Dr. Lekshmi Ramakrishnaiyer
Human consciousness is just about
the last surviving mystery. (1) With the unceasing march of
science and technology, human vistas of knowledge appear to
have no visible boundaries. It makes the scientifically-minded
feel that there hardly exists a problem that may be termed
a mystery. But consciousness is an entity that still remains
a mystery to contemporary philosophers, psychologists, neurophysio-logists,
and cognitive scientists. Today, anyone who wishes to do some
serious thinking on fundamental human issues is prompted to
revisit this 'new' (and yet, age-old) mystery.
Is the Problem?
yourself enjoying the pleasant smell drifting from the gorgeous
vase of roses placed on your table. The experience, of course,
is something that is likely to remain etched in your memory.
But what is this experience? One may not even be able to describe
it to oneself, for this is an extremely private phenomenon
and has a subjective quality all its own. These 'private qualities'
are termed qualia. Our conscious experience consists of qualia.
So the problem of consciousness can be formulated thus: how
are qualia related to the physical world, or how does the
objective physical brain manage to produce subjective qualia?
problem of consciousness is a decidedly tricky problem. It
seems to be presenting perpetually new and divergent facets
to philosophers, psychologists, and cognitive scientists.
Part of the problem is that in common usage the term consciousness
is used very ambiguously. It is often contrasted with what
is unconscious or is used as a synonym for 'attending to something'.
But the problem of consciousness does not fundamentally pertain
to any of these. It is primarily about personal experience
or subjectivity, or possibly a state transcending subjectivity,
if such a state does exist.
makes the problem of consciousness somewhat different from
other mind-body problems? Consciousness is not synonymous
with mind, which has its own distinctive meaning and functions.
At the same time, consciousness is viewed by many as a by-product
of the brain; and today our knowledge about the functioning
of the brain, about neurotrans-mitters, neuromodulators, and
the like, is increasing by leaps and bounds. We might have
expected all this knowledge to have clarified the nature of
consciousness, but it has not really done so. Not that we
are ill-equipped to understand the ways and functions of the
human brain - it may be that consciousness is something not
amenable to brain science. This may actually suggest alternate
modes of approaching the problem through first-person methods
and spiritual techniques. This is what Husserl was suggesting
when he wrote in 1929: 'If I reflect properly on my states
of consciousness, I will be learning thus what is the nature
of the psychical and comprehending the being of the soul,
and when I follow this procedure to the very end, I am face
to face at last with the ultimate structure of consciousness.'
(2) We could call the above-mentioned two views the objective
and subjective accounts respectively. We must see how consciousness
is discussed by the advocates of these two approaches.
contemporary philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists
have taken the third-person approach towards consciousness.
In their explorations, consciousness has come to be divided
into categories like phenomenal consciousness and access consciousness.
The American philosopher Thomas Nagel has introduced a useful
expression to describe what phenomenal consciousness is: an
experience is phenomenally conscious if there is something
that it is like to have that experience. (3) In the example
of the roses cited above, there is something that it is like
to experience the smell of roses. Phenomenally conscious experiences
have the special properties called qualia. Another variety
of consciousness discussed by modern thinkers is access consciousness.
A mental state is access conscious if it is available for
the rational control of speech and behaviour and can play
a role in reasoning (163). For instance, someone may not be
able to answer the question 'Which city is the capital of
Portugal?' but nevertheless be able to answer the question
'Is Lisbon the capital of Portugal?' In this case, the information
about the capital of Portugal is said to be accessible.
is important to note that the concept of access consciousness
is quite distinct from that of phenomenal consciousness. Let
me illustrate this point: Imagine a robot. It might believe
that it is about to be attacked, and that belief might rationally
control its actions, its speech, and such other programmed
functions. This means that it might be access conscious of
being under attack - but it may not be phenomenally conscious.
Though we can develop hypotheses about how access consciousness
is achieved, when it comes to phenomenal consciousness, we
have very few ideas. In fact, we have no idea how the brain
generates phenomenal consciousness. David Chalmers, a contemporary
Australian philosopher, has called the challenge of explaining
how the brain gives rise to phenomenal consciousness the hard
problem: 'If any problem qualifies as the problem of consciousness,
it is this one. Е even when we have explained the performance
of all the cognitive and behavioural functions in the vicinity
of experience-perceptual discrimination, categorization, internal
access, verbal report, there may still remain a further unanswered
question; why is the performance of these functions accompanied
by experience Е? Why doesn't all this information processing
go on in the dark, free of any inner feel?' (4)
speaking, phenomenal consciousness challenges physicalism
in two ways. First, it presents a metaphysical challenge:
Can qualia be accounted for in purely physical terms? Second,
it presents an epistemological challenge: Even if we accept
that qualia are, in fact, physical, can we understand how
the brain generates phenomenally conscious experiences? This
distinction was explicitly stated for the first time by the
American philosopher Joseph Levine.
'Mary thought experiment' suggested by the philosopher Frank
Jackson is an argument to press the metaphysical challenge
of qualia.5 Mary is a super-scientist who has been raised
from birth in a black-and-white room. In the room she learns
all the physical facts of relevance to human colour vision.
One day she is let out of the room and sees a ripe tomato
in good light. 'Wow!' she says, 'Now, I know what red looks
like!' It is only now that Mary has experienced the quale
of redness. This knowledge is something fundamentally new:
what red is like. No amount of knowledge about physical facts
could have prepared her for the raw feel of what it is like
to see red. Mary knew how the brain discriminated stimuli,
integrated information, and produced verbal reports. She also
knew that colours were names for specific wavelengths in the
spectrum of light. All these are the easy problems of consciousness.
Yet she did not know what colours actually looked like. Thus
it follows that 'there are facts about conscious experience
that cannot be deduced from physical facts about the functioning
of the brain'. Jackson is a property dualist as far as qualia
are concerned. To him qualia are the non-physical properties
of the brain.
there is the epistemological side of the problem. Think about
a painful experience. Brain scientists would equate this with
the rapid firing of neurons in a certain part of the brain.
But this does not explain 'painfulness'. Philosophers like
Thomas Nagel and Joseph Levine have argued that there is an
explanatory gap between the neuronal firing and the experience
of painfulness. According to Levine, phenomenal properties
like painfulness (a quale) are simple in that they have no
structure. He goes on to assert that the lack of structure
exhibited by qualia generates the explanatory gap.
reviewed the hard problem and the explanatory gap, let us
now take a look at the alternate approaches to consciousness.
approaches to consciousness are inextricably bound up with
the concept of self. The notion of self gains importance in
the problem of consciousness because it seems logical that
there be someone who is having the experience, that there
cannot be experiences without an experiencer. Our experiencing
self seems to be at the centre of our personal world, is self-aware
at any given time, and continues to be so from one moment
to the next. In other words, it seems to have both unity and
continuity. But the problem starts when one asks what kind
of entity this experiencer might be.
ordinary parlance, the self is the subject of our experiences,
an inner agent that makes decisions and carries out actions,
a unique personality. There are, broadly speaking, two types
of theories about the nature of self: the ego theories and
the bundle theories (98). The former hold that underlying
the ever-changing experiences of our lives there is an inner
self that experiences all these different phenomena. All ego
theories are unanimous in their acceptance of the self as
a continuous entity that is the subject of a person's experiences
and the author of his or her actions and decisions. Ego theories
include the Hindu theories of transmigrating immortal souls,
Descartes' dualism, and most modern personality theories.
According to bundle theories, the feeling that each of us
is a continuous unified self is an illusion. There is no such
self but only a series of experiences linked together in various
ways. There are experiences but there is no one entity which
has them. Bundle theories include the Buddhist notion of anatta,
Hume's 'bundle of sensations', and Dennet's 'no audience in
the Cartesian theatre'.
of which theory of self we choose, we are confronted with
the following problem: how does the brain generate phenomenally
conscious experiences called qualia?
is needed for solving the above problem is a theory that can
account for the real being of humans: a first-person accoun
to human physical and non-physical ways of being. The philosophy
of Yoga is one such clear account of the spiritual as well
as psychosomatic being of humans.
other sciences which view humans as primarily psycho-physical
entities, Yoga views them as fundamentally the Self encased
in the psycho-physical system. So, in this system, consciousness
is not taken as a by-product of matter, nor is the Self identified
with ego. In Yoga, consciousness, which is identified with
the Self (Purusha), is considered a fundamental principle
constituting humans. The yogic concept of the human being
can be explained in terms of the koshas or sheaths that have
been elaborated in the Upanishads. Pure Consciousness (Self)
is encased in the material vehicle of the five sheaths, the
panchakoshas: annamaya kosha (the physical sheath),
pranamaya kosha (the vital or energy sheath),
manomaya kosha (the mental sheath), vijnanamaya
kosha (the intellectual sheath) and anandamaya
kosha (the sheath of bliss).
to Yoga, our states of consciousness can be resolved into
two 'parts' - permanent and changing.(6) The permanent part
is that pure Consciousness by virtue of which we have the
notion of self reflected in our consciousness and are able
to examine our own mental activitiesas witness. The changing
part is that form of consciousness which is constantly varying
according to the constant change of its contents. A fundamental
characteristic of consciousness is that it undergoes changes
of state within itself. We cannot distinguish states of consciousness
from consciousness itself, for consciousness is not something
separate from its states; it exists in them, passes away with
their passing, and is submerged when they are submerged. It
has been suggested that an invariable relation exists between
matter and consciousness: 'a change in consciousness corresponds
to the change in the vibration of matter (change in state
and not change of place) and vice versa.' (7) Thus the self
(consciousness) becomes identified with whichever sheath is
most active at any given moment.
Qualia in the Light of Yoga
a better understanding of phenomenally conscious experiences
(qualia) in humans, it is necessary to go through the
yogic theories of knowing. Two elements, Purusha (Self)
and Mahat (Intelligence), play key roles in the process
of cognition. But neither, by itself, can serve as the subject
or experiencer, for Purusha is external to phenomenal experiences
and Mahat, being derived from material Prakriti, is incapable
of any conscious experience. So the Sankhya philosophers suggest
that conscious experience is elicited by them jointly.
details of the process of cognition can be put in the following
way: The object first makes an impress upon one or another
of the senses, either directly or in a mediate fashion. (8)
Perception is effected by means of a psychic sign - an image
or idea of the object in question. Mahat itself assumes the
form of the object. The Purusha illumines the Mahat or is
reflected in it; and the latter, though material, is fine
enough to receive this reflection. Thus illuminated, Mahat
serves as the conscious subject. Therefore, Mahat may be viewed
as the physical medium for the manifestation of Spirit. In
this sense, we may call their union the empirical self, as
distinguished from the transcendental Self or pure Consciousness.
Every cognition or the nomenally conscious experience (quale)
is a result of this blend.
yogic theory of cognition seems to fill in the explanatory
gap. But the yogi, unlike the neuroscientist, has visited
consciousness through a different route. One needs to follow
the spiritual path and practise meditation to walk this way.
Of course, this is also a sure path to truth. Moreover, it
also helps one understand what the real problem of consciousness
is. Consciousness is no more viewed as a non-physical product
of the brain but as the ontological principle that makes for
human beings. Pure Consciousness, in fact, is not an empirical
principle but the eternal, transcendent, and cosmic Self.
a Broader Knowledge
study of consciousness is unique. There have been arguments
over whether consciousness can be studied from the objective
third-person approach or from a sub ective first-person approach
alone. What appears to give these arguments their peculiar
twist is the fact that in the study of consciousness the inner
life itself is the phenomenon to be explored. Many important
contemporary thinkers like Chalmers, Searle, Nagel, Levine,
Pinker, and McGinn hold that consciousness has essentially
a first-person or subjective ontology and so can not be reduced
to anything that has a third-person or objective ontology.
Revisiting the new mystery makes philosophers, psychologists,
and scientists re-think the substantive claims of physical
science and fosters the admission of alternate ways of enquiry
in widening the domain of human knowledge.
D C Dennet, cited in Susan Blackmore, Consciousness: An
Introduction (New York: Oxford, 2004), 8.
Edmund Husserl, cited in Roderick M Chis-holm, Realism
and the Background of Phenomenology (New York: Free Press,
Ian Ravenscroft, Philosophy of Mind (New York: Oxford,
D J Chalmers, cited in Consciousness: An Introduction,
Consciousness: An Introduction, 278.
Surendranath Dasgupta, Yoga as Philosophy and Religion
(New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1978), 20.
Annie Besant, Introduction to Yoga (Chennai: Theosophical
Publishing, 2002), 34.
M Hiriyanna, Outlines of Indian Philosophy (New Delhi:
Motilal Banarsidass, 1993), 284-5.