Consciousness- Science and Vedanta
Atul Sinha, Ph.D Scholar at S-Vyasa, Bangalore, INDIA
We experience consciousness everyday, yet if some one asks us to explain consciousness we get tangled up in knots. There is something like it is to smell a rose, to admire a lotus, to taste a chocolate, to fall in love, to feel happy and sad but its not something we can point to or hold in our hands. It is not something we can compute or measure.
Scientists and philosophers have come up with multiple theories and each is bogged down in debate. We are nowhere close to grasping consciousness though it is present immediately in our experience.
The multiplicity of views can be broadly clubbed under physicalism, functionalism, dualism and panpsychism.
Physicalism holds that matter is all there is and the mental state is nothing but a certain configuration of material atoms. The problem with this view is that conceivably computers and robots at a certain level of complexity could be conscious, a possibility not on the horizon.
Functionalism holds that the brain can physically realize mental states. What it cannot explain is why consciousness is required. The brain can very well perform all functions unconsciously.
Since physicalism falls short of explaining consciousness satisfactorily there is a movement towards dualism. Dualists hold that physical and non-physical substances are different.
Panpsychism holds that all aspects of reality have some psychological property. It suggests that the universe has consciousness at its base. However it is hard to imagine that inanimate objects have consciousness. They also have trouble explaining boundaries, that is, my consciousness verses yours.
Away from all this is the holistic view of ancient Indian traditions- Samkhya, Yoga and Vedanta. These explain consciousness as the starting point and differentiate between pure consciousness and a conscious event.
In Part I of this article I will cover three major scientific theories of consciousness.
Higher Order Theory
Global workspace theory
In Part II, I will cover the Quantum theory of consciousness.
Finally in Part III, I will cover the Vedanta view of consciousness.
Higher Order Theory
This theory is attributed to David Rosenthal (1986). He argues that there are two levels of mental state. A higher order state takes a lower order state like a thought or sensation as its object. By virtue of the higher order state the lower order state becomes conscious. Suppose I have pain in the knee. When a higher order mental state focuses on the pain I become aware of it. During the day the pain may not be the object of focus at all points of time. The theory holds that when the pain is not in focus I am not aware of it although the sensation remains intact. The theory differentiates consciousness of thought and that of perception.
Higher Order Thought (HOT) theory states that a mental state is conscious when there is a higher order thought about it. In our example the mental state of pain becomes conscious when there is a higher order thought about it. It is immediate and not inferential. I do not think that I bumped my knee and therefore I must be in pain. Consciousness is a relational property of the mental state of pain in our example. It is not intrinsic to it. We are not normally aware of the higher order thought. To do so we need an even higher order thought to be aware of the higher order thought. This happens only during introspection. Finally there is self-reference within its content. I am aware of my own pain, not someone else’s.
There is another theory called Higher Order Perception Theory (HOP). It is based upon John Locke’s (the 17th century philosopher) Inner Sense theory. He distinguished between two ways of gaining knowledge-perception and reflection. Perception yields knowledge of sensory qualities like color, temperature, hardness etc. Reflection is the perception of the operations of one’s own mind. This he called inner sense. He defined consciousness as the perception of what passes in a man’s own mind. Theorists David Armstrong (1968) and William Lycan (1987) built upon Locke’s idea.
They posit that our mental states become conscious when our inner scanners produce a higher order representation of them. Both HOT and HOP agree that that there is a higher order representation. One says that the representation is conceptual and the other says it is perceptual. However since conceptual discrimination is limited compared to perceptual discrimination it would appear that HOP accounts for the richness of the conscious state better.
While both theories explain the distinction between conscious state and unconscious state, what is consciousness itself or state consciousness remains a mystery.
Global Workspace Theory
This theory was first proposed by the neurobiologist Bernard Baars (1988) and further developed by Stanislus Dehaene, Jean-Pierre Changeux and colleagues (2006). The theory falls into the bucket of functionalism where consciousness is a result of computational activity in the brain.
According to this theory, at any point in time there are 1–4 conscious items in the human brain compared to hundreds of unconscious automisms. With so little conscious activity how do we undertake complex tasks? This is explained by compensatory advantage of consciousness. Due to consciousness a number of different functions can interact. The Observing Self interacts with Sensory Stimuli. Implicit goals determine voluntary outputs and sensory inputs result in learning that gets stored in memory.
The cortical-thalamic system is the anatomical basis of conscious content. Neurologists interpret EEG readings to conclude that the waking and dream states are conscious while the deep sleep state is unconscious.
The brain is a society of bio-computers, which have waves as observed in EEG. Consciousness is defined by Baars as the momentary broadcast of wave medium in the cortical thalamic core. The cortical thalamic system has a network of hubs and highways that facilitate this broadcast.
In essence this is a computational view of consciousness. The architecture of the model can as easily apply to a machine as to protoplasm. It says that at a certain threshold of complexity consciousness results. The second aspect is this again explains consciousness of something rather than consciousness per se.
The Biological Theory
Unlike the Global workspace theory, the biological theory holds that consciousness is some sort of biological state of mind. The theory derives from the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus (460 BC). Place, Smart and Feigl developed the modern version in the 1950s.
The visual area of the brain MT+ interacts with motion in the outside world. Some interactions are weak and do not facilitate any judgment about the related stimuli. This is called nonrepresentational activation. Others are strong enough to be harnessed in the subject’s choice. This is called representational activation. What makes such representational content conscious? Neurologists suggest that active connections between the cortical activations and top of the brain stem constitute a thalamic switch which gives rise to consciousness.
All the three theories discussed above focus on what consciousness does and not what consciousness is. This leads us to a discussion on the hard problem or explanatory gap in consciousness theories.
The Hard Problem
The Australian philosopher David Chalmers (1996) coined the term Hard Problem while referring to science’s inability to explain what philosophers refer to as qualia. Levine (1983) referred to a similar issue as the explanatory gap.
The problems of memory, perception, and behavior are by no means simple to explain but are relatively easy problems compared to the hard problem of explaining qualia. Qualia is a philosopher’s term to indicate the subjective conscious experience- the way it feels to have mental states such as pain, experiencing the color green or smelling a rose. The second problem is that these theories would be valid even if all brain functions were unconscious. The theories would work even if we were all zombies.
The crux of the problem is that the conscious experience is subjective but brain state is objective and we do not understand how a subjective state can emerge from an objective state.
There are two kinds of responses to this problem. One set denies that the problem exists at all while the other and more accepted response is that science does not have a solution.
All the scientific theories discussed focus on what consciousness does and not on what it is. It does not distinguish between a conscious event and consciousness per se. Of the theories discussed here, HOT is cognitive, Global workspace computational and Biological theory electrochemical. Two key questions remain unanswered by all three theories. First is why do we need to be conscious at all. All our functions can well be performed unconsciously. Second the subjective experience of the color green, feeling of happiness and sadness etc. is not explained. A significant number of scientists believe that science has no solution to this problem.
In Part II of this series we will explore the quantum theory of consciousness, which makes some progress in this regard.
1. Ned Block, Comparing Major Theories of Consciousness
2. Higher Order Theories of Consciousness, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 3. Kristian Marlow, What is Consciousness
4. Bernaard Baars, Talk on Global Workspace Dynamics In The Brain, YouTube
Consciousness-Science and Vedanta
Recapping Classical Theories
We covered the Higher Order Theory, Global Workspace Theory and Biological Theory.
The essence of Higher Order Theory is that there are two levels of mental state. When a higher order mental state becomes aware of a lower order mental state, the later becomes conscious. Consciousness thus is a relational property of the lower order state and not intrinsic to it.
The Global Workspace Theory views the brain as a society of bio- computers connected with hubs and highways capable of broadcasting waves across the entire system. Consciousness is defined as a momentary broadcast of wave medium in the cortical thalamic core. The essence of this theory is that consciousness emerges at a complex level of computation.
The Biological Theory states that there is something biological about consciousness. Interaction with the outside world leads to cortical activation, which connects with the brain stem via what is called a thalamic switch. This is consciousness.
We saw that all these theories focus on what consciousness does rather than what it is. Secondly there is this issue of the hard problem. These theories fail to explain why we need consciousness at all. These theories could well work if we were zombies. They fail to explain qualia, that is, the subjective experience of consciousness. Most scientists agree that science does not have a solution to the hard problem.
In Part II of this series we look at the quantum theory of consciousness.
Background to Quantum Theory
Roger Penrose is a British mathematician. His premise is that consciousness does not appear to be computational. While there is a lot of computational activity going on in the brain, somehow it is unconscious. It does not explain the subjective experience. If this premise is correct then there is some other physical basis of non-computational behaviour in the brain. He determined that wave function collapse (explained later) was the prime candidate for a non-computational process.
In quantum mechanics particles are not described by position but by wave function. A particle can be in two states at the same time. This is called superposition. When the quantum system interacts with the classical system, that is, when the particle is observed it collapses into one state. If the collapse is random then no algorithm can predict its outcome. In other words it is non- computational. This is the basis of Penrose’s hypothesis.
Penrose however did not like the random nature of collapse for mathematical reasons. He proposed what he called Objective Reduction. The choice of state is neither random nor algorithmic. He theorised that the state is selected by a non- computational influence embedded in space-time geometry. He claims that such information is platonic and embedded in the universe. It encompasses mathematical truth, ethics and aesthetics.
Consciousness is thus not an emergent property of brain function. It is a fundamental property of the universe that we draw from.
What Penrose lacked was a structural model of how such quantum processing could be implemented in the brain. That’s where Stuart Hameroff comes into the picture. Hameroff is an American anesthesiologist with interest in consciousness.
According to neuroscience, cognition emerges from complex synaptic interactions amongst many neurons. However, even a single cell organism like paramecium performs cognitive functions without synaptic interactions. Therefore, according to Hameroff, something other than synaptic interaction is needed to explain cognition. He studied the cytoskeleton, which provide an internal supportive structure for neurons. Embedded in the neural skeletal system are microtubules. He proposed that microtubules were suitable for quantum processing. The gap between cells is sufficiently small for quantum objects to tunnel through. This allows them to extend across a large area of the brain.
Penrose and Hameroff collaborated to postulate the Orchestrated Objective Reduction Theory of consciousness better known as Orch-OR theory. Penrose’s book Shadows of the Mind (1994) elaborates this theory.
The Orch-OR Theory
As discussed already, computational activity in the brain does not explain subjective experience, which is at the core of consciousness. Therefore there must be a non-computational behavior in the brain. Penrose and Hameroff argue that quantum information reside in microtubules located in the neural skeletal system. The gap between neurons is small enough for the quantum information to tunnel through and thus extend across a large portion of the brain.
In quantum mechanics particles defined as wave functions can be in two places at once. This is called superposition. If observed the particle will collapse into one state.
How can something be in two places at once? The theory is that the underlying reality splits. However, this separation is unstable and something called quantum gravity will ensure reduction to one state.
The theory states that the collapse is neither random nor algorithmic. They say that there are platonic values embedded in the universe, which brings about this reduction. This is the non-computable factor Penrose refers to. This is what they call objective reduction.
The ancient Greek Democritus is invoked to describe platonic values. He had held that nature contains a raw component of consciousness. This developed into a philosophy called panpsychism where everything-animate and inanimate is imbued with this consciousness. Penrose and Hameroff call this proto- consciousness.
The elusive qualia, discussed earlier are thus a fundamental feature of space- time geometry. This is what gives rise to the conscious experience. Simply stated proto consciousness is embedded in the universe. Values like aesthetics and ethics are part of this consciousness. We draw from this universal consciousness when we have the subjective experience. The process involves a quantum reduction brought about by this proto consciousness.
The question arises that if quantum processing is taking place what is the need for classical processing via synaptic interactions. According to Hameroff classical processing is required for unconscious functions and to communicate decisions resulting from quantum processing.
Criticism of Orch-OR Theory
To arrive at the hypothesis that there is a non-computational aspect to consciousness, Penrose used Godel’s mathematical theorem. Many mathematicians have widely criticized different aspects of Penrose’s argument.
To support the theory Hameroff proposed 8 probable assumptions and 20 testable predictions. Neurobiologists have challenged many of these.
Some scientists have rejected this theory on the ground that the brain is too warm, wet and noisy to support quantum processing. However counter observations have found evidence of such processing at normal temperature. Further in 2014, Anirban Bandyopadhyay discovered quantum vibration in microtubules to confirm the Orch-OR hypothesis.
Wider Implication of Orch-OR
Penrose and Hameroff have proposed the plausibility of things, which conventionally fall in the presumably spiritual realm.
They say that when the body dies, the quantum processing stops but the quantum information, which includes memory, is not destroyed. It just leaks out into the universe. Due to, what they call quantum entanglement; the individual integrity of this quantum information is maintained. In near death experiences, when the body is resuscitated, this quantum information returns.
In the case of death this information remains in the universe as a ‘quantum soul’. The follow up conclusion that there could be reincarnation is seen as plausible
They conclude, “Consciousness is a self organizing process at a fundamental level of the universe. We are all really the universe. We are connected.”
The classical theories do not solve the hard problem of consciousness. Orch-OR theory hypothesized that consciousness is not a result of the computational activity of the brain. It says that quantum processing occurs in the brain and consciousness results at the point of quantum collapse or reduction. This reduction is neither random nor algorithmic. Values such as truth, ethics and aesthetics exist in the universe as proto consciousness, which is behind the objective reduction. The quantum model explains qualia, which was unexplained by classical models.
Extending this model, it is plausible that there is a soul and reincarnation. This is the perfect point to segue into Vedanta, which will be the subject of Part III of this series.
1. L. Perlovsky, Review of Orch-OR theory, Science Direct
2. Orchestrated objective reduction, Wikipedia
3. Stuart Hameroff interview, YouTube
4. Conversation with Deepak Chopra and Stuart Hameroff, YouTube
Consciousness-Science and Vedanta
Recap of Classical and Quantum Theories of Consciousness
The classical theorists concerned themselves with understanding what is a conscious experience. The three major theories we looked at are Higher Order Theory, Global Workspace Theory and Biological Theory. They all hold that consciousness is an emergent property of complex brain function. At a certain level of complexity consciousness emerges. What remained unexplained is the subjective experience called qualia. They also could not explain why we need consciousness at all. We could well perform all our functions unconsciously.
The quantum theory posits that although there is a lot of computational activity happening in the brain they are unconscious. There is some other physical basis for non-computational activity that accounts for consciousness. They show that the brain is capable of quantum processing and draws from platonic values embedded in the universe (proto consciousness). This gives rise to consciousness.
In the concluding part of this article we how Vedanta explains consciousness.
Vedanta View of Consciousness
In the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, there is a section referred to as Maitreyi Brahmana (Ch 2, Section 4). In the opening verse we have the sage Yajnavalkya telling his wife Maitreyi that he wishes to renounce this life.
This life refers to the householder’s life he is currently leading. Implied here is that he wants to take up the next higher life. The higher life is one of knowledge (vidya). Sankara’s commentary on vidya and avidya (ignorance) is the very foundation of Vedanta.
When we talk of knowledge we talk of knowledge of something. I know this is a chair. The methodology of science is to gain objective knowledge. This is a chair made of wood, blue in color, of these dimensions. It is knowledge that can be validated. Even if the observer changes the knowledge will remain the same. The same methodology has been used by science to study consciousness. An attempt is made to objectify consciousness and we saw that the results were disappointing.
Vedanta holds that consciousness is what causes you to have the conscious experience and hence it itself cannot become an object of its own study. A driver cannot be run over by the car he himself is driving. Vedanta holds that the tools we use to study objects of the world cannot be used to study consciousness. You cannot take the subject out of the equation and we will see why.
According to Vedanta consciousness is infinite, timeless and all pervading. This means that consciousness is birthless and deathless and indwells everything in the universe, both animate and inanimate.
The question arises as to how I have a sense of me and you have a sense of you when it is the same consciousness that indwells both of us. Here Vedanta says that we have a subtle body (antakarna) consisting of our senses, mind, intellect, ego and memory. This subtle body is a reflecting medium that reflects the indwelling consciousness (chidabhasa).
The subtle body is perishable matter. The reflecting consciousness is what gives it sentience. Ordinarily we cannot distinguish between the body-mind-intellect and consciousness and therefore we say I am this body I am this mind
Now let us look at knowledge. Remember science says knowledge is objective. Vedanta says knowledge is total. That is Knowledge=Subject + Object + Knowing. Let us stay with the example of the chair and break up the process of gaining knowledge of the chair. The steps are:
1.Our senses extend outwards and get entangled with the chair object
2.The chair sends out a vibration (vritti), which the senses convey to the mind.
3.The mind sends out a thought wave in response to the vritti
4.Consciousness illumines the thought wave
5.This illumined thought wave is reflected back to the mind.
6.The mind perceives the chair as a thought illumined by consciousness.
Perception therefore is thought illumined by consciousness. Note that by combining thought and reflected consciousness we have solved the problem of qualia, which was found to have no solution by classical theorists. We have also elegantly endorsed the quantum theorists who had the idea that consciousness exists in the universe as platonic values.
Now let us delve deeper to analyze what is it that we are really experiencing. What the senses pick up is really light reflected from the chair. They do not pick up that which is what the chair is. This vibration is converted into a thought wave by the mind. This thought wave is lit up by consciousness and reflected back to the mind. What we perceive is a thought about the chair.
So we have no way of knowing, that which is what the chair is. What enters the mind is a reflection of the chair. That reflection generates a thought and the thought is what we see once consciousness illumines it. Second point is we do not perceive the reflection of that which is what the chair is, but its properties. So once again let me repeat this for clarity. The properties of the chair vibrate in the mind. The mind converts this vibration into a thought. Consciousness lights up the thought and reflects it back to the mind. The mind sees the thought it generated about the vibration of the properties of the chair.
Now let us see why this knowledge is total. The object thought, that is, the reflecting vritti from the chair, and the subject thought, that is the reflected thought about the vritti are both in the mind. The knower, known and knowing are all in the mind. The reflecting vritti is the known, the reflected thought is knowing and the subtle body with reflected consciousness is the knower. Objective knowledge is a myth.
The question that arises is that everybody sees the same chair. Therefore there is an objective reality about it. How do we explain this obvious fact? Hold the question till we clarify what is that which the chair is, that which you and I are.
Consciousness pervades the universe and everything in the universe is in dwelt by consciousness. Consciousness is existence. Existence expresses itself as a chair and as you and I. In a chair only its existence is expressed while in you and I, existence plus knowledge is expressed. A chair has no self-knowledge that it is a chair, while you and I have self-knowledge that we are this and that.
How do we realize Consciousness
Realization is to distinguish between what is permanent and what is impermanent. The impermanent world is there for us to use to realize the permanent. This is the essence of Vedanta.
In meditation, it is possible to control the mind’s outward tendencies and make it free from vrittis. In the stillness that ensues you can experience Consciousness and distinguish between the impermanent reflecting medium, mind-body-ego and the pure consciousness that is reflected. It is like seeing the moon and knowing that the moon itself is not luminous, it is reflecting the light of the sun. A clear mind is likened to a crystal clear and absolutely still lake that reflects completely the stars and the moon in the stillness of the night. Rumi puts it beautifully when he says:
Let the water settle you will see the moon and stars mirrored in your being
Once you distinguish consciousness from the reflecting medium you know you are Consciousness, the reflecting medium is impermanent.
Now coming back to the question we had parked. How does everybody see the same chair? The answer is that we are Consciousness. Consciousness is part less and infinite and we are that. We are one (Samanyam). As that one consciousness we created the chair. As individual entities (Vishesana) we recreate the same chair we created collectively.
Identifying with the reflecting medium we forget that we are samanyam. But we need vishesana to recognise samanyam. Paradoxically the mind is required to realise that I am not the mind. The impermanent creation is there for us to use to realise that we are not the impermanent body-mind-intellect but the permanent consciousness.
Consciousness and Creation
Creation is a subject by itself. However it will be order to comment on the invocation common to Isavasya and Brhadaranyaka Upanishads as they provide a beautiful indication of consciousness and creation
Om purnam adah, purnam idam Purnat purnam udacyate Purnasya purnam adaye Purnam eavvaisyate
That is infinite, this is infinite; from that infinite this infinite becomes manifest. From that infinite when you take out this infinite what remains is again that infinite
This is infinite: Whatever I can point out to is referred to as this. This refers to the entire universe. This is infinite
That is infinite: When I am pointing out the only thing not pointed out is myself. I cannot point to myself. We saw earlier that I am nothing but pure consciousness. That refers to pure consciousness. That is infinite.
The universe is infinite and consciousness is infinite. But these two statements negate each other since there cannot be two infinites. However the next statement clarifies.
From that infinite came this infinite: From consciousness came the universe. Since plus or minus infinite is infinite, when you take out the infinite universe what remains is infinite consciousness.
The universe is a superimposition on consciousness. It exists only because I am observing it. I am observing it because I have body-mind-intellect. With this equipment I cannot but see the superimposition. The moment I transcend the body-mind-intellect, I am Consciousness and the drama my senses created is over.
The classical theories focus on what consciousness does and not what it is. The Quantum theory goes a step further and says there is consciousness embedded in the universe, from which we draw.
Vedanta holds that consciousness is all there is. The created universe is a superimposition. We are consciousness (Aham Brahma asi). Identifying with our body-mind-intellect we forget that we are consciousness. The essence of Vedanta is to realise that we are really consciousness.
1. Swami Madhavananda, Brhadaranyaka Upanishad
2. Discourses by K Sadananda of Advaita Academy on Maitreyi Brahmana, YouTube