Summary: Part 8 of this 10 part essay confronts possible objections to the yogic view of consciousness by discussing some of the weak links in the contemporary scientific view that sees consciousness as an emergent phenomenon of physical matter.
In Part 7 we established the yogic basis whereby consciousness is associated with the objects of perception. In the philosophy of mind it is a favorite pastime to point out that consciousness is private (something about “bats” I believe? Or was it Batman?), and that we can only infer consciousness in other beings based on our personal, private experience of consciousness. This is a state-dependent truth. It is true when the mind is in the state of vikshepa. Not only is consciousness a private affair in the state of vikshepa, but Kant’s rules also apply. We cannot understand a “thing in itself” when in the vikshepa state. But the privacy of consciousness and the limits of reason are not true in general. As we have repeatedly discussed, the person in samadhi fuses with the consciousness of the object of meditation (pratyaya), and in doing so directly experiences the object as a thing in itself, as its svarupa.
But how is this possible?
Tear Down The Wall
The very suggestion of the possibility of samadhi is absurd on the face of it to the Western mind that sees consciousness as a private experience. Further, in the West, consciousness is relegated to creatures with nervous systems. In Early Modern Europe, at the time when modern science was founded, many were of the opinion that animals did not have “souls”, meaning mind and consciousness. Over time, religious connotations were divorced from psychology, and the idea that animals did not have souls gradually transformed to what we have today. Today consciousness is considered by most people as a property of life, and as a consequence of nervous systems. Since nervous systems display a gradation from simple to complex, it is inferred that the corresponding conscious experiences are similarly graded. From this view it is absurd to consider that a plant, fungus or bacteria has consciousness as they lack nervous systems. However, living cells in general possess the property of “irritability” which is the ability to seemingly teleologically respond to environmental perturbations. Some have taken cell irritability as a basis for consciousness (see Llinás here). However, the buck seems to stop at inanimate, nonliving matter, such as rocks, planets and stars. These are not alive in any obvious sense, and to assert they have consciousness makes no sense to the modern Western mind.
The exception to this way of thinking was mentioned previously: panpsychism. Panpsychism generalizes the idea of a gradation of consciousness to all material entities. In panpsychism, consciousness is taken as a basic attribute of matter. The core of panpsychism is the concern: how can consciousness emerge from non-conscious components? This presents a philosophical dilemma of the same form as the questions: how can something arise from nothing? or how can mind and matter interact if they are fundamentally different? Panpsychism avoids this paradox by positing consciousness as a basic property of matter. Matter has energy, mass, inertia, etc., and it also has consciousness.
However, a more accepted view, one consistent with materialism/physicalism, treats consciousness as an emergent property of some material systems, specifically nervous systems. From the emergence view, if the preconditions for the arrangement of a conscious system can be instantiated in other material systems, then supposedly, consciousness would also emerge. This is the basis of the “artificial consciousness” crowd. Emergence ignores the conscious/non-conscious dilemma by demoting consciousness to a type of information processing, and does not see consciousness as constituting a unique phenomenon or category of its own. (Part 7 discussed the yogic solution to these issues in terms of the gunas).
Panpsychism is an interesting logical possibility, and certainly one way to solve the mind/body problem. But it convinces no scientist, and goes against the grain of direct observation. Rocks, clouds, planets, electrons and stars do nothing to indicate they are conscious, in the way, for example, that people or animals display evidence of consciousness. Thus, panpsychism is tolerated and ignored, and the emergence view dominates scientific thinking, especially in the neurosciences where this issue is of direct relevance.
Thus, there is a seemingly fundamental impasse at this point. The yogic claim that all existence is associated with consciousness simply makes no sense to the modern mind that sees consciousness as a private experience of living creatures and an emergent property of nervous systems.
We Just Kant Get It Right
To get over this impasse requires deconstructing the idea that consciousness is a property only of nervous systems. While the notion seems self-evident on its face, it actually vaporizes upon intense scrutiny. The scrutiny needs to focus on the scientific basis on which any study of complex systems will depend. A major effort in this direction has already been completed. This is why Immanuel Kant is famous.
Kant concluded that our experience of the world is a function of how our minds are constructed. What he called “a priori categories” can be expressed in more modern terms as the building blocks of our minds. Kant saw the elements of our sensory consciousness, time, space, causality, etc. as basic building blocks of our minds and not properties of the world per se. As to the properties of the world per se, this was the idea of “thing in itself”. We could never know the thing in itself because we are forever forced to perceive and think about the world from within the eternal prison of our own minds.
This is Kant’s transcendental idealism. The conclusions were true when he realized them and they are just as true today, in spite of an additional 300 years of scientific discovery. From Kant’s point of view, just like that of the yogic point of view, our modern sciences do not reveal the truth, the svarupa, of the studied objects, but instead reveal the truth of how our minds perceive the studied objects. Science is the study of the regularity of sensory and mental events
It is very hard to emphasize the absolute nature of Kant’s conclusions. We are prone to think that our knowledge of the brain and the sense organs, the whole story of cognitive neuroscience in all its grand complexity, overcomes Kant’s dilemma. Surely what we know of the brain explains how brain function constructs the mind. What need is there to posit a mysterious “thing in itself” when we now have a relatively deep understanding of the cognitive neurosciences?
First, to entertain such ideas indicates one has only a superficial knowledge of the neurosciences. There is no such exact knowledge of the link between brain activity and first-hand subjective mental experience. The best we have today are the sloppy arts (and this is said with all due respect to my medical colleagues whom know to what I refer) of neurology and anesthesiology, where the correlations between brain and mind are made most obvious. The deeper one understands these fields, the less confident one is to make generalizations about the link between mind and brain.
Second, to think that brains explain minds is to completely misunderstand Kant’s point. Everything we perceive, including brains and nervous systems, are the result of a mysterious process by which the thing-in-itself is transformed into that of which we are aware. Behind the perception of brains and nervous systems are mysterious things-in-themselves that are, according to Kant, forever inaccessible to direct knowing. We perceive and interact with brains and neurons (not in everyday life, but, for example, in labs like mine), but what these are as things in themselves is something we can never know. Kant’s is a very absolute position, when understood correctly. Everything we know is a construction of the mind: not just time and space, but all the stuff in time and space, including brains and nervous systems. We can only know what is in the mind. Period. There is no other way to know.
This last sentence is the Achilles’ heel of Kant’s view. There is only one legitimate criticism of Kant: Kant did not know yoga. Yoga teaches other ways to know, specifically, samadhi. Therefore, the only escape from Kant’s mental prison is yoga. Nothing else will work. Anything else is but the bouncing off the walls of the mind-prison Kant so verbosely described.
Unfortunately, Kant’s insights were not used as a clarion call for scientists to first understand the “mind as middle-man” before describing objects of the world. Instead, Kant is, effectively, the father or post-modernism. As outlined in the history part of this essay, for a short while in the nineteenth century, it seemed as if Kant didn’t matter because scientific progress was so spectacular. The first quarter of the twentieth century proved this wrong, but no one revisited Kant. Instead, critiques of objectivity pushed the objective/subjective war back to the idealistic camp, without calling it as such, and we ended up with the focus on linguistics, characteristic of post-modernism.
Post-modernism is not an invalid line of thought. As stated previously, dissection of sabda is an important part of yogic practice and is a precondition for deeper yogic practices. So, had the 20th century Western civilization followed a rational path of intellectual evolution, the swing back to idealism would have been embraced, and the sciences would have teamed with the new approaches to subjectivity, the latter conditioned by some 2000 years of philosophical inquiry. However, this did not come to pass, and today there is only greater divergence and hostility between science and modern philosophy.
However, leaving all this sound and fury where it belongs, what if Kant’s transcendental idealism was accepted as a legitimate scientific insight?
Quite contrary to the classical idea that science is the discovery of objective facts, a key lesson of 20th century science was the appreciation that scientific activity reveals “limit theorems”. Einstein deduced that matter must always move at a velocity less than the speed of light. It is a fundamental limit of Nature. After blowing away the fog of science fiction, it is a fact that anything with mass cannot accelerate to the speed of light, let alone go above it. Further, there is no prospect of this happening on the horizon. Heisenberg showed that we can never measure physical systems with perfect precision. It is called the “uncertainty principle” because the error of quantum measurements will always be a number greater than zero. The 2nd law of thermodynamics, perhaps the first of the limit theorems to be discovered, means that a perpetual motion machine is impossible. Chaos theory, or the dynamics of strange attractors, proves that, since we cannot measure to an infinite degree of precision, we will never be able to predict the long-term outcome of a chaotic dynamical system. Gödel proved that all true theorems cannot be deduced from a system of axioms. Turing proved that the halting problem cannot be solved.
Each of these results imposes limits on our ability to measure or deduce the properties of nature. Such “limit theorems” are a hallmark of modern scientific thinking. [It is interesting to note in passing that discovering the empirical limits of reason has released so much, artha, power, in the form of technology; again, a point for parts 9 and 10].
Kant’s transcendental idealism fits in as another limit theorem. We can never know the thing in itself. One could consider it the fundamental limit theorem of psychology. Of course no one thinks of it that way. Kant has never been taken seriously in science. Too bad, because Kant’s conclusion is correct, at least relative to the vikshepa state of the mind, which is the state of mind in which science is performed.
So we are in a position today where honest and smart scientists struggle with basic issues in physics and neuroscience, at the intersection of the observer and the observed, the subjective and the objective, mind and matter. These people struggle with needless inefficiency, in large part, because Kant has been relegated to the dustbin of philosophy.
Deconstructing the Western view of consciousness from the yogic point of view almost isn’t fair. It’s kind of like this old familiar comic book advertisement:
But oh well, let’s end with one example….
Let’s consider the yogic take on the nature of empirical knowledge, which, recall, is called jnana. Krishnananda explains this in a lucid passage (taken from Chapter 43 of The Study and Practice of Yoga):
“…we cannot know this secret about the nature of the world as long as we are in a world of relativity where everything is determined by everything else, so that nothing can be known absolutely. We are caught up in a peculiar difficulty in the understanding of the essential nature of any object in this world on account of the relatedness of this object to everything else in this world, so that we cannot know anything unless we know all things.”
This is perhaps the hardest idea for the hard-nosed, hard-headed Westerner to grasp. No matter what is empirically discovered and described, the description will always be incomplete. Because all objects are real objects in the real world, and all the objects in the world interact via a variety of forces, one will never know how these interactions will play out with the specific system under study. Thus, we are forced to consider specific instances in terms of statistical specimens. An important consequence of limit theorems is that we can only generate an intellectual caricature of reality; a ham-fisted outline that captures some facets but is incapable of capturing others. Granted some of these caricatures have operational utility in specific instances (for example quantum mechanics). But the utility rapidly falls off with increasingly complex systems. The rules of how living systems work cannot be found in quantum mechanics, for example. When we get to biology, brains, the human mind, and human events, the statistical approximations prove impotent and serve as little more than descriptive tools (as opposed to theories with substantial explanatory power as in quantum mechanics).
So, the Western view of consciousness can be construed as a case of one hand not knowing what the other hand is doing. Those who think we have a handle on consciousness, who posit emergence of consciousness in specific systems of matter but not others, fail to account for the limit theorems of 20th century science and ignore Kant’s insights, resulting in ideas that amount to poetry…about bats and stuff. Gödel and Turing’s results are mathematical proofs. If we cannot solve some easily stated problems in mathematics, then it is preposterous to suppose we can solve the problem of consciousness by the usual means at the disposal of the Western mind.
This is the negative view that tears down the wall of ignorance we call “Western learning”. The next installment will consider the constructive, positive view that puts “Western learning” into some kind of anchored perspective.
Jump to the other parts of What is Science?