The ongoing interface between Western science and Eastern mysticism is perhaps the strongest statement in modern times as to the relevance of India's ancient spiritual wisdom. That the Upanishads are influencing the reigning paradigm of modern science is good reason to look more deeply within their pages for insight in today's world.
A conference sponsered by the Bhaktivedanta
Institute in San Francisco centered on the study
of of consciousness within science. The Institutes
international secretary, Ravi Gomatam, shared
with us what he calls the third wave of the ongoing
interface between science and mysticism.
Our in-house research is based on specific paradigms for consciousness that are available within the Bhagavat tradition of Vedanta, or theistic Vedanta. We also offer research fellowships through which academic people can interact with us, and we hold broad-based conferences and workshops.
When we do conferences we recognize that the topic of consciousness is a very difficult one to deal with. Consciousness has occupied the attention of mankind for thousands of years. As conscious beings we have wondered about our essential nature, our place and our relationship to the universe in which we find ourselves, our rights, and even what are our duties—especially as we see today so many problems caused directly and indirectly by the application of science. No one can claim at this point that he has a final answer to these questions. Consequently our conferences are very broad-based. We bring together a wide variety of thoughts from different disciplines of science, and we provide a forum for discussion so that some kind of a scientific consensual understanding of consciousness can emerge on its own. Although we have our roots in India's spirituality, our work itself is very contemporary and highly objective.
How do you view the evolution of the ongoing interface between modern science and Eastern mysticism?
Capra on one hand should definitely be credited for putting the subject into the center of the stage. His work was the first wave. His essential point was that the scientific tradition and the mystical traditions are two different approaches to understanding the same reality. He managed to draw some parallels between the emerging concerns of science and existing world views of Eastern mysticism. Despite the importance of his work that started this trend, his drawing of parallels was very superficial. For example, his conjecture that the tracks that sub-atomic particles leave on a photographic plate are the dance of Shiva is really pseudo-science. He had a fair understanding of physics and, for those times, a reasonable introduction to Eastern mysticism. His ideas were commercially successful, revealing that there was a large audience for this topic, and they pointed the direction in which further exploration could be made.
The second wave, the work of Ken Wilber and others, recognized the shortcomings of Capra, Zukav, and the like. They showed that the issues of spirituality, whether Christian mysticism, Sufism, or the Vedic tradition, are dealing with a different ontology than that of modern science. Thus Ken Wilber strongly argued that we should not think that science is going to lead directly to the same understanding of reality as that afforded by mysticism. At best science could point towards the need for cultivating mysticism, for which we would then have to shift gears. This was the second wave.But the problem with this approach, although true in the ultimate sense, is that it does not chart specific pathways by which science can come closer to consciousness. Indeed, it even precludes the possiblity of an expanded science that can on day legitimately study consciousness directly. In cleaving the two in this way, in a sense, Wilber reintroduced a kind of Cartesian dualism. Instead of the mind/body problem, it became the spirituality versus science problem. This dilemma then formed the motivation for our recent conference—the third wave.
This third wave, as I see it, will begin due to the willingness on the part of scientists themselves to expand the domain of science in very new ways. The motivation for this is already coming from results in established fields, such as artificial intelligence, molecular biology, theoretical physics, as well as new emerging fields like engineering anomolies. Through these fields the causal role of consciousness in the physical world at deeper levels of matter is becoming established. What is required is to sustain this investigation so that a logical framework for discussion of consciousness results naturally within science. In the process science will doubtless discover a new middle ground between what it now thinks of as matter and what the mystics describe as consciousness. It will involve discovering levels of subtle matter presently unknown to science. This new science will become the empiric evidence for, and system by which we can better explain the causal role of consciousness. No doubt, this will require new tools of theory and experiment. Our own contribution is to facilitate this process of discovery.
That's quite a challenge for science.
Well if we survey the history of modern science we will see that major advancements came when scientists succeeded in integrating seemingly disparate phenomen. Newton, Maxwell, and Einstein are good examples.
Newton's success was that he integrated stellar motions with movements of ordinary bodies on Earth. It was a grand synthesis that launched Newtonian physics. Newtonian physics had an ontology, or mode of existence of things. In it the fabric of the universe was particles: small particles that constantly acted, reacted, and collided with one another according to very precise laws. The first synthesis was that of motions, small motions and big motions. That was considered a big success. Imagine the euphoria they experienced when they realized that an object falling from the Leaning Tower of Pisa followed the same laws that the sun follows! It was soon shown that these laws of motion could be used to understand not only the behavior of solids, but also liquids, and then gases. In this way the behavior of the entire macrocosm and microcosm was thought to be within our grasp. The second major synthesis came when Maxwell unified the concepts of electromagnetic phenomena and light.
People may be surprised to know that toward the end of the 19th century scientists thought there were no more fundamental laws to be discovered; just do more and more mathematics and everything would be explained. It was the famous physicist Lord Kelvin who said that there were only two small clouds on the horizon: "black body radiation" and "ether drift." But these turned out to be bigger than scientists thought.
In this century the two great leaps science has taken concern these two phenomena. One was Einstein's integration of space and time into one space-time continuum, which explained the absence of ether drift. The second great leap was quantum mechanics. It brought us a connection between two seemingly separate realms—physical measuring devices and human observers. The point I am making is that science has made great steps when apparently disparate phenomena were brought together under one roof. Now the time is ripe to bring together yet another pair—mind and matter. But this too requires a new conceptualization. This is now what we are attempting—to bring together science and consciousness, and take another giant step. With the development of quantum mechanics it became clear that the theory had a fundamental problem. The quantum theory has no ontology. It does not concern itself with what the world is made up of. It doesn't start with an assumption about the world's makeup and then build a theory. Rather, it talks about probabilistic connections between successive observations not the events themselves.
As Heisenberg pointed out, "Quantum theory no longer speaks of the state of the universe, but our knowledge of the state of the universe." For the first time scientists had a theory that ultimately had no objective foundation. That this may be because quantum theory does not satisfactorily account for consciousness has been pointed out by the founding fathers of quantum theory, Eugen Wigner and John von Neumann, but this line of reasoning has not been adequately pursued.
There are also other areas within science besides quantum mechanics where consideration of consciousness has become central. Artificial intelligence is an example, where the initial mood was very similar to Newtonian hubris. Newtonian physicists thought everything in the world could be explained in terms of laws governing basic motions. Similarly, artificial intelligence researchers thought that all aspects of human cognition could be explained simply in terms of rules governing our behavior. But soon AI researchers found that even the simplest aspects of human cognition could not be reproduced. Now they understand that to suceed in AI we need a basic understanding of human consciousness. In psychology too, behaviorism has proven to be insufficient, and what was called introspective psychology is coming back into fashion.
So our institute is promoting the examination of overtly consciousness-based approaches to these problems within science today. Consciousness has been talked about within science in the past, but always with a view to explain it away rather than explain it. Accepting that consciousness has a causal role in the world is a very bitter medicine for scientists to swallow, but they are beginning to do it. And metaphysicists are also beginning to see that while there is undeniable reality to the subjective dimension, any system claiming to explain it must bear relevance to the objective concerns of empiric science. This is the challenge: to answer the pressing questions arising in science that call for consideration of consciousness with genuine consciousness-based paradigms.
How did you choose your speakers for the panel?
The first thing I did was contact Sir John Eccles. Eccles is very much known for his open stand that mind is different from the brain. Eccles was described by Libet as one of the five top neuroscientists of the century. When he says that brain is different from the mind, in the very least you cannot tell him that he does not know about the brain. He was the first to accept, which he did immediately. Once he agreed, everything else fell into place. We had to choose both theorists and experimenters. Data in this field is very, very rare. We chose two people to present data that were from opposite camps. Benjamin Libet from UCSF had data which seems to show that in some cases our apparent actions of free will, such as when our hand moves spontaneously to set the clock, may well be merely action triggered by the brain a full half second before we desired to lift our hand. According to this data, our free will may well be an after thought! There are other ways to interpret his data, and Libet is the first to admit that his data deals at best with local intentionalities, not global free will. Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunn presented data that shows the opposite, that consciousness has intentionality. These were the experimenters. Although Pribram and Eccles might consider themselves experimenters as well, they presented no data. The rest of the panel consisted of theorists of different fields: neuroscience, psychology, physics, artificial intelligence, mathematics, and philosophy.
You mentioned that there is not much data in this field to draw from. What about the data in neurscience?
Yes. This point was also raised during the panel discussion. It was Pribram who complained that not enough of the existing data was sufficiently discussed at the conference. But John Searle came up with the best rejoinder when he said that the problem of discussing data collected thus far is that all this data was gathered specifically to demonstrate that consciousness does not exist. Therefore how can we speak of consciousness and use this data? First we need to do new research.
The difficulty is that science always goes by an operational definition. In order to make any concept scientific, you must have an operational definition, because then it becomes falsifiable and hence becomes scientific. An operational definition is in itself an interesting concept. What it really means is that you can propose any phenomena, like Newton proposed gravitation, but it must be eventually corelated to some adhoc physical measurements. Consciousness, however, is by definition the one that measures, the one that does the observation. So how are you going to give an operational definition of it?
I think the answer lies in seeing that the interaction between consciousness and gross matter involves subtle levels or realms of matter where other kinds of measurement than the ones that we are presently aware of can be made. The work of Robert Jahn and others are the kind of experiments in which more precise operational definitions of phenomena that are closer to consciousness than gross matter, namely mind, can be talked about. If we learn to see other orders of existence between consciousness and gross matter, such as mind and intelligence, then scientists might be better able to conceptualize the ultimate phenomena.
Why have scientists been so reluctant to discuss consciousness in the past?
Did you know that before Rutherford split the atom in 1911 scientists considered the question of what an atom is a religious question?! For them it was enough that the hypothesis of the atom was useful to explain certain physical processes. Kekule, who discovered the structure of benzene said, "The question of whether or not atoms exist has little signifigance from a chemical point of view; its discussion belongs rather to metaphysics." But today the study of what's inside the atom is physics!
Similarly, scientists in this century have regarded the issue of what consciousness is as a religious or metaphysical question. After all, Western science started out as a protest against religion. Since religion went inward, science saw its own task as going outward. But as science went further and further into the external world, they ended up inside the atom where to their surprise they saw consciousness once again staring them in the face!
Even then scientists thought a hypothesis about consciousness was all that was needed. However, just as the study of the atom has become what we call physics today, the study of what consciousness is, I feel, may very soon become the science. William James said
"When science comes to eventually understand consciousness it will be an achievement in the face of which every other achievement of science will pale into insignifigance."
Many scientists equate mind and consciousness. Yet in your personal presentation at the conference you described mind as subtle matter, different from consciousness. What is your conception of mind, matter, and consciousness?
In my talk, I approached the issue of consciousness from the perspective of AI. The first step here is to show the need for a new paradigm. That artificial intelligence needs a new paradigm has become apparent from the variety of intractable problems in cognition we face in areas such as perception, natural language processing, knowledge representation, and automatic reasoning. We have no general theory of computation yet that can produce human cognition in machines. A task that comes naturally to a one year old childórecognising the face of his or her motheróis hopelessly beyond the capacity of supercomputers. What's required is not just some new hardware/software schemes, but a fundamentally new technology.
To understand what I mean let's compare electronic computers with mechanical calculators. Both are symbol processing systems. In principle, a mechanical system of gears and levers can be constructed to reproduce the workings of any electronic computer. In practice, however, this will not be possible. A mechanical system equivilent to even the simple desktop computer would be so enormous as to fill the entire planet and consume power that all the coal mines on earth cannot supply! This advantage of speed, power, and size is present in electronic computers because IC chips involve operation of matter at a much subtler level, obeying laws of a different kind from mechanical systems. You cant hope to make smaller and smaller mechanical parts and reach IC technology.
Similarly, AI researchers today think that by making IC chips smaller and smaller we will eventually come to mind. But I argue that you can't do that. You have to go to another level to talk about mind. I am postulating different levels of matter. I am suggesting that we have to think of mind as a subtler level of matter that operates much faster and under different laws than IC chips. You cannot reach that level through nanotechnology.
Professor Bremmerman at UC Berkeley has shown that there are absolute limits to infromation processing in physical systems regardless of the details of their internal construction. For example, given a computer of total mass m, the maximum information it can ever process is mc2/h bits/second, where h is the plank's constant. He has gone on to show that even if we consider a computer that has been in operation for the duration of the entire universe, assuming that it has been in operation for the duration of the present age of the universe, its total information capacity will not be enough to solve a travelling salesman's problem involving no more than 100 cities! The conclusion is that the human brain, being a physical device, is subject to the same absolute limitations, irrespective of its internal construction. If the brain alone was involved in human cognition, we should not be able to carry out the kind of complicated cognitive operations that we do! Therefore, I have argued that what is involved in human cognition is information processing involving levels much faster and hence subtler than the brain.
If you accept this idea, that there is more to human cognition than the brain function, then there is already a model of consciousness, intelligence, mind, and brain in the Vedantic texts that closely follows these requirements. This Vedantic model describes mind as a level of matter subtler than the brain. According to this model, thought is to mind what motionis to objects, or beavior is to the body. That is, thoughts have no intrinsic semantic content. An example of this is when a driver drives a car. The idea of the journey is not intrinsic to the car's motion, but a superimposition on the part of the driver. Similarly, meaning is not intrinsic top thoughts of the material mind, but is a superimposition of subjective consciousness.
This idea, that thought is a mechanical output of matter at the subtle level of mind without intrinsic meaning is a novel idea within Western tradition. If this idea can be shown to be of practical relevance to AI, then I feel we can go one step nearer to the paradigm of consciousness, otherwise, to ask current science to jump directly to consciousness is too much. This is a necessary step in what I have mentioned about the third wave—finding the middle ground between consciousness and matter, and thus expanding the domain of current science.
What is the difference between Cartesian dualism and the Vedantic dualism you are discussing?
Descartes said, "I am that, that thinks, the soul, or the reason, or the understanding." He used all of these terms equivalantly. Thinking, reasoning, and soul were all the same for him. This is the problem with Cartesian dualism—that it lumped into one concept called mind all hierarchic cognitive traits. That is why Cartesian dualism has no relevance for science, whereas the Vedantic pluralism—in terms of consciousness, mind, and body—seems to give ideas about the presence of various levels of hierarchy in matter.
If you see a car moving on the street and you want to know why it's turning left or right, one might say, "All you need to do is study the mechanics of the car. The car is a complete system; there is nothing inside." But I come and say no, there is a driver in there. Now that is correct, but it's not sufficient. Still you have to accept that there are several levels of mechanisms within the car, and there is a specific point at which the driver is coming in contact with the car, the steering wheel and control panel. Descartes was correct in thinking that there is an irreducible subjective residio that is essentially the self. That is exactly the same as the Vedic idea tat tvam asi, thou art that. But Descartes was not able to distinguish that there is a subtle material substance called mind that is the point at which consciousness meets matter. There is a hand and there is a glove. The glove is exactly like the hand but it is a cover. So the mind is very close to consciousness but it is matter.
The Vedanta also has a monistic interpretation, monistic idealism if you will. In Shankara's view there is no objective reality to matter. It is all illusion. You hold a very different viewpoint on Vedanta.
Yes. There is a very established tradition of Vedantic thought, monism, that is close to idealism. We are proposing something different,a multidimensional, pluralistic approach to the whole issue of reality. We are talking about individual consciousness and a supreme consciousness or God. We are also talking about matter as an objective reality, the shadow of consciousness, rather than an illusion or something that really does not exist. This is theistic Vedanta.
The question is which Vedantic paradigm can import concepts that can be shown to be empirically and analytically accountable. I do not think that monism can explain any of the problems of consciousness in science in a way relevant to science simply because, according to the monistic viewpoint, in the ultimate analysis matter doesn't exist. Therefore the highesr realizations of monisim by definition can not have any bearing on modern science, which studies the domain of matter.
It seems that in attempting to bring consciousness into science, rather than keep the two separate, you are attempting to bring value into a somewhat valueless technological world view.
I certainly hope so. Today science is totaly without a framework for values. Any highschool boy or girl knows how to calculate the force with which a stone he or she throws will hit someone in the face, but nothing in those equations they use will tell them whether or not to throw it. Given the fact that science is perturbing our universe in greater and greater proportions, it is essential that we address the absence of values within science. We must note that the changes wrought by science and technology to our environment are always irreversible. That is to say we cannot go on polluting our environment for years and then one day suddenly say "Oops, that was a mistake, let's take it back." It is easy to destroy something, but much more difficult to put it back together again.
To solve the problem of values we must know what is valuable. Consciousness is the most valuable commodity. Without consciousness our own bodies as dear as they are to us, are suddenly without value. This of course is a philosophical argument, but nonetheless an pragmatic one. If we accept it, then, to bring values into science,we need to connect science with what is valuable—consciousness.
Cairns Smith is well known for his work in the field of chemical evolution. I was quite surprised to hear some of his remarks about consciousness. What is the Vedic view on evolution?
Darwinian evolution is biological. It talks about the needs of the biological system by which evolution proceeds. But it is inadequate to explain the appearance of the first biological system. Therefore we have theories of chemical evolution which precede biological evolution. Cairns Smith, as a chemical evolutionist, was pointing out that consciousness is fundamentally different from all other physical phenomena because it acts back on the system that creates it. Consciousness has a two-way interplay that Smith called interactionism. His realization was that this interactionism must be present at the most fundamental level of matter. It cannot evolve suddenly in matter.
He went to the extent of assreting that "To say that consciousness evolved from matter is to say that a TV evolved from a refrigerator. Such things do not happen." He therefore postulated what he calls protoconscious units, which are not themselves conscious, but have the potential for consciousness that molecules and atoms don't have. However, in doing so he himself is dodging the issue. If protoconscious units are not conscious, then they have the same defect as matter in that they can't give rise to consciousness. If they are conscious, then why not call them consciousness rather than protoconsciousness? This is the same thing that Minsky tried to do in his book Society of Minds. He tried to show that there are certain things called minds that are not really minds, but when they all get together, then you get mind. This degenerates ultimately into philosophical emergence, where something comes out at the top of a structure that is not at the bottom of the structure. So you can see that even materialists invoke some fundamental conscious-like units different from known matter in an attempt o explain consciousness.
We can congratulate Cairns Smith for boldly recognizing the conceptual limitations of chemical evolution, but he has not yet taken the next step, which is to postulate consciousness as a separate ontological category coexisting along with matter. This is what I feel scientists in every field should do to solve the problem of consciousness in there respective fields. It won't suffice for scientists to assume that once we posit something as non-material that we cannot study it. We simply have to develop new scientific tools.
As far as the Vedic viewpoint on the different levels of consciousness within different species, I once explained this to Wigner. According to the Vedas, just as matter has fundamental particles called atoms, so consciousness is full of fundamental particles called cit kana. While every material atom is unconscious and therefore devoid of individuality, every spiritual particle is conscious, and therefore it has to be individual. Individuality is a fundamental axiomatic property of consciousness. Material atoms are governed by the laws of physics, and spiritual atoms are governed by love because they are units of free will.
I explained to Wigner that each unit of consciousness interacts with matter, and we see its capabilities manifest in accordance with whichever material machine or body it interacts with. If you drive a motorcycle and I drive a bicycle, you may go faster than me only because of the vehicle. It has nothing to do with you or I but the vehicles we are using. He asked me if I thought an amoeba had consciousness. I told him that the Vedas do not say that an amoeba has consciousness, but rather that consciousness has an amoeba body! Just as in each vehicle you see on the road there is a different driver, similarly in each body there is an individual conscious entity. According to the Vedas, all species exist at all times. Material bodies do not evolve. But each individual conscious entity evolves, thus acquiring different bodies which correspond with the individual's particular state of conscious evolution..
This paradigm is not contra-intuitive, and different Western schools of thought can be accomodated within it. Take for example reductionism, which claims that our behavior is essentially controlled by the physical laws operating on our bodies. The Vedantic viewpoint accepts that even though I am a conscious individual transcendent to the body, because I am using this particular body, I am constrained by its operation according to material laws. Thus reductionism can be accomodated within this framework.
You can talk also of emergence. The more sophisticated my physical structure is, the more I can show my skills. Higher order structures will show higher order properties, not intrinsically but extrinsically because consciousness can manifest more of its qualities. Dualism is also accommodated because the Vedic paradigm admits that consciousness and matter are different. Phenomenology, which says that beingness is an essential aspect of every structure that has consciousness, can be accommodated.
In short this Vedic model is the proverbial elephant of which different portions are being touched by so many blind men. One blind man says that it is rationalistic, another dualistic, another idealistic monism, another realism, but no one is seeing the entire elephant of this Vedic paradigm. The elephant is that there are two ontological categories, consciousness and matter, and the two interact to form our world.
Can't you also say that matter is a vitiated form of consciousness, that everything is ultimately consciousness?
This involves a higher philosophical discussion. I can see that at some level of God consciousness we can think of consciouness and matter in these terms—as you put it, seeing matter as a vitiated form of consciousness. But presently that vitiated form of consciousness acts differently as matter, and therefore it can be considered as a separate ontological category.
As the discussion of the conscious self enters the scientific arena it seems that we are at a critical juncture. What is the future of science?
I don't think that I can do better than to quote scientists who are greater than myself, who at the ends of their careers have given some reflections. I have some favorite quotes. W. Penfield, one of the top neuroscientists of the century, said in an article called Science, the Ox, and the Spirit:
"The physical basis of the mind is the brain action in each individual. It accompanies the activity of the spirit, but the spirit is free. It is capable of some degree of initiative. The spirit is the man one knows. He must have continuity through periods of coma and sleep. I assume then that the spirit must live on somehow after death. I cannot doubt that many make contact with God and have guidance from a greater spirit. If he had only a brain and not a mind, this difficult decision would not be his."
The tendency to see the human mind in terms of the latest technology of the times is an old one. In earlier times mind was thought of as a steam engine, as a clock, and before that as a catapult. Today the attempt is to equate mind with the brain. But here is something from Ludwig Wittgenstein from his Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology: "Nothing seems more possible to me than that people some day will come to the definite opinion that there is no copy in the nervous system which corresponds to a particular thought or to a particular idea of memory."
Szent-Giorgi, the Nobel laureate biologist, said,
"I went through my entire scientific
career searching for life, but now I see that life
has somehow slipped through my fingers and all I have
is electrons, protons, and particles, which have no
life at all. So in my old age I am forced to retrace
So I think the great advantage of discussing the notion of the conscious self within our scientific paradigms is that we can actually enlarge our framework. In order to do that we need help, and I don't think that anyone can deny that the Vedic literatures are the single most vast body of literature that seriously deals with this topic. From page one to the end it is conscious all the way.
Science, as long as it remains bound to emperical reductionism, can say nothing about the conscious self. Many in the contemporary world have tried to define perception such that it fits into their existing paradigms, but this has only made our problems more accute. Time has come to redefine scientific procedures such that they explain the conscious self. We need as many new ideas as we can get. If we are so foolhardy as to reject the entire wisdom preceeding us, such as the Vedic paradigm I have presented, then what assurance do we have that our present-day knowledge will not similarly be rejected by future generations?
Science is rooted in observations, and our conscious self is the very tool by which we observe. Even the strongest giant can not lift the platform on which he stands. As great as scientific knowledge is, it cannot explain the conscious self within its present observational framework. To experience it is to observe it.
[Reprinted from Clarion Call Magazine]