In 2014, while surfing the net, I came upon a reference to the 20th anniversary bi-annual consciousness conference to be held here in Tucson. The write-up made much about a big controversy in the field of consciousness research.
At this point in time I had not had a lot of interest in the subject of consciousness. l had looked into the first one of these conferences 20 years earlier but had concluded the conference was focused almost solely on scientific research. This was not the approach to consciousness that I was interested in.
But the notion of some big controversy in the field of consciousness studies intrigued me. And now that I was living in Tucson it made a whole of sense to check it out. This was my introduction to a deep dive into the thinking on consciousness and it was to get my launched on a major exploration of consciouisness theory as applied to my own life experiences.
The conflict in question had to do with the understanding of the origins of consciousness. Neuroscience is adamant that consciousness originates in the brain. Its origins, like everything that applies to we humans,
go back to the big bang and the evolution of the fittest.
There is another view that comes out of the Vedantic traditiions of the Far East. This view has been around for about 4000 years and there is a lengthy body of writing that describes consciousness as the core principle for all of life. In other words, consciousness is where everything begins.
Let’s take a closer look at these two theories of consciousness.
The Scientific View of Consciousness
We can best understand the scientific view of consciousness by seeing it in the context of evolution.
The theory of evolution provides a context for understanding much of what science does.
This theory explains how life has changed over time to become more and more complex and to lead to higher and higher forms of life.
Consciousness evolved along with biological life. At the beginning there was little or no consciousness. As life became more complex, consciousness arose as a way for organic forms to regulate themselves. As life became more complex, consciousness became more sophisticated.
As human beings evolved, consciousness became all the more developed. Eventually it reached a critical turning point where consciousness was able to be awareness of itself.
Self-awareness gave rise to self-identity and to the belief that we are unique because of our highly developed capacity for thinking.
Is there a higher intelligence guiding this unfolding process? most scientists would say that human life as we know it is the result of the big bang and the random process of evolution. There is no pre-ordained meaning or purpose to life.
For many years, science never thought much about consciousness. But a curious thing happened. People who experienced trauma to the head reported that their injury had changed certain aspects of their awareness.
The doctors who were treating them became interested. Researchers got involved. They began to map the areas of the brain where injuries had occurred and where changes in awareness were reported. They discovered distinct patterns of brain activities. People who had injuries to the same part of the brain reported the same kinds of change in their experience. It appeared that each region of the brain was responsible for a specific kind of experience in life. But more research was needed.
Neuroscientist developed ways that electric impulses could be applied directly to the brain. This enabled them to gather data directly from all areas of the brain. When a given area of the brain was stimulated in different people it produced a similar kind of experience in all subjects. Neuroscience now had proof that each region of the brain performs the same function in all people.
Since they could create a specific kind of response by stimulating a given area, they concluded that the brain must be responsible for all that we experience. The brain must create all of what we think and feel.
But what about consciousness itself. This is the experience of being alive. Scientists concluded that the brain must create this as well.
The ramifications of the scientific view of consciousness
If consciousness is created by the brain, there are two major ramifications for us to consider.
1) If consciousness is indeed created by the body, there can be no consciousness before the body forms, and there can be no consciousness after the body dies. Consciousness exists only so long as the body exists.
This means there can be no afterlife experience. This negates beliefs held by many major religions that believe that people are reunited with loved ones in the afterlife.
But a growing number of people have reported life after death experiences in which they were fully aware of themselves and their surroundings. How do we account for such reports if it is impossible to experience consciousness after the body has died?
Nor can there be any reincarnation, which is a central belief of many major religions. The scientific view would have to conclude that we have just this one chance to experience life in a body. One and done.
2) If consciousness is created by the body, then each of is really only an isolated entity unto ourselves. Each body has its own unique consciousness and there can be no connection between the consciousness in one body and the consciousness in any other bodies.
We are isolated islands of consciousness in bodies trying to figure out how to related to other islands of consciousness around us.
But people have reported that they have felt a connection with other people. Some of these connections occur at a great distance. How does science explain this?
Scientists are convinced they have shown in concept how the brain creates what we experience as subjective reality. We are just at the forefront of our research, they say, but clearly we will in time develop an complete empirical model that explains fully how all aspects of the brain work together to create our subjective reality.
There are four major challenges to the scientific theory
1) Neuroscience claims that the brain creates consciousness.
They contend that laboratory experiments caused the brain to create specific types of experiences. This proves the brain creates experience. This may be true in the laboratory. But for life in general, conditions are very different. Neuroscience has proved correlation but not causation.
2) Neuroscience has shown that there are multiple activities going on in different parts of the brain. If the brain creates consciousness then all of these individual sensory inputs would have to be centrally organized and integrated to create the wholistic experience of being alive. Scientists refer to this as the network and hub aspect of consciousness. But this is only a theory. Scientists have no evidence that such a network and hub actually exists.
3) neuroscience cannot describe any “mechanism of action” by which subjective experience results from activity of the brain. How does the objective matter in the brain create the subjective world we experience in our mind?
This is referred to in science as the “explanatory gap” of consciousness. Until science can tell us just how the material brain creates subjective reality, it can hold it as a theory, but it not conclude that it is scientific fact.
For example, here is another interpretation which is completely consistent with laboratory brain research. What if the brain functions like a radio tuner? It is receiving signals from outside the body and converting these into specific types of experience. Each region of the brain registers a specific kind of signal. The whole brain is like a radio dial, each area of the brain is like a specific station. Each station correlates to a specific kind of experience.
If we did not know how a radio works, we would believe that the radio itself is generating the sounds that we hear. We would be amazed that a whole orchestra is somehow crammed into a little box. We would think the radio creates the sound we hear rather than receiving it from afar. Does our brain create consciousness or receive consciousness?
4) there is the matter of qualia, which has been called “the hard problem of consciousness”. Qualia are subjective experiences like love, joy and bliss which have no apparent originating location within the brain. Qualia are global experiences which do not appear to be connected to any specific location in the brain.
Most Neuroscientists would probably accept the validity of these arguments. Most would candidly agree that they have not yet proved that the brain creates consciousness.
But, they argue, it is just a matter of time. We have the basics in place. We have a theory. We are building a model that describes how the brain functions. We have some research data. But we need a lot more. In time, everything will all fall into place. And we will fully understand how consciousness is created by the brain.
But their ultimate argument is probably this: our theory has to be correct because there is no acceptable alternative. Where else could consciousness come from?
Where else indeed?
The Eastern View of Consciousness
In the spiritual traditions of the far East consciousness is the first principle. That is, it is that which precedes all other life.
Consciousness comes first. It precedes everything. It is everywhere. It is inside of us. It is outside of us. There is no place where consciousness is not.
Consciousness is the source, the origin from which everything else is derived. Some traditions refer to as the The Void or Emptiness. The 17th century Zen master Bonke called it The Great Unborn, the great emptiness that is nevertheless filled with the potential for everything to be.
Out of this emptiness all reality—the earth, the heavens, the stars, the galaxies, the universes, everything—emerges. And that includes us. (This flies in the face of traditional Newtonian Physics. But it is quite compatible with Quantum Physics.)
This great void might be thought of as a field which fills all reality. Over the course of evolution this field has come to have various forms of life within it. This could be accidental as the scientists believe. Or it could be the intention of consciousness to learn and evolve as it experiences itself in all forms of life.
Consciousness itself may be evolving.
Consciousness is living through us. And that is why we are here.
How does the eastern view respond to science’s challenge that the brain creates consciousness? How do they explain the strong correlation between brain activity and specific subjective experiences?
Radios are receivers and converters. The receive sound waves which are broadcast from a great distance and convert them back into the sounds. In a similar fashion, brains are receivers and converters. They receive thought forms and add in specific content and then produced personalized thought which we experience in our consciousness.
Because the thought forms are personalized we experience them as our own private, individual and personal thoughts. And they are that. But the core idea come from elsewhere. How those thought forms are drawn to the brain is a matter needing future research.
Science is partly correct. The brain plays a consider role in creating the thoughts, emotions and sensations we experience in consciousness. Eastern thought says that there is far more to it than what the role of the brain provides.
Ramifications of the Eastern View of Consciousness
1) The theory that consciousness is an all inclusive field portrays a consciousness that has no limits. This view suggests unlimited potential for what we might be able to experience.
If there are no divisions or separations within this field of consciousness. what occurs in one area of the field can potentially be experienced elsewhere in the field. We could potential experience in our private consciousness things which occur elsewhere within the field outside of our own bodies. Quantum Physics has shown this to be true.
2) We have to learn how to open ourselves so that we could experience what is outside the body. We would have to learn how to filter in what we want to experience and filter out what we do not want to experience.
3) This view of consciousness opens wide the possibilities for understanding how we understand who we are. Right now we see ourselves as consciousness inside the body.
If we were to put more attention on what might be experienced through the field of consciousness, we might discover vistas and possibilities that were unheard of before.
With this experience of consciousness, we would have to expand our understanding of what it means to be a human being.
Challenges to the Eastern View of Consciousness
The major challenge is obvious; it cannot be proven. By its very nature it cannot be submitted to scientific investigation.
But then of course it makes no claims to be scientifically sound. It is clear that it lies outside the domain of science. And for us in the west, that which cannot be proved is suspect.
We can consider it a matter of faith, but it is somewhat more than that.
The field of consciousness can be experienced. And once it is, there is no doubt to the person who has that experience that the field is real. It is a vivid, unforgettable experience. And I say this from my own experience.
The Human Being: A Joint Venture Between Consciousness and The Body.
The consciousness controversy is not an either/or situation. It is a both/and situation. Western science limits itself to a narrow view of consciousness and gives us in depth information on this narrow scope. What it provides is valuable but not representative of all aspects of consciousness. We buy the data but not the overall conclusions.
The consciousness controversy is not an either/or situation. It is a both/and situation. Western science limits itself to a narrow view of consciousness and gives us an in depth information of this narrow scope. What it provides is valuable but not representative of all aspects of consciousness. We buy the data but not the overall conclusions.
What runs the brain? Science says that the brain creates consciousness. But perhaps it is the other way around. Consciousness may not create the physical brain, but the brain needs consciousness to function.
Just as a computer needs electricity to run, the brain needs consciousness to operate. A body that has no consciousness is not alive. A body that has no consciousness does not think. Consciousness is like an energy source that keeps that brain functioning.
Under the scientific theory, consciousness is isolated in the body. We each have our own personal system of consciousness. These individual systems of consciousness do not connect with other systems of consciousness.
No wonder we all feel so isolated and separate.
Now consider the theory that consciousness precedes the body. Each body receives consciousness from some unknown source. If this is one single source, then the consciousness that is in my body is the same as the consciousness which is in your body.
We are all enabled in experiencing life by the same universal consciousness.
Our bodies are separate and distinct. I am in my body over here and you are in your body over there. But that which enables us to experience life in these bodies is the same thing. With respect to consciousness, there is no “over here” and “over there”. The one universal consciousness which animates the body and gives us the experience of being alive is everywhere.
If this is the case, then why do we not experience the oneness. If the one consciousness gives us life why do we experience a life of oneness.
To explain this, we have to take a closer look at how consciousness changes when it enters into a body.
The term “joint venture” comes from the business world and refers to an organization which is created out of two other organizations. The joint venture receives knowledge and skills from each of the two organizations which establishes it. As a result, the joint venture is able to create things which neither of the original organizations could create on their own.
The human being is a joint venture between consciousness and matter. The body has evolved over ions of time to perform subtle and complicated functions which enable the body to have a mind, a heart and other complex functions.
Consciousness brings to the body an array of subtle energies and forces which are not well understood here in the west, but which help to explain why the human being is as complex as it is. All forms of life can be said to be combination of consciousness and a body, but only mankind has evolved to the point where it can understand its own nature.
When we lose connection with the part of our self that is universal, we become self-absorbed with our isolation and separation. When we over-identify with our body, then we begin to generalize the real needs of the body and start to fixate on imaginary needs of the psyche.
Without our connection to, and knowledge of, the dimension of ourself as universal, limitless and one with all things, we have no mechanism for rebalancing the extremes of our physical nature. Without the knowledge that we are both a body and universal consciousness, we have no counter balance to bring us back into a fully integrated and balanced experience of life.
The west and the east come together and jointly give us a more robust understanding of consciousness than either alone can provide. The east gives us the big picture perspective of consciousness and helps us to grasp the universal dimension to consciousness.