Consciousness, Cosmology, and Science: An Advaitic Analysis

Consciousness, Cosmology, and Science: An Advaitic1 Analysis

The purpose of this brief essay is twofold:
(1) To clarify what it is to study anything scientifically and show that consciousness cannot, in principle, be studied scientifically, and (2) to examine the aim and methods of cosmology and show that cosmology cannot, in principle be a science.
The essay can be read by ignoring any and all references to Advaita Vedānta (Non-dualistic Vedānta). My reason for referring to Advaita Vedānta is simply the fact that these two truths were long ago discovered and taught by Advaita Vedānta, which is at once Jñana-Yoga (The Way of Knowledge) and mysticism, unsurpassed and unsurpassable.

Since I wish to place my observations on cosmology and scientific study of consciousness in the overall context of Advaita Vedānta, I shall simple state in a clear and concise manner the central notions (not concepts) and propositions of Advaita Vedānta.2 Brahman is ultimate reality, whose varieties of manifestation are the worlds of phenomena. What is a phenomenon? Here is the Upanishadic definition:
“Phenomenon” is anything that is or can in principle be an object of consciousness. All phenomena exist in time and some phenomena also exist in space. Thus tables, chairs, stars, galaxies, bacteria, college professors, etc., exist in both space and time; whereas thoughts, emotions, feelings, dreams, etc., exist only in time. Brahman, ultimate reality, is unborn, uncreated, undying, and hence timeless, eternal, and immortal. Brahman is formless and hence nameless; Brahman is not to be mistaken for the God(s) worshipped by people. Never was there a time when Brahman was not; nor will there ever be a time when Brahman will not be. Brahman is neither a She nor a He but the That (Tat). Brahman cannot be captured by the senses and mind; for whatever can be perceived and conceived is always an object. Brahman is impartite — not made up of parts; for if Brahman were partite (composite), the parts would be fundamental and ultimate and not Brahman. No one can picture or visualize Brahman, for whatever one can picture and visualize is always, inevitably and ineluctably, an object. Brahman thus transcends the senses, mind, space, time, and causality. Let it be emphasized that to say that Brahman is transcendent is not to say that Brahman is beyond our ken and pale and cannot be experienced.

Rather, to say that Brahman is transcendent is to say that Brahman cannot be experienced (realized) as one alongside other phenomena (objects). Brahman is to be experienced (realized) in non-dual intuition, by rendering the sense and mind quiescent. Hence Yoga, the goal of which is to attain total cessation of mental modifications (cittavrtti nirodha). To clarify these observations further, simply imagine a potter making cups, saucers, pots, jars, pans, etc. These objects can be destroyed (made to disappear) but the clay of which they are made continues to exist. That is, these objects depend for their existence on the clay, but the clay does not depend for its existence upon these objects. Further, a pot can be destroyed and made into a dish. What has changed? That which was hitherto called a ‘pot’ is not called a ‘dish’. Thus, all changes are changes only in form and name, but not in that of which the objects are but appearances (forms and names).

Ātman is pure, objectless consciousness and is not to be mistaken for the ego (jīva). The ego is an object — a psycho-physiological composite. Sensations, perceptions, thoughts, feelings, emotions, etc., are all objects of consciousness (phenomena). They constantly arise and pass away, but consciousness remains the same. No one can perceive consciousness as an object; one can only notice changes in the objects of consciousness but never in consciousness itself. Consciousness (Ātman), like Brahman, is formless and nameless. Hence, no one can picture or visualize consciousness. Thus everything we have said about Brahman, of course only negatively, can also be said of consciousness: unborn, uncreated, undying, timeless, eternal and immortal. Consciousness (Ātman) is always singular; it is therefore absurd to talk about Ātmans. Just like Brahman, Ātman (consciousness) is transcendent, in the sense that it cannot be captured by the senses and mind. Different jīvas (sentient beings) are simply different appearances of Ātman under the limiting conditions (upādhi) of the body-mind complex. The consciousness of, say, a cat, cannot be distinguished from the consciousness of a human being. Cats and human beings differ only in the ranges of objects they can be conscious of. THe ranges are a function of the psycho-physiological makeup, there being absolutely no difference in consciousness itself. In the Western tradition, ‘consciousness’, ‘mind’, ‘self’, and ‘I’ are used synonymously3. According to Advaita, mind is not consciousness, but only a subtle sense-organ; it is an information-processing instrument. Put simply, mind is a phenomenon, whereas consciousness is not a phenomenon. Mind is not a box containing thoughts; rather, mind is no more or no less than thoughts arising and passing away. Our sense of time is grounded in the dynamic of the mind. Only when the mind is rendered wholly quiescent, will there be no sense of time.

One might now wonder whether according to Advaita there are two ultimate realities, namesly, Brahman and Ātman, the former underlying the so-called external world and the latter the so-called internal world. According to Advaita, the very idea of two ultimates is absurd, in the sense of self-contradictory. ‘Brahman’ and ‘Ātman’ are simply two different labels for one and the same ultimate reality. Put otherwise, Brahman and Ātman are non-different, just as Washington D.C. and the capital of the US are one and the same, non-different.

The clearest argument (demonstration) that Brahman and Ātman are non-different is to be found in the briefest and most famous Māņdūkya Upanishad. For the purposes of this essay, I need not go into the argument.4

Before proceeding further, it should be emphasized that Advaita distinguishes the higher truth (paramārthika-satya) and lower truths (vyavahārika-satya). This distinction was most clearly formulated in the Muńdaka Upanishad 1, i, 4-6. ‘Lower truth’ does not mean falsehood; rather, it means truth certifiable by all inquirers who are constituted alise and conduct their inquiry according to a certain categorical framework. It is truly remarkable that the Muńdaka Upanishad regards even the Vedas, the sacred writings of the Hindu tradition, as lower truth, insofar as the Vedas are couched in language (percepts and concepts). Further, there are many lower truths, since there are many phenomena and categorical frameworks; in contrast, there is just only higher truth, since there is just the non-dual, ultimate reality transcending all percepts and concepts. In the case of every lower truth, truth and being are separable; to give an example, the proposition ‘this board is black’ is true, because there is a certain state of affairs, namely, this board’s being black; however, in the case of the higher truth, no such separation is possible, for here truth and being are non-different. The higher truth, unlike lower truths, cannot be experienced and certified through the senses and mind, but only through non-dual intuition, in which the tripartite distinction of the knower, known, and the act of knowing, characteristic of all lower truths, simply vanishes away. Put directly, in the higher truth, one’s being is the truth. Let it be emphasized that lower truths are not to be disparaged or belittled, for they are valid in their own domains. That is, we should most rigorously continue our rational-scientific inquiries.

I come now to the scientific study of consciousness. In the last few years, a spate of books have been published on the scientific study of consciousness. Some of these are under cognitive studies, others under neurophysiological studies, and yet others under philosophical studies. But none of them seems to deliver the goods they promise, namely, the findings of scientific study of consciousness. In a very real sense, I am provoked to write to write this essay by these disappointing works.
{xtypo_quote_left}Ramakrishna Puligandla
(originally published in Asian Philosophy Vol. 14, No. 2, July 2004 pp.147-153){/xtypo_quote_left}

What is it to study anything scientifically? Scientific study involves a categorical framework5 — primitive (undefined) terms, defined terms, a system of logic, axioms and postulates, and a set of criteria by which to determine whether a problem is genuine and a proposed solution acceptable. however, I have not encountered a single author who articulates the categorical framework underlying his study. I therefore assume that these authors take for granted the prevailing framework underlying all modern scientific inquiries.

Different sciences study different kinds of phenomena, physical, chemical, biological, mental, emotional, economic, political, and so on. as has been clarified earlier, a ‘phenomenon’ may be defined as anything that is or can in principle be an object of consciousness. All phenomena exist in time and some also exist in space. This definition is at the very heart of the prevailing understanding and practice of scientific inquiry. Whatever one studies scientifically is always, inevitably, a phenomenon — an object of consciousness. Thus, anything that is given as an object of consciousness can be studied scientifically and anything that can be studied scientifically is an object of consciousness. Being given as a phenomenon — an object of consciousness — it is thus both a necessary and sufficient condition for it’s scientific study. Furthermore, the scientific study of anything results in a description of the object, its structure, its properties, and its relations to other objects.

It is a fundamental fact of the phenomenology of our experience that consciousness is never given to us as an object. Therefore, the inescapable conclusion is that consciousness cannot, in principle, be scientifically studied, in the prevailing understanding and practice of ‘scientific study’.

Not being aware of this fundamental fact of the phenomenology of our experience, many self-proclaimed scientists and philosophers use such absurd phrases as ‘the phenomenon of consciousness’ and ‘the structure of consciousness’. Consciousness is not a phenomenon, an object, and hence cannot have a structure, properties, and relations. Have you ever perceived your consciousness as an object, in order for you to be able to describe its structure, properties and relations?

It is not surprising, then, that people who claim to scientifically study consciousness and write books only end up talking about their observations on synapses, neuronal circuits, various perceptual, linguistic, and emotional centers, and so on, all of which are objects of consciousness. When a physicist studies a certain particle, he/she clearly gives us all the above. A biologist scientifically studying, for example, a genome also does the same. This is true of all scientists. Likewise, anyone who claims to study consciousness scientifically should also give us a description of consciousness, its structure, properties, and relations to other objects. Otherwise, the claim is an empty claim.

In this context I would like to dispel a serious misunderstanding concerning Yoga. Many people mistakenly think that Yoga, in its various forms, including Patanjali’s Yoga, is a scientific study of consciousness. Yoga is not a scientific study of consciousness, but of various states of consciousness — objects of consciousness. The aim of Yoga is to study varieties of modes of consciousness, ordinary as well as extraordinary, and learn to render the mind quiescent and still in order to be consciousness without objects.

Am I then saying that consciousness cannot be studied scientifically? Yes, that is precisely what I am saying, insofar as ‘scientific study’ means study of phenomena, objects. Am I suggesting that we not engage in scientific  investigation as we actually conduct it? Certainly not. To the contrary, we should rigorously continue scientific inquiries by which to discover various phenomena, their structures, properties, and relations, hitherto unknown.

My thesis that Consciousness cannot, in principle, be studied scientifically is to be regarded as an impotency-principle (an impotency-principle is a statement that something cannot, in principle be done). Examples of the impotency-principle are the second lay of thermodynamics, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Godel’s second incompleteness theorem, etc.

This is, however, an important and significant difference between my impotency-principle and the others: my impotency-principle is directly based upon the phenomenology of our experience, whereas the others are based on logico-empirical considerations. Let me emphasize, however, that these logico-empiricial  considerations themselves are fully founded and grounded in the phenomenology of our experience.

If someone has an argument, along with adequate evidence, to refute the impotency-principle I have proclaimed here, I should be most happy to hear. All one needs to do to refute my thesis is to come up with a single counter-example of something that is scientifically studiable but not an object of consciousness. In light of such a counter-example, I am prepared to withdraw my thesis.

Let me know place the above observations on the scientific study of consciousness in the context of Advaita Vedānta — non-dualistic Vedānta. The pivotal message of Advaita Vedānta, as has been explicated earlier, is that ultimate reality, Brahman, of which the myriad worlds are appearances, is non-different from Ātman, pure, objectless consciousness. Neither Brahman nor Ātman can be perceived by the sense and mind — imperceivable and inconceivable — but can only be experienced in non-dual intuition, prajña, by rendering the mind wholly quiescent and still, through various yogic techniques.

Why there is something rather than nothing cannot be explained by science. Explanation, demonstration, argument, proof, etc. belong in the domain of the dual; and since Brahman is that beside which nothing can in principle exist, the existence of the world in the last analysis, as Samkara6 long ago taught us, is anirvachaniya — indefinable and inexplicable. This is the reason cosmologies become mere stories. Thus no one can explain what caused the Big Bang; for space, time, and matter into existence with the Big Bang, and therefore there cannot, in principle, be any talk of cause and effect prior to the Big Bang (if I may be permitted to use the term ‘prior’ here). Yes, cosmologists tell us that the Big Bang happened because of spontaneous quantum-fluctuations. But is this really an explanation? Certainly not. We cannot, in principle, have any initial conditions by which to explain the Big Bang; and even if we accept some explanation as to how the Big Bang took place, that does not explain how the primordial singularity in which the Big Bang took place came to be. Let it be emphasized that the primordial singularity is neither spatial nor temporal, for space, time, matter and causality come into being with the Big Bang. Hence Brahman, ultimate reality, is inexplicable. Since Brahman is non-different from Ātman, pure, objectless consciousness, Ātman too cannot be explained by science, for like Brahman, Ātman cannot be an object of consciousness and therefore cannot be scientifically studied. Every discipline that is genuinely scientific will have laws, formulated by systematically studying the reproducible and repeatable (phenomena); and since the cosmos as a whole is not reproducible and replicable, cosmology cannot, in principle, be a science as ‘science’ is understood and practiced.

Since Advaita Vedānta, with its foundations in the Upanishads, the oldest recorded documents about mysticism, I herely with to make some pertinent observations on religion. It is to be emphasized that Brahman (Ātman) is not God (Ishwara, creator, preserver, destroyer, and judge of the world). God is merely a conception of the inconceivable. Different religious traditions are centered around different conceptions of the inconceivable. Hence different religions and different Gods, each religion claiming that its own conception is the true and real conception and condemning other peoples’ religions as false. No wonder, then, that people from one religious tradition try to convert others; and if conversion cannot be achieved through persuasion, they will resort to any means they deem fit, including violence. In this manner arise religious wars, resulting in unspeakable bloodshed and horrors.

If unity were to be found among different religious traditions, it could only be found at the mystical level, never at the level of doctrines and dogmas; and all religious traditions have two sides, the exoteric (the public and visible) and the esoteric (the private, invisible and mystical). Mystical experience comes only by transcending doctrines, dogmas, and authorities. Doctrines, dogmas, and authorities only give you second-hand truth, which is always open to the assault of doubt and therefore can be lost. Only truth certifiable through one’s own authentic experience is first-hand truth. Mystics from all traditions exhort us to attain the first-hand truth, by transcending all conceptions of ultimate reality, non-different from one’s true being, Ātman. Mysticism is marginal and peripheral in religious traditions controlled by central authorities. The Vedic (Upanishadic) tradition is unique in its emphasis upon the mystical experience and therewith first-hand truth. Hence Advaita Vedānta is the mystical tradition, par excellence.

People should remain in the traditions they inherit and most earnestly pursue the way of the mystics and hence first-hand truth. Converting other peoples to one’s own religious tradition is the highest violence and indignity one can inflict on other human beings. Converting people to one’s own religious tradition is the hallmark of ignorance (avidya). First-hand truth is too important to be left for others to determine. Consciousness (Ātman) and ultimate reality (Brahman), not being phenomena (objects), are the higher truth and therefore cannot be scientifically studied.

To conclude, (1) consciousness cannot, in principle, be studied scientifically; (2) cosmology cannot, in principle, be a science, and (3) since Advaita Vedānta had long ago discovered and taught these two truths and consequently unflinchingly recommends the transcendence of all conceptions of ultimate reality (Brahman, Ātman), Advaita Vedānta is at one Jñana Yoga (The Way of Knowledge) and mysticism, unsurpassed and unsurpassable, being the oldest of all mystical traditions of the world.

Notes

    1.    ‘Advaita means non-dual; accordingly ‘Advaitic’ is to be understood as non-dualistic.
    2.    ‘Advaita Vedānta’ means non-dualistic Vedānta, founded in the Upanishads. The term ‘Vedānta’ refers to the concluding parts of the Vedas (also known as the Upanishads). The Vedas are the sacred writings of the Hindu tradition. The Vedas are mistakenly referred to as scriptures. ‘Scripture’ is a Western concept meaning word of God. The Vedas are not word of God. It is for this reason that the Vedas are correctly referred to as ‘sacred writings’. There is a sense in which the Vedas can be looked up as revelation. However, revelation is not to be understood as something revealed to the human being by some source or agency outside of the human being. Rather, it is self-revelation, meaning truth revealing itself to itself; that is, truth and to whom it reveals itself are one and the same, non-different.
    3.    Thus, for example, Descartes says in Meditation II: ‘What them am I? I am a thinking thing; if I cease to think, thereupon I shall altogether cease to exist.’ (Descartes, R. (trans.) 1958) But he also proclaimed, ‘I think, therefore I am’. Thus, for Descartes, thinking is both a necessary and sufficient condition for existence. As Upanishadic sage would have asked Descartes, ‘Your teaching is interesting; however, I wish to know how you came to know that you cease to exist on ceasing to think’.
    4.    For a detailed presentation and critical discussion on the argument, see Puligandla (1999).
    5.    For a full clarification of categorical framework, see Puligandla (1997).
    6.    Samkara (7-8 A.D.) is generally regarded as the founder of Advaita Vedānta non-dualistic interpretation of the Upanishads. He systematized and formulated the central insights of the Upanishads into Advaita Vedānta (non-dualistic Vedānta). It should, however, be noted that Bādarayaņa, Gaudapāda, and Govindapāda, the predecessors of Śamkara, articulated the non-dualistic insights of the Upanishads.

References

    •    Descartes, R. (trans 1958). Meditations on First Philosophy. Trans. by Norman Kemp Smith, in Descartes: Philosophical Writings. New York: Modern Library.
    •    Puligandla, R. (1997). Jñana-Yoga (The Way of Knowledge): An Analytical Interpretation. Delhi, DK Printworld.
    •    Puligandla, R. (1999). The message of the Māņdūkya Upanishad: A phenomenological analysis of mind and consciousness. Indian Philosophical Quarterly, 25,221-231.
    •    Swami, Gambhirananda (trans.) (1962). Eight Upanishads, vol. 2, with commentary of Sankara-carya. Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, India. pp.85-87.

Bibliography

    •    Merrell-Wolff, F. (1973). The philosophy of consciousness without an object. Reflections on the nature of transcendental consciousness. New York, The Julian Press.
    •    Swami, Gambhirananda, (trans.) (1977). Brahma-Sutra Bhashya of Sankaracarya. Calcutta, Advaita Ashrama.
    •    Swami, Gambhirananda (trans.) (1977). Calcutta, Advaita Asharama. Eight Upanishads with the commentary of Sankaracarya.
    •    Jñana YogaJñana Yoga

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