Thoughts on economics and liberty

What is consciousness? #1

Almost the entire theory of the Vedanta is a derivation based on our consciousness. The basic point is that when we are asleep (jn deep sleep – delta waves, not REM nor dreaming), we retain consciousness at some fundamental level, a sense of unity about ourselves and our existence. Indeed when people go into coma, they often retain consciousness, although it is often very difficult for our instruments to detect its existence.

From this observation is made a deduction in the Upanishads that there is a soul, and that the soul is immortal. (As Rajagopalachari notes, though, much still depends on assumption rather than proof:

No explanation or theory in regard to the ultimate cause of things can be free from diffi­culties or made proof against objections from a mere rationalist point of view. On the assumption, however, of an immortal soul as the basis of personality, it can be claimed that no theory can be formulated more in conformity with known laws of nature than the Hindu doctrine of karma. [Source] )

No doubt the consciousness-soul hypothesis is interesting, but one can't be restricted to theories that are now well over over 2,500 years old. We need to investigate the latest scientific theories on this issue.

When we come to science, though, we note that consciousness is not at all understood. 

"Although consciousness is not a supernatural phenomenon, science has yet to explain it. In this world of high technology, where we seem to have an answer for everything, it seems odd that we don't yet have an answer for what makes us, us." [Source]


"Professor Ashok Sharma, who was a scientist at Harvard University, feels that science fails to understand consciousness as an independent entity. He says, "Science cannot integrate a non-physical entity, like consciousness, into its conceptual framework, and views human personality as a non-conscious physical system." [Source]

I have no misconceptions about the enormous difficulty of the task involved in addressing this issue. In particular, I'm unwilling to make an assumption about the existence of a soul, which Rajaji admits needs to be made in the case of the Vedanta. I need evidence. .

And so this is my first, introductory blog post. Limitations of time mean that I'm going to dip in and out of this topic over the coming months. The point of this post is to commence a scientific investigation of consciousness – through secondary data and critical thinking.

To begin with, this post documents potential sources of information. Your contributions/ suggestions for reading are most welcome – as well as your analytical comments on the topic. I'll keep updating this post over the coming months, and, time permitting, will then summarise the literature in a systematic and critical manner, followed (if time permits) by some preliminary views on this matter.

Articles/books I've read

A "Complex" Theory of Consciousness (Scientific American,  August 18, 2009)

This article is a summary of Giulio Tononi's integrated information theory (IIT) of consciousness. It is based on certain mathematical principles that are quite promising, but empirically has no clear basis, at least yet. [A detailed PDF paper on Tononi's theory is available here. His book is linked here.]

Articles/books I've not yet read

Consciousness: The Black Hole of Neuroscience Nov 6 2011

Does quantum theory explain consciousness? Ian O'Neill, Discovery News, 26 May 2011

Note that some of this material might be "crackpot" level stuff. So beware, if you wish to read it! Keep your cerebrum stuck firmly on your head.

How to Study Consciousness Scientifically by John R. Searle, Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, Vol. 353, No. 1377.

Consciously Thinking about Consciousness by Myron Tribus, Journal of Science Education and Technology, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Sep., 2004), pp. 343-351

A Theory of Consciousness  by E. Roy John, Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 12, No. 6 (Dec., 2003), pp. 244-250

Investigating the Biology of Consciousness  by Antonio R. Damasio, Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, by Gerald M. Edelman, Giulio Tononi

Coverage in the New Scientist (this link doesn't go to the full article)

A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness by Bernard J. Baars

An integral theory of consciousness by Ken Wilber

An epistemological theory of consciousness? by Pete Mandik, Department of Philosophy William Paterson University of New Jersey.

A Dualistic Theory of Consciousness by Dr. phil. Peter Flury-Kleubler

Wikipedia entry on consciousness.

Journal of Consciousness studies. This journal is focused entirely on the study of consciousness, and a large number of articles are available online in full text. It was previously edited by Joseph Goguen. It has been co-edited by the philosopher of mysticism, Robert K.C. Forman. Articles published include: James Newman (1997) Putting the Puzzle Together, Part I: Towards a General Theory of the Neural Correlates of Consciousness. in Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4 1, pp47-66. [Abstract here]

Notes and Suggestions towards A Theory of Consciousness

The shrinking brain of mankind

The apparatus of our consciousness seems to be evolving.

If Modern Humans Are So Smart, Why Are Our Brains Shrinking? Discover magazine, September 2010.

Is a scientific definition of consciousness possible?

Sanjeev Sabhlok

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7 thoughts on “What is consciousness? #1
  1. ramesh

    Dear Sabhlok,
    A thought on Consciousness! For the first time it seems you have hit the nail squarely in relation to your contribution to the society you live in. Veda/Vedanta is the first to contribute in this field and is also the last to develop the technology based on these principles for human welfare viz. the societal structure as described in history (!) of Bharatvarsha. They were failure for entirely different reasons.
    Indeed ‘consciousness’ is non-physical entity which is just sort of an impression [may be called as ‘Life’ itself] of the complex organic structure (Human being with his brain).
    The basic entities like mass, space, time etc are just impressions of the ‘Human consciousness. Such entities do not come to science from something absolute-may be noted. These are relative, subjective and dependent on the consciousness of the Human beings who himself defined these. How is that these entities, say modern science and technology, will decide the nature of the ‘consciousness’ in turn? If ever it happens it will only contradict the Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and hence absolutely impossible (proof below)
    In other terms,
    Understanding consciousness in terms of numerical digits, mass, time and space etc can only mean generating the feeling of love, misery, happiness etc in the atoms, molecules!! Which again simply means understanding numerical digits, mass, time and space etc in terms of the same numerical digits, mass (m), time (t) and space (d) etc independent of human consciousness i.e. no question of deciding the actual nature of m, t, d etc. Also it means in deep sleep becoming aware of the same by the same person at the same time which is just absurd and meaningless project which you call as ‘Evolving Subject’ and have hopes in coming days. Critical thinking has dead here!
    Vedanta Principle is simple: m, t, d (universe) exists as long as the impressions-consciousness (Mithya Maya) of m, t, d (here human brain) exit (Dvaita). Here there is nobody who can decide the nature of m, t, d apart from the same m, t, d (Advaita).  Please read this sentence again and again till you understand it. Do you need now any assumptions about ‘Atman’ here? Question doesn’t arise instead it becomes self-evident.
    Here Rajgopalachari evidently failed to understand the ‘Vedant’, the way you quote him with regard to ‘soul’ assumptions.
    Thus the truth of the ‘Consciousness’ dawns upon the ‘Wise’ alone it cannot be caught by the robotic ‘modern intelligent’ human beings in principle.
    By the time science reveals it (the impossible thing) society would have gone the awry and his consciousness (since conscience cannot be proved scientifically) would have become of the level of the animals who also live in freedom and liberty with equal rights and what’s more they will destroy each other (at least emotionally)! Damn this wisdom!

  2. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Ramesh

    Thanks for this. I’m still investigating issues, and just by making assertions I don’t get convinced. My standards of proof are far higher. Mere assertions about this or that are interesting but not enough for me. And to suggest that the society would go awry just because some information about consciousness is not widely known, is an assertion I can’t agree with either. So please bear with me.

    To me you sound to me like a “believer”. That’s simply not enough. I’m a questioner. Let me go at my own pace and investigate the issues systematically. Currently there are many plausible counter-theories to the Vedantic ones. Let’s not close the discussion without investigation.


  3. ramesh

    Dear Sabhlok,
     1. Is it a belief to talk in terms of mass, time and space? If so science itself will be a belief.Are your standards of proof higher than the science (m,t,d) itself? If not, is not it logical to put up your question forward than call it an assertion. If you are still studying, thing is different.
    2. Understanding the consciousness will ultimately lead to truth. After the truth is found all the secondary issues like freedom, morals, nations, conscience, present social and political issues will be solved unanimously at least some extent. Otherwise there is no end to the discussions both ways (+ and -) on every issues as is going on innumerable blogs on net and in field. Hence there is every possibility of society going awry sooner or later in some form or the other. [e.g. the way of tackling the corruption in India]. Are not we witnessing it today? Will not such and still serious issues continue popping up in future wringing the society itself?
    Then why is it an assertion? I sound your arguments as assertions. Thus if we both say the same thing 'assertions' it is further evidence of the society going awry at least it is indication of the same. Can you justify it and not assert?
    You say you are still studying. Justified. But if you say it as assertions without putting your questions then you are hardly any different from the one who simply asserts

  4. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Ramesh

    By assertions I mean statements like: “The basic entities like mass, space, time etc are just impressions of the ‘Human consciousness.”

    This statement asserts this without any proof. It implies that mass, space, time etc wont’ exist without human consciousness. Well, you are probably aware that human beings are only 100,000 years old while mass, space, and time have existed for over 12 billion years at the least.

    I find your approach not scientific and therefore more in the category of “belief”. Hence I’m parking your ideas while I investigate things myself, at my own pace, and that includes extensive examination of the relevant literature. I don’t just read Vichar Sagar, but in order to understand it I read 100 other things first. Then I will determine whether there is any merit in the Upanishads at all, or whether they are mere speculation.


  5. ramesh

    Dear Sabhlok,
    Really happy for your an apparent challenging question.
    Ref: This statement asserts this without any proof. It implies that mass, space, time etc won’t’ exist without human consciousness.
    Here you failed to note that physical instruments e.g. carbon dating etc can measure only the age of the universe (human body being its part). However it cannot measure the age of the consciousness [which is just ‘chit’ nature of the ‘Brahman’-sat-chit-anand] on which the universe itself bases and which is far more independent of the Universe itself.
    ‘Consciousness’ has been there since the time eternal even though the universe and body of human beings are later developments.The fact is that this ‘consciousness’ as a part of ultimate truth finds its expression through ‘Human beings’ alone. It is in this sense that m, t, d etc won’t exist without human consciousness is a scientific fact since universe as such doesn’t exist absolutely. 
    Therefore it is interesting to note that such assertions don’t need any proofs but deep and critical understanding of the concepts in accordance with the laws of induction.
    DoF is sure to get drastic facelift once the nature of this ‘consciousness’ gets decided. I wish DoF to be a bit lasting work.
    All these comments in no way seek to disturb your own pace of study. I wish my awareness of the subject may get sharpened with a questioner like you which may also supplement your own study.
    Next such critical question is awaited.

  6. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Ramesh

    The claim that you suggest (indeed, which the Upanishads suggest) about consciousness being eternal is simply hypothetical. There is no basis beyond belief. No proof.

    The argument that this consciousness ‘perceives’ hence things exist (in whichever sense you define it) was also made in Western philosophy by George Berkley. That was refuted by David Hume, and later, Kant brought a synthesis of these views.

    I actually think there are some interesting insights that Indiain thought provides to this discourse, by distinguishing the mind (which is what Kant restricted his study to) from consciousness. However, consciousness is simply an elementary property of integration. Trillions of cells in our body have to work in a coordinated fashion, and so some form of consciousness or controller of these cells is needed. Evolution has designed such an entity in response to this fundamental need. Thus consciousness comes later, the body comes first. This is contrary to your view.

    Anyway, will keep exploring, when time permits.


  7. ramesh

    Dear Sabhlok,
    Ref: There is no basis beyond belief. No proof. However, consciousness is simply an elementary property of integration. Trillions of cells in our body have to work in a coordinated fashion, and so some form of consciousness or controller of these cells is needed. Evolution has designed such an entity in response to this fundamental need.
    It is interesting to note that it is the consciousness (cultured for infinite period) that has brought up the concept of evolution or cells or their integration and so every concept of material science.
    However, here goes the proof famous in Indian Science to disprove your above referred statement.
    During the time of illusion everything is real. E.g. in the dim light you know rope may be mistaken for a snake. For the duration of the illusion the snake is real since it produces all the effects of seeing a real snake on the mind and body of the person who sees it.
    Here snake is material reality (at least for few seconds) and is caused by the consciousness of the man who sees it. Can you decide now which is first, consciousness or the material reality? Don’t you see here that material reality has been absent since the time immemorial? Even without the basis like rope illusions happen e.g. dream, placebo effect etc.
    Of course hundreds of such doubts are raised on above exposition (by Buddhism, Charvak  and rest ) and are all critically addressed to full satisfaction in Vichar Sagar.
    Waiting for one of such critical/logical question if you are not satisfied with the above proof……


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