic purposes.
(But ... reread note at 21.)

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

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 natural expression of nature's own will.



striving for a higher consciousness

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

25

If our ordinary waking consciousness is the best way of being conscious, then striving for anything higher is an error.

If pure consciousness is the only thing real, then withdrawing from activity is the best thing to do and all other human pursuits are vain.

If there are ranges of consciousness beyond our ordinary state, then pursuing them is the most sensible thing to do. All events in one’s life, good, bad or indifferent, are then occasions for growth, and there are no limits to the heights of joy, light, love, power, and right action one can develop.



the future

mainstream physicalism

exclusive spirituality

integral spirituality

26

If each centre of consciousness is intrinsically locked up in a separate brain and 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 the only thing real, then striving not to be reborn is the right thing to do, whether individually (as in most schools of exclusive Indian spirituality) or collectively (as in Mahayana Buddhism).

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.

 

A short summary of the differences between the mainstream physicalist and the integral spiritual concept

Here are the main differences between the present mainstream scientific view as presented for example by Searle and the Vedic, integral spiritual 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 mainstream view which is limited to 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; 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, consciousness is still there as an integral part of the indivisible unity of sat, cit 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; it is the 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: cit is also cit-śakti (or cit-tapas).9
  9. In the mainstream view, consciousness is nothing more than an epiphenomenon "emerging" from 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 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 transcendent and cosmic states of 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 spiritual view

1

view derived from mind as experienced in the ordinary waking state

view derived from cit as known from transcendent and cosmic states of conscious being

2

consciousness less than mind;
only a few mental processes conscious

consciousness more than mind;
mind only one type of consciousness

3

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

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

4

an exception

pervasive, in and beyond space

5

a late arrival

from before time

6

one-dimensional

many types and levels

7

centred in the ego

centred in the ātman (Self)

8

only awareness

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

9

an epiphenomenon

the essence of self and world

Table 27. Mainstream physicalist vs integral spiritual concepts

 

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

Conclusion

It comes naturally to us as human beings to think that the kind of consciousness we happen to have when we are healthy and awake is simply all that consciousness is. This is, however, as useful for psychology, as it was for physics to think that the entire cosmos circled around the little planet on which we humans happen to live.

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, a view that 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 humanity can sensibly look forward to.

From an Indian perspective, modern psychology looks 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 had dispensed with mathematics on the ground that so few can fully master its mysteries.

All these artificial limitations have to be discarded. We have to come to a wider, more realistic and more comprehensive understanding of consciousness, its nature and possibilities. Most, if not all major problems humanity faces at present are essentially psychological, and humanity can no longer afford a psychology that is crippled by its present, far too limited understanding of its core subject area. Only when our basic understanding of who we are begins to match the greatness of our descent, can we 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

Endnotes

1.   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.

2.   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 only thing of true value. 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.

3.   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.

4.   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 only thing that has any value. 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.

5.   Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, p. 724.

6.   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!"

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 essence 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 in existence 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.

 

For Sri Aurobindo's vision of an ongoing evolution of consciousness:

For a one-page overview of the integral concept of consciousness
that I have used in the rest of Infinity in a Drop:

This file: 0-3-1c-consciousness-table.php
Next file: 0-3-2a-evo-present.php