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

section 1

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. 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 has not been about consciousness at all, but only 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, and compared to the Indian tradition, most of this work is still in an early stage of development and surprisingly naive.

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". 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 in a very absolute and serious sense, 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 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, 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 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. And just as the earth-centered understanding of the solar system stood in the way of understanding the physical cosmos, so the human-centered, medical view of consciousness stands in the way of understanding psychology and — I would say — in the way of understanding life and the cosmos itself. Fortunately there is a far 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 error1.

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, so 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 book 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 an 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”, for example, 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" primarily as translation for cit and its derivates. In other words, in the context of Vedantic thought, I will use consciousness for cit, which as ultimate reality transcends, originates and permeates all that is. In the context of Samkhya, I will use it — again in line with Sri Aurobindo — primarily for the pure consciousness of the Self, the puruṣa.

The core of the problem with consciousness is however not a simple problem of language. It is that consciousness is not out there for everybody to see. In some sense it is not part of the objective side of reality at all: it is the subjective half. In us, human beings, consciousness is that in which and 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 that we are aware of takes place, or as the pool in which the Moon is reflected. Though these are catching images that appear at first sight to be right, they do not tell the whole story. There are two riders to it. The first is that consciousness is not only awareness, it is also the source of our identity, and as we will see, even the force that determines how and what we are. 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 it is awareness and it is this which has been captured beautifully in the images of the light and the pool. On the active side there is intent and agency, which in the more comprehensive image of the stage are embodied by the actors and — behind the scenes — by the stage director and the author of the play. The second rider has to do with the fact that we cannot understand consciousness as long as we hold it to be limited to the narrow anthropocentric variety we discussed earlier. We cannot even begin to understand how consciousness works until we accept that consciousness is an essential constituent of the very stuff of existence. We'll come back to both issues in more detail in Part Two and Part Three of this chapter.

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.” One consequence of the deep link between consciousness and identity is, that somewhere deep down, everyone thinks he is an expert on consciousness 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. We have discussed elsewhere how we can construct a three-dimensional "conceptual space" in which these different concepts of consciousness can be located. Here we will have a detailed look at three concepts that stand out: two because they can be considered typical for whole civilizations, or at least for very large sections of thinkers within them, and a third which is their synthesis. I will call them here physicalism, exclusive spirituality, and integral spirituality. 2 Of these three, physicalism and exclusive spirituality see consciousness only as pure awareness, but they are each other's opposite in most other aspects. The integral spiritual view adds the dynamism of consciousness and otherwise attempts to include what it sees as most true and useful in the other two into a higher-level synthesis, without accepting their denial of each other. 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 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" 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 many errors of transpersonal theory which Jorge N. Ferrer quite rightly protests against (2002, p. 87).


1.   One wonderful story which looks at it in this way is the story of Indra and Virochana in the Chandogya Upanishad (8. 7-12) .

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.



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