Have you ever watched someone walking alone on a busy street, speaking out loud to themselves — what an old friend of mine called a ‘one party conversation’? Sometimes they’re muttering, sometimes yelling and ranting — it’s a very odd spectacle. Who are they talking to? Are they speaking to an imaginary or remembered person, or are they speaking to themselves? It looks ludicrous to the onlooker, but for that lonesome soul raving to or about someone who isn’t there, it’s very real — for him it’s reality. So, we have some compassion for these people. But don’t we more ‘sane’ people do much the same thing as the ranter, except silently? Don’t we mutter and rave to ourselves at least once a day? Aren’t we perhaps just as crazy as the ranter on the street, only we do it less often (or do we?) and do a better job of hiding it? In fact, isn’t our world of approximately seven billion people little more that a gigantic insane asylum full of secret and not-so-secret ranters?
Well, you may not agree, but this writer believes so. He also believes that the key to ending the ranting is not through behavioral modification drugs, shock therapy or endless hours of therapy. Rather, he thinks that the solution is much less expensive, painful and numbing than what the current medical system has to offer. In fact, he is convinced that the solution is free, universally accessible, painless and easily applied. He does not believe that mental illness is principally a biological problem, but rather that the biological manifestations of the condition are themselves a result of a deeper problem, which is our existential self-ignorance.
This writer is convinced that the most powerful healing modality available is self-awareness and self-knowledge, and that in order to be truly sane we must know who we are. In short, we must know — clearly and directly — the self. A superificial understanding of the self will not suffice. We must know it from the ground up. Just as the most important yet most hidden part of a building is it’s foundation, so the most vital aspect of the self is hidden from view. Lacking a true grasp of our fundamental nature puts the entire superstructure of our personality, values and priorities at risk. It is ignorance of this most intimate aspect of ourselves that makes us vulnerable to mental, emotional and even physical breakdowns. And that is what this essay is about: the fundamental premiss that ignorance of the true nature of the self is the primary cause of suffering and insanity. So let us being by probing into the question….
What is the self?
When we think of the self, we think of it as that which gives continuity to our lives. Without the self, experience would be a meaningless jumble of sense-data. The self is the reference point which allows the intellect to connect the elements of experience and create meaning. The intellect assembles the data of the senses (including the sensations of pain and pleasure) into meaningful wholes which it then relates to other wholes. Through this process the intellect gradually builds up a description of the universe which we, as the self, behold and in which we, as the perceiving ‘I’, are the centre. The self is also that which sees, hears, feels, tastes, smells, observes, experiences, witnesses. The self is the subject which knows the object, whether gross (rocks, trees, etc) or subtle (ideas, intuitions, abstractions, etc). The self as subject can never be the object, since in order to observe itself, the self would need to become a second self: it would need to split off from the original self.
The primary components of our ordinary description of the universe include time, space, objects and events (action). Since the perceiving ‘I’ is the centre of all this, it must include itself in its description. It does this by identifying itself vicariously with the source of the sense-data from which the description is built up: the human body. The body, as an object occupying space, persisting through time, involved in events and housing the five physical senses that provide the sense-data, gets the title of ‘I’. In this way, the ‘I’ is able to include itself in the description and, by default the body becomes the centre of the universe it perceives. From this it is easy to deduce how our medieval ancestors naturally assumed that our home, the Earth is also at the centre of the cosmos with all the heavens, stars, sun and moon revolving around us.
Since the perceiving ‘I’ also perceives the body and its components as part of the description, the intellect assumes that the ‘I’ itself is the locus of the body. This locus cannot be directly perceived (since it is the perceiver), yet the intellect assumes that the locus must be ‘in’ the body which it is perceiving Thus, when the perceiving ‘I’ witnesses a reflection of the body in a mirror, thoughts such as ‘my hair looks nice’, ‘my eyes look clear’, etc, arise. The intellect does not identify the perceiving ‘I’ as ‘my eyes’, ‘my hair’, but rather as the locus and possessor of the hair and eyes it is perceiving. This outlook of the intellect extends to every particle and state of the body perceivable to the ‘I’ — i.e., “my legs, my brain, my regrets, my feelings…all belong to me, the ‘I’”. In this way, the intellect performs a triple feat. First, it identifies the perceiving ‘I’ as the body; second, it locates the perceiving ‘I’ as a non-specific locus in the body; and third, it assigns to the perceiving ‘I’ possession of the body as well as its internal states. As a result, the perceiving ‘I’ is simultaneously crowned, (1) the body, (2) the possessor of the body and (3) the non-perceivable locus of the body. Finally, the intellect gives a title to this three-headed, self-contradictory, perceiving ‘I’: the self. Is it any wonder human beings are confused, anxious and in mystery about their real nature?
The self is not the body (matter)
If we take the position that the self is, in fact, the body and delimited to it, we run into problems. Obviously we cannot assume that the entire body is the self, since the self remains in tact when people lose important limbs, such as arms and legs. So, if we say that the self is the body, we must mean that it has a physical locus in some part of the body such as the heart or the brain. Such an assumption is necessary because too many people are missing major parts of the body yet functioning with their ‘self’ very much in tact. So then which part of the body can we identify as the self? Is it the brain? We know that certain areas of the brain can be destroyed yet the self will continue. Some have argued that a specific gland is the locus of the self. But then does this mean the self is the entire gland or some portion of the gland, and if some portion, then what portion? So far, no particular location or system in the body has been identified as the self. In fact, the body is a highly complex, integrated network of systems functioning interdependently and demonstrating a remarkable capacity to compensate when limbs are lost and organs are damaged.
Due to the supreme importance of our own body over all other bodies in the universe — from our subjective viewpoint, of course — the natural tendency of the intellect is to equate the self with the body. This identification is valid in a limited and relative sense, since our body is the indispensable vehicle of ordinary experience. When a body dies, we say ‘Marie died’ or ‘Robert died’, thus indicating our identification of the self — i.e., Marie or Robert, with the body which carries one of those names. This works for practical purposes but breaks down when we begin to analyse the exact nature of the self. For example, when we look at our face in the mirror, we don’t say, ‘my face is my self’ but rather, ‘my face is an aspect of myself’. If we lose a leg due to an accident, we don’t think, ‘my self is now smaller, so “I” am smaller’, but rather, ‘I’ve lost a part of my body, yet I am still fully present” — i.e, we distinguish between the self and the different parts of our body. No matter how much damage is done to the body, so long as it continues to exhibits signs of life the self is considered to be present and in tact. Even people with a parent who can no longer recognize them because of severe brain damage due to Alzheimer’s disease, still relate to that parent as a self they know and cherish.
Equating the self with the body serves a practical purpose when dealing with other human beings. For example, if Robert greets us at the door and we hear noises coming from his mouth, we may recognize that he is giving us a warm, ‘Hello’. If his lips curve upwards at the corners we will know that he is giving us a friendly smile. If his hands put food before us, we will understand that he is offering us nourishment. In fact, we will assume we know the self of Robert by observing his body: how it looks, what acts it performs, how it communicates and so forth. But if our way of knowing Robert is limited to our perception of his body and what his body does (however detailed and refined that may be), then what need is there to posit a ‘self’ for Robert, except as a convenience of speech? Robert appears to be his body and everything Robert does is simply his body in action. Who Robert is then, is neither more nor less than an object to an external observer. Robert may not be flattered to know that we consider him an object — that is, his body and its manifestations — but then we don’t have to tell him this, and we can keep him happy by using the term, ‘your self’. And Robert can keep us happy by referring to us as ‘your self’, even though what he knows about ‘our self’ is limited to his perceptions of our body, its actions and demeanor. Additionally, whatever intuitions he may have about us will be either confirmed or rejected on the basis of his further observation of our actions.
The real problem of the body-self relation arises when we consider it not in terms of the ‘other’, but in terms of our own self. We dwell not so much on our own physicality and actions, as we do on our feelings, thoughts, aspirations, impressions, hunches and so forth. This internal part is our private side and not directly knowable by others. For us, this private side is extremely important and we guard it jealously. Furthermore, the bulk of our attention is on what’s hidden from view rather than our public presentation. Our sleep and dream experience is entirely private, at least as to actual content. We spend much of our waking state silently ruminating, fantasizing, planning, analyzing, remembering and anticipating. And when we are in public, we hide a great deal of what we are feeling, thinking, judging, intending, avoiding, wanting, liking and disliking. There is a great disparity between what others know of us publicly and what we think and feel privately. Since the disparity between our internal and external aspects is so great, we have no choice but to posit both a private self and a public body. Experience is always private to the experiencing subject, thus forcing the scientist to rely on his subject’s verbal testimony rather than his own direct observation of the subject’s physical presentation.
As scientists, we could examine Robert’s body and attempt to explain or evaluate his internal states in terms of his biochemistry. Furthermore, we could assume that Robert’s consciousness (including its content) is an epiphenomenon or by-product of the body’s biochemical processes. In fact, this is very much what science does, whether Robert likes it or not. However, as our private self we could not accept this with impunity. The act of describing our innermost thoughts and feelings purely in terms of biochemistry would alter the very functioning of our biochemistry, and potentially in a negative way. For ourself to reduce ourself to biochemical or bio-energetic processes would breed the biochemistry of a strict determinism over which we have relinquished any real sense of free will. It would undermine our vital sense of self-determination. And it would reduce our profoundest insights, highest aspirations and noblest sentiments are neither more nor less than body chemistry. Even inspiration would be reduced to a predetermined chain of cause and effect. Although some strict determinists might argue to the contrary, it is difficult to imagine how such a view would not encourage apathy and a tendency toward abdication of personal responsibility for our actions and their results.
When the poet, Robert Frost describes arriving at a critical choice of taking one of two paths in a forest*, does he have free will in the matter? Is the choice really his, or is his feeling of having to make a choice by his own free will simply an illusion — an illusion which is itself predetermined by his biology? If he is his biochemistry then his self is his biochemistry. But then what is controlling his biochemistry? The answer to that must be strictly ‘matter’, as subject to the laws which govern it. It is certainly not a self which has free will — because our biological self, as matter/energy/action, could not be in any sense a free agent.
We must ask ourselves, what kind of mood or attitude will such a self-assessment induce. Does it inspire us? Does it create a feeling of powerlessness? Does it excuse us from the necessity of managing our own behavior? Does it invite fatalism? One way or another, the mood induced by a belief in such a strict material determinism will itself affect our biochemistry, and since this belief is itself a product of our biochemistry it will be our biochemistry altering our biochemistry, yet in a purely deterministic and potentially negative manner.
* Robert Frost, ‘The Road Less Travelled’
Is consciousness an epiphenomenon?
The contents of consciousness may well be an epiphenomenon of our biology, particularly brain activity. To be conscious of something involves both consciousness and the image or sensation produced by contact of the senses with the external world. Consciousness is an essential condition for these phenomena to appear. It’s probably correct to say that the image or sensation appearing is itself is an epiphenomenon, but is it accurate to say the same of consciousness? Is consciousness itself simply a by-product of organic, material processes?
My online dictionary defines ‘epiphenomenon’ as follows:
1. ’a secondary effect or byproduct that arises from but does notcausally influence a process, in particular’,
2. ’in medicine — a secondary symptom, occurring simultaneouslywith a disease or condition but not directly related to it’,
3. ’a mental state regarded as a byproduct of brain activity’.
In reference to the first of the above definitions, consciousness — irrespective of whether it’s an epiphenomenon of brain activity — definitely does causally influence a process. Unlike secondary effects consciousness strongly influences change. While consciousness itself may not be an active agent, it is an essential component in the interaction of living organisms with their environment. In this sense, consciousness does ‘causally influence a process, in particular’, since the process would stop or take an entirely different direction in the absence of consciousness. If you tell me that my house is on fire, I will immediately quit what I am doing, race home and put the fire out. In order for me to do this, I first must have the information that my house is burning — which you kindly provided me. For me to have received your message, consciousness must have been present. Having received the information a decision was formed and my body made immediate movements in the direction of my house. Had I been unconscious, I would have taken no action. So although consciousness is neither a thing nor a directly measurable form of matter/energy/action, many events would not occur in its absence. Even though it may be an inactive factor, its presence enables activity. So the first part of this definition of epiphenomenon is not satisfied because consciousness does influence process. This leads to the question, ‘Does consciousness “arise” from process?’
The second definition describes ‘epiphenomenon’ as ‘a secondary symptom, occurring simultaneously with a disease or condition but not directly related to it’. In this instance, one event (a disease) triggers, secondarily, a second event (a symptom): so here we have an indirect relation between two events. There is a causal connection between them, only it is not ‘direct’, suggesting a sequence of intervening events separating the disease and the symptom. Symptoms are always visible in some sense. They can be detected; they signal that disease is present but are not, however, the disease itself. Symptoms constitute a part of the ‘external’ world, just as bodily disease forms a part of that same world. Both being visible, there will be a traceable correspondence between them. The symptom and the disease are occuring simultaneously and there must be a causal link, otherwise the term ‘symptom’ is misplaced. The concurrence of a ‘symptom’ and a ‘disease’ are not mere coincidence. Their correspondence isn’t accidental, unlike the example from Indian philosophy in which an apple falls from its branch at the same moment a crow lands beside it. The crow’s landing did not cause the apple to fall, appearances notwithstanding. The two events were concurrent and coincidental, but this is not so in the instance of a disease and its symptoms. In the case of consciousness and brain activity, it can be argued that brain processes ultimately result in an epiphenomenon called consciousness. But equally, the reverse could also be true: brain activity could be an epiphenomenon of consciousness. And there is a third possibility: that the relationship between brain activity and consciousness is not directly causal, but merely concurrent and relational, just as the crow’s landing was concurrent and relational to the apple’s falling.
Although consciousness does not cause the events which are perceived, it has a direct relationship with every perceived event. Consciousness is a necessary principle of perception; it is not perception per se, but it allows for perception. Such a relationship is not causal: consciousness does not cause the perception nor is it necessarily influenced by what is perceived. If consciousness is an event produced by the brain, either directly or indirectly, it will be possible to trace the sequence of events preceding the event called ‘consciousness’. All events belong to the ‘external’ world and are themselves ultimately perceivable. If consciousness is an event, in some sense it will be perceivable and measurable. Yet, to this point in time, science has not, deterministically, identified the event(s) immediately preceding consciousness. The fact is, consciousness is neither perceivable nor measurable and there is no strong evidence that it is a causally determined event. It does not appear to belong to the external world, but is completely unique. Therefore to describe it as a ‘by-product’ or ‘epiphenomenon’ of other perceivable events, such as brain activity, is to put it in the category of events — but merely hypothetically, not evidentially.
The third definition of ‘epiphenomenon’, that it is ’a mental state regarded as a byproduct of brain activity’ assumes that consciousness is a mental state. What is meant by the term ‘mental state’? Generally, it refers to the three states of consciousness: waking, sleeping and dreaming. Consciousness is clearly common to each of these states. In waking and dreaming states phenomena are appearing, and in the sleep state consciousness is sufficiently acute that a voice or a touch will awaken the sleeper. The term ‘mental state’ also refers to emotional and psychological conditions brought on by environmental and biological factors. These latter states are observed by the experiencing subject as feelings and thoughts; in other words, phenomena. However, consciousness itself is a precondition for the experience of feelings and thoughts, and is not itself these phenomena. Of all the various mental states which we experience, in every case consciousness is a precondition of those experiences. For this reason, the assertion that consciousness itself is a mental state is a weak one. A stronger argument would be to assert that consciousness is a mental state which underlies all other mental states, thus making consciousness a meta-mental state, which like light, belongs to no other category. How could the limited brain possibly produce something like this? Such an assertion would be no more plausible that the notion of the Greek god Atlas carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.
There is also the position that consciousness is the appearance itself and that between any two discrete appearances there is no consciousness. But this is an extremely weak argument. For one thing, how does it account for the well documented yogic state of nirvikalpa samadhi, in which consciousness is fully self-aware in the total absense of phenomena? What we can say is that consciousness is a continuum punctuated by moments of ‘consciousness of….(whatever specific phenomenon presents itself)’. In short, consciousness is the stable factor underlying the shifting landscape of moods, mental states and phenomena, and this is self-evident. What is not self-evident is the assertion that brain activity is a prerequisite for consciousness. In fact, it may be that the opposite is closer to the truth. Consider the following. The brain, as an object of knowledge, appears in consciousness, yet without consciousness there would be no knowledge that a brain exists. Conversely, one can be conscious and have no awareness of the brain and what it is. So, which has primacy, the brain or consciousness? On what basis do we assign primacy to the brain? Brain activity, we legitimately infer, causes the specific appearances of things, but on what basis do we infer that brain activity is the necessary condition or cause of consciousness itself? It is clear that the brain and consciousness have a direct relationship in the manifestation of appearances. We can make a strong inference that brain activity plays a key role in seeing the things we see and hearing the things we hear. We also know directly that if consciousness was absent we would neither see nor hear those things. Thus there is a relationship between consciousness and brain activity, but we cannot assume that this relationship is a causal one, in the sense of one causing the other, directly or indirectly.
There is a direct relationship between the appearance of an apple and consciousness. We may also infer that the image of the apple is a function of brain activity. By image, I mean anything appearing: objects, emotions, sensations, fragments, concepts, memories — whatever has a form, whether sensorially or abstractly. Brain activity produces brain waves which can be measured during sleeping, dreaming and waking states. Brain waves can also be measured during the silent-aware state of nirvikalpa samadhi. But again, what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Is brain activity the primal factor behind brain waves or is consciousness the primal factor? Brain waves may indicate consciousness, but they are not consciousness. If consciousness itself was extinguished, what would happen to brain activity, and by extension brain waves? It is no more valid to assume that brain activity causes consciousness than it is to say that consciousness causes brain activity; however, a good case can be made that in the absence of consciousness, brain activity would be greatly reduced or even eliminated. Perhaps the brain, as an organ, would degenerate without consciousness. Thus to assert that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of brain activity is at best an inference, and we could as easily infer that brain activity is an epiphenomenon of.consciousness. Furthermore, we know that the brain has a definite life-span. This does not, however, prove that the same is necessarily true for consciousness. It is a distinct possibility that the consciousness-principle is not tied to the brain and may exist independently of it.
The hypothesis that consciousness is an epiphenomenon is based on the assumption that matter/energy/action is the basis of existence. If this assumption is true, then consciousness may well be a byproduct of matter/energy/action. However, it is not proven that the latter is the basis of everything. Consciousness itself could prove be the basis of everything, including matter/energy/action. In terms of scientific proof, however, the jury is still out on which one — matter/energy/action or consciousness — has primacy. Or, it could turn out that consciousness and matter/energy/action are simply two sides of the same coin — Being — thus arguing for a monistic universe in which there is no such dualism as ‘mind/matter’ or ‘consciousness/matter or a creator God who is separate from His created universe. This third possibility is the viewpoint of the system of philosophy referred to as advaita (non-dualist) Vedanta, rooted in ancient Indian texts known as the Upanishads.
The assumption that with the death of the brain, consciousness terminates is an obvious hypothesis if we assume the primacy of matter/energy/action. But it could well be that consciousness itself is the source from which materiality emerges and to which it ultimately reverts. What if there is a field of consciousness within which individual organisms have their emergence? Could it be that the sperm and the egg are already individually tied to consciousness when they connect at the moment of conception? And could it be that ‘individual’ consciousness is simply an appearance reflecting the unique qualities of whatever organism happens to be unfolding within it? Perhaps the impression of an individual consciousness is nothing more than a projection by the intellect of an atomic self on a Self which is not bounded by time, space and causality — i.e., a Self of ‘being-consciousness’ that underlies and permeates both the subject and the object. If consciousness, rather than matter/energy/action, proves to have primacy in the physical universe, then many of our realist assumptions about the nature of things will be turned upside down. The point here being made is that the current assumption that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain, while valid as a working hypothesis, is not based on strong evidence and is, in fact, a very weak supposition.
Biology studying itself
If it is true that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain, then consciousness must be biological in nature. But then how can something which is immaterial and non-perceivable, such as consciousness, be said to be biological? Our bodies produce noise, heat, movement, artifacts, children, etc, all of which can be observed and in some sense measured. What is produced from matter/energy/action must be of the nature of matter/energy/action. However, consciousness is neither matter nor energy nor action, and we cannot observe or measure it. Consciousness is truly intangible yet there is a common materialist assumption that it is produced by a body that is itself tangible and measurable. This assumption is obvious and convenient, but when examined more closely we see it is not sound and has never been established empirically.
Knowledge demands consciousness, for without it nothing can be known. If consciousness is an epiphenomenon of biology, then by its nature it must be material and therefore observable. But consciousness, like knowledge and like light, is not observable. Brain waves are observable, but they do not tell us what the actual content of experience is. What we know directly is private, as is consciousness. We can describe what we know to others, yet what we are passing on is not our direct knowledge, but rather a description of it. Consciousness is even more elusive than knowledge, because it is formless, weightless and invisible. None of the five senses have access to it and unlike knowledge, consciousness cannot be transmitted to others even in the form of a description (other than to say that it is indescribable). Yet, consciousness is real, it exists, because whatever its exact nature we cannot deny it. Its existence is as true as 2 + 2 = 4. 2 + 2 = 4 is a truth which existed before our birth and will exist after our death. There are abstract realities which are eternal, 2 + 2 = 4 being one of them. It may be that consciousness is just such an abstract reality: not biological or material in nature and therefore, we infer, not subject to decay and dissolution. If it is not subject to dissolution then it must be beginningless, and since it is neither an event nor an object, then for want of a better term we may call it a principle.
The foregoing considerations seriously undermine the notion that consciousness is an epiphenomenon. Consciousness, whatever it is, is not physical — which does not assert that it does not exist. It must exist. Consciousness cannot be denied. The analytic philoshoper, Bertrand Russell established that the proven truths of mathematics do in fact exist even though they are non-physical: meaning that pure abstractions are realities as real as any phenomena which can be known and verified via the physical senses. By extension, these non-physical truths are never born nor will ever die, which is not the case with organisms. So it may be equally valid to suggest that the consciousness which allows us the joys and sorrows of experience has preceded our birth and will continue after the death of our body.
Self is neither the brain nor a material component of the brain
V.S. Ramachandran, a leading neuroscientist, has done important research on the function of recently discovered ‘mirror neurons’. In his essay, ‘The Neurology of Self-Awareness’*, he writes about the significance of mirror neurons in social interaction, the learning process and the development of culture. Mirror neurons were first discovered in primates and subsequently verified in humans. These neurons enable us to imitate others as well as recognize their intentions (‘read their minds’, so to speak). By extension, mirror neurons play a vital role in social interaction and organization, as well as the development and spread of culture.
In his essay, Ramachandran suggests that it is the mirror neurons which allow us to introspect and look at ourselves. He writes:
“….there is one aspect of self that seems stranger than all the others — the fact that it is aware of itself (my italics). I would like to suggest that groups of neurons called mirror neurons are critically involved in this ability…..I suggest that self-awareness is simply using mirror neurons for ‘looking at myself as if someone else is looking at me’ (the word ‘me’ encompassing some of my brain processes, as well)….and I am not arguing that mirror neurons are sufficient for the emergence of self: only that they must have played a pivotal role.” He further suggests that, “‘other-awareness’ may have evolved first and then counter-intuitively, as often happens in evolution, the same ability was exploited to model one’s own mind — what one calls self-awareness.” *
* The Neurology of Self-Awareness V.S. Ramachandran, The Edge, 10th Anniversary Essay
Clearly, when Ramachandran refers to ‘self-awareness’ he is referring to awareness of the empirical or ego-self, not the self as the experiencing consciousness that is ‘being-aware-of-something’. He confirms this when he says: ”…I am not arguing that mirror neurons are sufficient for the emergence of self”. It’s not the ego-self that is self-aware as experiencing consciousness. The ego-self begins as an elementary sense of ‘I’-ness and develops into a complex self-concept created by the intellect and other faculties of the organism (memory, etc) — a self-concept that undergoes a process of continual modification. The intellect reflects on this complex self-concept and this process is termed, ‘introspection’, a process that presupposes an already existing sense of ‘I’-ness.
Undoubtedly awareness of the ‘other’ contributes in a major way to the development of self-concept. How we relate to the other and how the other relates to us necessarily plays a major role in the evolution of our self-concept. Mirror neurons, then, must be functioning in the domain of otherness and self-concept. When Ramachandran mentions in the same essay that monkeys do not have self-awareness we assume he means that monkeys (apparently) do not reflect upon and, by extension, modify an already existing self-concept. However, monkeys must have consciousness, as do all sentient creatures and because of this many, perhaps all life forms have the power of recognition. It is also difficult to conceive of a monkey having ‘other-awareness’ in the absence of a primal self-awareness — i.e., the ‘I’-sense. When a predator approaches a monkey it tries to escape, fully aware that this ‘other’ is endangering its survival. If the monkey did not have minimal self-awareness, in the sense of ‘I’-ness, what could possibly motivate it to run from danger? It wants to protect its life, in other words, itself. This demands a sense of self and this sense is self-awareness, although it may not be the complex ‘self-concept’ that we associate with human beings. In fact, we could argue that any organism which is governed by the ‘fight or flight response’ must have at least a rudimentary degree of self-awareness in order for such a survival response to be triggered.
Self-concept, self-reflection and the underlying sense of ‘I’-ness, are not awareness per se, rather they are contents of consciousness. ’Other-awareness’ and ‘self-reflection’ are empirical, requiring the appearance of data (thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations, etc) in consciousness. Consciousness itself is relatively stable in relationship to its contents, which are constantly fluctuating. Our ego-self is undergoing continual modification. Introspection is, essentially, thinking about these data — a highly developed ability in humans. Most, perhaps all other life forms cannot introspect in any way comparable to humans, but what they do share with us is the fact of consciousness itself. In order for mirror neurons to function there first must be data and a sense of ‘I’-ness, both appearing in a consciousness which exists a priori, and it is these contents of consciousness that trigger the action of mirror neurons.
There is an argument that data (or in Bertrand Russell’s terminology, ‘percepts’) and consciousness are one and the same thing, and that in the absence of data there is absence of consciousness. The French philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre wrote: ’Consciousness is consciousness of something.’ For Sartre, there is no distinction between ‘objects’, ‘consciousness’ and ‘objects of consciousness’ — an idea he adopted from the German phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl. Sartre rejects both the notion of the independence of consciousness and the notion of the dependence of objects on consciousness. In other words, perception is consciousness and consciousness is perception, without exception. Thus, he asserts that consciousness has no contents and no independent existence, in fact, no existence whatsoever apart from the world of objects and events. This notion, however, has been repeatedly rejected by advanced meditators and yogis who report achieving a state of ‘no-thought’ (i.e., no data, no perception) combined simultaneously with direct intuition of intensified awareness. There is a radical difference between the ‘no-thought’ state of samadhi and the ‘no-thought’ state of sleep. Deep sleep is a ‘non-lucid’ state of ‘no-thought’, whereas samadhi is a ‘lucid’ state. In other words, the environmental context of ‘no-thought’ in deep sleep is radically different in context from that of deep meditation. In the ‘no-thought’ state of meditation there is awareness of awareness, whereas in the ‘no-thought’ of sleep there is non-awareness of awareness. This is not to assert that consciousness is extinct in deep sleep, since consciousness is sufficiently present that a loud voice or strong shaking will trigger a return to the waking state.
Sartre’s notion of consciousness locks us into a fundamental subject-object duality from which there is no escape except by ‘going unconscious’. The transcendental self-awareness of nirvikalpa samadhi, however, is a unified state, since the subject-object duality of thinking, observing, etc, has disappeared leaving only a plenum of consciousness. Pure consciousness cannot be its own object, and without self-observation it is void of self-concept (ego). It is a self-awareness which is the direct, immediate intuition of awareness by itself: a silent state of lucidity without any object (either subtle, i.e. — internal thought, feeling, sensation, emotion, memory, or gross, i.e. — external object, event or sensation). People routinely pass through the state of nirvikalpa samadhi when transitioning from sleep to waking. However, this interlude is so brief that it habitually goes unnoticed. With practice one can become aware of this moment and capture it in memory as a recognition that there was an interval of lucid awareness without content.
*Being-Consciousness. Technically, this state is called nirvikalpa (quality-less) samadhi: it cannot be described since ‘no-thing’ remains for the meditator to observe, including himself.
Those who argue that in the absence of data there is no consciousness are actually arguing that there is no empirical consciousness, by which we mean ‘consciousness of…..(fill in the blank)’. The ‘blank’ can be any impression, object or event (internal or external), which arises in the field of consciousness. There is a caveat here, however. At a subtle level, there can be awareness of impressions without any sense of duality — in the sense of an object-subject awareness. At this level, impressions are simply the awareness of ‘something-ness’ as opposed to nothingness or void. However, there is no sense that there is a locus to this awareness of something-ness nor is there more than one something-ness appearing. More than one something-ness means that discrete objects and events are appearing. There is something-ness rather than nothingness, yet there is no awareness of a perceiver perceiving anything and no sense that ‘I am observing something’. In other words, there is no empirical ego present, although there is a primal sense of ‘I’-ness or ‘am’-ness.
Something-ness becomes ‘perceived’ data when the sense of a locus arises; that is, when there arises the awareness of a perceiver perceiving something, whether the perception be of a sense-datum (colour, sound, etc), a memory, concept or emotion, or a full-blown object (house, tree, etc). Perception necessarily involves the duality of an observer observing some thing. The mere intuition of something-ness in itself is non-dual: there is merely stuff with no locus. Both stuff-awareness and pure consciousness precede the empirical ego. It is this non-duality which is the foundation of all subsequent impressions of subject-object awareness. Additionally, there is also a brief moment between sleeping and waking when there is stuff-awareness (just as there is a brief moment of pure consciousness) but no sense of a separate ‘I’ who is perceiving this stuff.* The empirical ego is a necessary locus — a construct of the intellect — which must be in place in order to build up a description of the world. This ego-self is a temporal product of the organism and serves as the locus. Consciousness, alternatively, is something fundamental and permanent, which the empirical ego is not.
* Some adepts are able to move fluidly between stuff-awareness (primary awareness) and object-awareness (secondary awareness), and from the state of stuff-awareness are able to respond to stimuli much more precisely and rapidly than those locked into object-awareness. (For a fuller exploration of this subject see my essay, ‘The Primacy of Consciousness’.)
Self-concept and self-reflection definitely involve brain processes, meaning that the empirical self is inimately tied to the organism. This is the ‘self-awareness’ to which Ramachandran refers in his discussion of mirror neurons. However, the pure self as the experiencing subject is not a function of concept or reflection, but operates at a more fundamental level of consciousness-by-itself. In the absence of both objectivity and something-ness, what remains is consciousness of consciousness — the ultimate foundation of all experience. Conversely, with the birth of either objectivity or something-ness, consciousness of consciousness disappears. In either case, however, consciousness itself remains, although it is hidden by what is appearing. With the rise of objectivity, consciousness appears to be transformed into the experiencing empirical subject — the locus of objective experience. That there is something objective (whether internal or external) being perceived demands an ‘I’ which is perceiving. In reality, this ‘I’ is simply consciousness itself, although the intellect wrongly assumes this ‘I’ to be the empirical ego. This ‘I’ is also ‘stuff-awareness’, but as ‘stuff-awareness’, not as an observer of ‘stuff-awareness’. It is the intellect which wrongly turns this ‘I’-as-consciousness into ‘I’-as-a-thing (principally, the body/mind), thus giving birth to the empirical ego. In other words, it is the intellect that manufactures the ‘I’ as the psycho-physiological locus around which our description of the world is created. This is the imagined ‘death’ of non-duality (pure consciousness) and the imagined ‘birth’ of duality (‘I’-ness and other-ness).
The subject and the object
The ego is an idea (what the modern Indian sage, Ramana Maharshi called the ‘I’-thought) based on the illusion of a separate, empirical self. The ego is not itself conscious. However, there is consciousness of the ego — in other words, of the empirical self as an object misperceived as the experiencing subject. This illusory self, this ‘I’-thought, is the source of our self-talk. Who hasn’t witnessed an extreme case of self-talk when we observe someone entirely alone having a loud conversation with himself? We assume this person is deranged, but in reality he is only slightly more deranged than the rest of us who simply hide our self-talk by keeping it internal. The ego-object is subtle, taking on a formless ‘body’ of thoughts, feelings and images. It is not accessible through the physical senses, yet it talks to itself. Common sense falsely assumes that this ego is the experiencing subject, and this is the universal error afflicting all of humanity. In reality the ego is a thought-form, not an experiencer: it’s an object, not a true subject. It is this false assumption that is the cause of so much confusion and suffering.
Bertrand Russell was a powerful analytical thinker who gave much attention to the question, ‘What exactly can we know with certainty?’ He was committed to identifying the basic truths which could serve as solid premises for the remainder of our beliefs and constructs. He affirmed that there were abstract truths of which we could not doubt and which could be proven through logic and mathematics. At the level of empiricism, however, Russell was convinced that we can have absolute certainty about only the raw, unthought sense-data of experience. Sense-data are the pure sensations — prior to any form of reflection upon them — of colour, sound, taste, smell, touch, pain, pleasure, movement, etc. These direct sensations are what precede their configuration into objects and events and the perceived relations among them. They precede the interpretation imposed upon them by the thinking process. Later in his career Russell dropped the term ‘sense-data’ in favour of ‘percepts’, because he realized the former term presupposed the existence of the physical senses (eyes, etc), which are themselves, in fact, phenomena configured from the raw sense-data. For Russell these primal elements of experience — percepts — were irrefutable facts, whereas the physical senses and all other objects are things inferred from these unformed data.
The term ‘percept’ was intended to by-pass any a priori assumption that the physical senses either pre-exist these primal data or function as their cause. Since most of what we believe we know is, in fact, inferred from prior knowledge and experience, Russell wanted to establish an irrefutable, non-inferred basis for our understanding of the nature of things. He succeeded in this in so far as objective phenomena are concerned. The weakness in his choice of the term ‘percept’ lies in the built-in supposition that there is a perceiver perceiving the percept, although this may not have been his intention. The noun ‘percept’ is the objective side of the verb ‘to perceive’. ’To perceive’ implies an observer observing something, which puts us directly into the assumption of a factual subject-object duality — an assumption which is the basic structure underlying our traditional understanding of reality. In truth, however,this assumption is an inference, not a fact. In Russell’s quest to find a non-inferential basis from which further knowledge can be validity inferred, he — perhaps unconsciously — inferred the existence of a local perceiver. Thus, the inference of an a priori subject-object duality is built into the supposedly neutral term ‘percept’. Russell may have assumed that the perceiver-perceived relation is a given, when in fact it is inferred. Russell’s apparent assumption is that the raw data of experience requires a perceiving subject, but where is the proof of this? All we can say with certainty is that there is ‘red-awareness’, ‘pain-awareness’, ‘pressure-awareness’, ‘heat-awareness’, etc. Beyond this, our knowledge of the universe is inferred, including our knowledge of a perceiver, a perceived and, by extension, an object-subject duality.
The self is not a locus in the body
In order to build up a description of the universe the intellect requires a locus. For a general description, the human body works well enough. For other, more precise descriptions, science demands a locus which is abstract, such as a metaphysical ‘point’ where two or more axes converge (geometry). A locus is not a thing, it’s a point of reference. A locus is an invention created for pragmatic purposes. For our ordinary experience, the body functions as a crude, but workable reference point by which we are able to establish a relatively clear network of relationships, based on distance in space and duration in time. Using this as the starting point, science and mathematics have moved continually in the direction of greater precision and abstraction, taking us to new realms where the rules which govern our every day lives no longer apply.
It is only when the self is in some sense equated with the body that the self can be identified as the locus of the intellect’s description of the universe. Normally, people localize the self in the body, yet maintain a distinction between the two: hence the assumption of the self as the locus. They unconsciously adopt the realist view that their body is a material, enduring object amongst many in a deterministic Newtonian universe, and they then assume that their self is either inside of or coextensive with or somehow proximate to the body. People commonly resist saying that the self is the body yet, paradoxically, if someone insults their body they will feel hurt or angry, as if a demeaning remark about their body is a demeaning remark about the self which they are. While people may conveniently assume that the self is not identical with the body — for metaphysical or religious reasons — psychologically they react as if the body and the self are the same thing. The truth is humans being are deeply, if not unconsciously, engrained with the ‘I-am-the-body’ idea. And this leads to the affliction of self-contradiction and often hypocritical behavior.
Fear of death is a major motivating factor in people’s belief in a self which inhabits the body but does not die with its death. The notion that with the death of the body there is a complete extinction of consciousness and a total obliteration of the self, produces extreme anguish. For this reason there is a powerful need to believe in a self that continues after the death of the body. If people were truly convinced of the reality of this, then human behavior would be very different from what it actually is. However, even those who are deeply religious and believe, on the basis of scripture and theology, that their soul is immortal will, when confronted with a life-threatening situation, react violently or panic. If they survive the threat, they may well suffer a post-traumatic stress disorder. If belief in the immortality of the soul is more than just wishful thinking, why do people react so powerfully and negatively to the possibility of the imminent death of the body? Human beings adopt all kind of beliefs at a conscious-mind level. However, it is in the heat of menacing situations that their real, underlying doubts and fears surface.
The comforting assumption of a separate self coexisting with the body seems fairly obvious and works well enough for conducting our daily affairs. However, when we begin a quest to gain a clearer understanding of the relationship of the individual self with the body we begin to run into problems. Bertrand Russell has exposed the fallacies of arguments in favour of a separate self. He points out that there is no empirical basis for a separate self, nor sufficient evidence to even infer such an invisible entity. For example, if a separate self is located within the body, where exactly in the body is it located? Various metaphysicians have argued that it is in the heart, others that it is in the brain, etc, but these are pure speculations. Other have argued that it is exactly coextensive with, yet distinct from the body. Again, speculation. Religiously inclined metaphysicians believe that this entity will continue to exist in some alternate reality after the dissolution of the material body. But again, where is the proof? In fact, where is there even sufficient evidence for a strong inference? Material realists avoid all this by taking a common sense view that the self dies when the body dies, as determined by the stopping of the heart, respiration and other vital signs. They ‘pooh-pooh’ the notion of a spiritual entity that persists after death. However, their “I’ll believe it when I see it” skepticism only skirts the issue since when all vital signs cease, we have only established the death of the body. The continued existence or termination of the self — or even whether there is such a thing as the self — remains a mystery.
Consciousness is not matter, energy or anything observable
The great Indian monist, Adi Shankara (c. eighth century), in his commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, addresses Krishna’s following definition of matter: ‘the great elements, egoism, reason, the unmanifested, the senses, the objects of the senses, desire, hatred, pleasure, pain, the body along with the senses, intelligence, courage — the field of matter (kshetra) has been described.’ (BG XIII, vs 5,6). Shankara writes that whatever is knowable is matter, as distinct from the non-material, non-observable Self (pure consciousness). Even the internal, subtle manifestations, such as desire, pleasure and courage are material since they too are knowable, i.e., observable, cognizable. Further, even intelligence is material since it too ‘…is a mental state which manifests itself in the organism — just as fire manifests itself in a burning metallic mass — pervaded by the semblance of the consciousness of the Self. It (intelligence) is matter because it is knowable.’* Although renowned as a mystic and seer, Shankara’s philosophy is rigorously empirical. Whatever can be perceived is of the nature of energy/matter. The totality of matter is called ‘the field’, which means the entire universe, manifest and unmanifest, revealed or hidden. Whatever can be observed or will be observed is included in this field. Thoughts, feelings, ideas, intelligence — though not observable with the physical senses — are attributes of the organism and also therefore material, albeit subtle.
*(‘Bhagavad Gita: Sri Sankaracharya’, pg. 338, Samata Books, Madras, translated by Alladi Mahadeva Sastry)
According to Adi Shankara, the knower of the field of matter is not itself material nor in any sense dependent upon matter. Rather, the knower is the Self or pure Consciousness. The knower is utterly immaterial and therefore not observable, measurable or in any sense empirically verifiable. Thus, it is neither directly accessible to science nor subject to any of science’s modalities. Yet, Shankara says that the Self can be known, albeit not objectively, and that it is the source from which arises our consciousness of existence with reference to all duality — i.e., me/you, me/it, me/them, etc.
Since consciousness is neither matter nor energy it cannot be observed, thus consciousness cannot objectify consciousness. Neither can consciousness know itself the way a subject knows its object. Thus, consciousness is not provable objectively, yet paradoxically the non-existence of consciousness is unthinkable. We can’t even conceive of the non-existence of consciousness in the absence of consciousness. We cannot perceive consciousness and yet we know when consciousness is present and when it isn’t, as in the case of waking and sleeping. We don’t realize that consciousness is absent during sleep, but upon awakening we recognize that it was missing or, more accurately, veiled by nescience. This puts us in a paradox: we know that consciousness exists, but we don’t know how we know it. Philosophers and scientists struggle with this, however Sri Ramana Maharshi (1897 – 1950) proposed a simple yet elegant solution to the riddle of how consciousness can be known: ‘To know the Self, be the Self.’ He elaborates this with the following argument, which is virtually identical to what Shankara wrote thirteen centuries earlier. Sri Ramana states that we have an illusory sense of self based on the mistaken assumption that the experiencer, the self, is identical with the body or body/mind. This mistaken sense of self is a false superimposition upon the self; in other words, the self is not the body (the superimposition) but the consciousness upon which the ‘I-am-the-body’ idea is superimposed. By removing this illusion we awaken to our true nature — our true nature being the self as it is: pure consciousness. Since our true nature as consciousness cannot be objectified, we know it not as a thing, but as what remains when the false superimposition is removed.
The intellect, which recognizes distinctions and apprehends objects, cannot function in their absence. Thus in any ‘object-less’ state — whether the insentience of sleep or the vibrant, pure awareness of deep meditation — the intellect cannot function. For this reason, those philosophers and scientists who have not known directly the silent, undifferentiated state of pure awareness cannot conceive that in the total absence of objects and events anything other than an insentience akin to the sleep state would be possible. Genuine mystics have known this state of pure awareness directly, yet when they speak or write of their experience empiricists and rationalists are usually skeptical. Those of a scientific bent will argue that there is no strong, objective evidence to support the claims of the mystics. Some scientists will admit that the mystic’s experience may be valid but beyond the current capacity of science to validate, while others will dismiss the mystics’ claims out of hand.
The self: private and public
The self may communicate to the world what it is feeling, observing or otherwise experiencing and in this sense it is public. However, such communication will be only a description or dramatization of the self’s private experience, not the private experience itself. This is why the self is essentially alone and, in an unenlightened state, lonely. If I have never eaten an apple and you have, then you may describe the experience as ‘juicy’, ‘sweet’, ‘delicious’, etc, and in this way you make your private experience public to me. But there is a vast gulf between your description of the taste of an apple and the experience I will enjoy when I taste one myself. Descriptions are useful, but they are far removed from the experience they describe. If you give me an apple and I eat it in your presence, my experience may be similar to yours. I may say to you, ‘this apple is juicy, sweet and delicious’ — exactly the way you described it — but how do I know that my experience of ‘juicy, sweet and delicious’ is the same as your experience of ‘juicy, sweet and delicious’? I don’t and I can’t. Your experience will remain private to you and mine will remain private to me.
Since the self is that which experiences, it must always be experiencing something other than itself. In order to experience itself directly it would necessarily be both subject and object, which is impossible. Or, as in the case of meditation, if I (the subject) merge with the object of meditation (e.g., a mantra such as ‘aum’), then the subject-object duality will collapse, leaving the self by itself and self-aware. Since the self experiences the body — our body — objectively (and this includes our internal states such as emotions and sensations) it cannot simultaneously be the body. Nor can it be any part of the body, such as an organ or gland or small region in the brain, since if the self is in any sense matter or energy, it will be ultimately directly observable to itself, which as we have seen, is inconceivable. Neither can this conscious, private self be localized in the body or in any part of it, however small or subtle. If it has any form of materiality, including energy, it must be accessible to self-observation. This would mean being both subject and object at the same instant. But, how could the subject stand apart from itself in order to observe itself and at the same moment remain the observer? It would have to be in two places at once — an impossibility from the standpoint of linear time and space, which is the context within which the self as we know it functions. In ordinary reality, the subject can never become its own object. Since the self is the locus and continuum of all experience, it must be the perpetual subject free of the least taint of objectivity. Again to quote Ramana Maharshi: ‘The only way to know the self is to be the self.’ One cannot see, hear, touch, smell or taste the self, but since one is the self one can be the self. In being the self, we know the self, not as an object but as undivided self-awareness.
Now, the above argument that the private self is neither material nor energetic appears to fly in the face of Shankara’s assertion — quoting the Bhagavad-Gita — that the empirical self or ego has its being in the field of matter, along with other subtle phenomena such as reason, intelligence and courage. There will be no contradiction if we affirm that the ego is neither more nor less than an idea or a thought. Thought itself has two sides — one material and the other immaterial. The material aspect of thinking can be observed by the study of brain wave patterns. The observation of brain waves supports the notion that a thought is energetic and exerts a physical influence on its environment (in this case the brain) and vice versa. This material side of thought is public. However, brain waves do not reveal the content of a thought, which is the immaterial, private side. Thus a thought such as, ‘I am hungry’ would manifest as brain activity, but its content — i.e., its exact meaning, would not be revealed by the corresponding brain waves. Thus, the ego, in the sense of its meaning is immaterial, but in the sense of its existence as a thought (or stream of thoughts) is material. What’s interesting to observe in this is the following: without the material thought (which manifests as brain activity) the immaterial content of the thought cannot exist and, conversely without the immaterial content of thought, its physical manifestation as brain activity cannot occur.
The self is not a finite entity
If we argue that the self is a disembodied entity, coexisting with other similar selves, then in order to maintain this notion of plurality we must assume that the self is finite. However, anything which is finite must have boundaries of some sort and all boundaries must, ultimately, be observable or measurable in some sense. Otherwise, any distinction between selves will be purely fictional. A boundary is not an abstraction — at least in terms of the phenomenal universe — rather, it is a demarcation separating at least two objects or events. If some such demarcation exists, however subtle, it must ultimately be observable. This means that the self as an observing subject would be able to observe itself objectively, thus affirming that it is distinct from any other self. Of course, this is the trap we fall into automatically when we falsely identify the self with something physical. We find ourselves in the same quandary as those who argue that the self is the body or some part of the body — i.e., we find ourselves in the impossible situation of being the subject becoming its own object while remaining the experiencing subject. This simple existential error is the source of our deepest confusion as to our true nature.
Although experience, per se, is always private, what we call public experience is, in actuality also private. We make an agreement with ourselves that our spouse and children all live in the same house. We assume that this knowledge is public to all of the members of the family. However, all of the members of the family are known to us privately. Public knowledge is always known privately. We assume that others also know directly of the existence of our family, but this is an inference. Whatever they may testify as to the existence of our family members, that testimony is known to us privately. Whatever is said or done publicly is only known privately. What we know privately is direct knowledge, while public knowledge is never direct, but always inferential: we know directly and privately the public knowledge which is itself indirect and inferred. This is not to discredit public knowledge, but to affirm a clear distinction between that which is privately, directly known and that which is not.
The private self is not a finite, localized self. Although we may speak of many selves and treat Robert and Marie as separate selves, in truth there can be no such real entities as finite selves. It is simply a convenience to speak of Robert and Marie as having separate selves. We do this because we know Robert and Marie through their bodies, which appear to ordinary observation as two distinctly physical entities. This is also true for ourselves as when, for example, we meet Robert on the street. We see the body of Robert, but we also see and feel our own body at the same time. This further confirms the feeling that the self of Robert is separate from our own self. But does this feeling in fact reflect the truth? We assume that Robert has his own private experience and that it is distinct from our own or from Marie’s. We also assume that the three of us, as private selves, are cohabiting a large public space which is revealed to us through our senses. This is an inference. We infer that our senses are revealing a common public space, while in fact the ‘public space’ is only known to us privately; its actual independent existence is merely an assumption, albeit an important and practical one. This is not solipsism. This is not a denial of externality. There may well be externality, but it is not a given, it is inferred.
Assuming that Robert does in fact have his own private experience, it must be distinct from either Marie’s or our own. However, it is also true that Robert’s private experience — if, similar our own, it is in a state of continual modification — at 1:25 PM is distinct from his private experience at 1:26 PM. Does this mean that Robert’s self at 1:25 PM is a different self at 1:26 PM? Or, is there some attribute of the self which provides a continuity between the Robert of 1:25 PM and the Robert of 1:26 PM? There is, and that unifying principle may be termed ‘being-consciousness’. What keeps Robert in tact as a self is the continuum of consciousness which underlies and permeates the contents of his experience over time. The content of Robert’s private experience differs from moment to moment, just as the content of his experience differs from Marie’s at any given moment. Robert as subject is consciousness. The same is true for Marie: Marie as subject is consciousness. The question which then arises is: are Robert as subject and Marie as subject in fact separate? Unquestionably, the contents of their respective experiences are different at any given moment, just as the content of Robert’s own private experience differs from moment to moment. However, as in the case of Robert wherein the varying contents of his experience over time does not mean he is more than one self, could it be that the differing contents of Robert’s and Marie’s private experience do not necessarily mean two separate selves? In other words, is consciousness itself divisible? Are there in fact two separate consciousness’, Robert’s and Marie’s, or is there simply a single consciousness within which there are varying ‘islands’ of private experience? The answer to this question requires a closer examination of the term ‘subject’.
The first question to ask is whether the self and the subject are the same. This of course depends on how we define the two terms. If we identify the self with the body or any part of the body, then we must necessarily distinguish it from the subject, as we shall see shortly. Also, a self which is the body or some part of it, is definitely mortal since the body is mortal. By extension, if the self which is the body has consciousness as an attribute or epiphenomenon, then consciousness must die with the death of the body. If such is the case, then it is impossible to equate the self with the subject, since the subject can never observe itself and remain the subject , and this would be the case since the subject as self would be the body and its epiphenomenon, consciousness. So, to sum up, if the self is the body, then the subject is distinct from it, and if the self is neither the body nor any other form of matter/energy, then we can equate it with the subject. If this subject is therefore reduced to consciousness as an epiphenomenon of the body, then it too will die with the death of the body. If the latter is true, then we can argue that there is a plurality of empirical egos with distinct private experiences appearing in distinct and separate private consciousness’.
The subject and the intellect
A subject is consciousness. Without consciousness there is no experience and therefore neither an object nor a subject. What makes a subject a subject is the fact of consciousness.
The notion of private experience is unarguable and can be confirmed by simply asking another human being to describe precisely whatever memory we personally are experiencing at a given moment. If we ask one hundred people this question, either none or at most one or two will be able to tell us, and the latter could be simply a lucky guess. Furthermore, they will only be able to describe approximately our experience. They will not know precisely what we are thinking or feeling. Private experience will be unique to each individual, but what will not be unique is the fact of consciousness itself. All private experience presupposes consciousness and whether the private experience belongs to a human, an animal, a fish or an insect, consciousness is a common and necessary property we all share.
Consciousness is distinct from the empirical ego-self. The self is intuitively self-aware, but the intellect wrongly infers that it is a finite observer observing the phenomenon of ‘otherness’. This false self then appropriates to itself feelings of sensation and emotion, perceptions of objects and events, tastes and odors of various substances, and the entire range of feelings and thoughts that come and go endlessly; in other words, it is the experiencer of whatever is being experienced. In fact, this self is nothing more than an idea that has been created by the intellect. The intellect itself is a faculty which is inherent in the human body. If the body or brain is damaged through serious accident, illness or malnutrition our intellectual capacity can be compromised. Intellect is based on biology and plays a vital role in insuring the body’s safety and survival. In fact, the survival of the body is the intellect’s first priority. It is the intellect which creates a hypothetical self or ego, and for a very important reason. The intellect requires a ‘self’ to function as a locus for assembling the mass of sense data (percepts) presented in consciousness. Without a locus the intellect would be incapable of organizing the information provided by the senses in any coherent way.
The mass of impressions presented by our five senses are the building blocks from which we build up our picture of the world. Intellect is that capacity which abstracts meaning from what otherwise is a meaningless jumble of data. It is the intellect which first recognizes, then gives a name to an object. It is the intellect which further distinguishes one object or event from another and establishes discreteness. It also relates past impressions (memories) to present and possible future events. It analyses the percepts presented and abstracts the principles and laws which govern the relations of things. And it performs many other functions as well, such as the development of mathematics and logic for practical application in almost every area of human life. Some people have a much more developed power of intellect than others. Nevertheless, intellect is a fragile thing, since its ability to function is directly affected by the physical, mental and emotional state of the organism of which it forms a part. Intellectual acuteness and energy expands or contracts according to the state of the organism. It has great yet limited power. It is limited by the sense data presented, for one thing. It is also limited by the constraints of language: some spoken languages allow for a greater range of thought than others. It is also circumscribed by the very laws by which it functions, the laws of logic, for example. It is further limited by the particular biology through which it functions and also by the pre-existing, unconscious mental conditioning that prejudices how it interprets the sense- and other data to which it is exposed.
When we examine the raw material presented by the senses, we recognize it as a mass of impressions. We also recognize that somehow the intellect establishes relations among these sense-data, thereby introducing meaningfulness into what would otherwise be a meaningless jumble. So, for example, a group of impressions such as brown, green, patch-like, swaying, rustling, etc, — otherwise meaningless — are connected together by the intellect into a meaningful whole, called ‘tree’. During the course of a life-time, an individual builds up a universe of such objects, as well as categories, relationships, theories, attitudes, feelings, moral judgments, etc, which make up his or her personal world. Furthermore, he includes himself in this world as being ‘in it’, as well as both affecting and being affected by it. This is the common sense view and it works for the purposes of navigating our way through daily life. There is an implicit assumption in this that the individual who has built-up this world-view is a self that interacts with his environment. So, when things are going our way in the world the self feels happy, and when things are not working out it suffers. It is the self, therefore that is the key player and agent responsible for carving out our place in the world, and either enjoying the fruits of accomplishment or suffering the pain of failure and loss.
Self and the fear of death
The assumption that the self is a real entity is rarely questioned and few people seriously ask themselves, ‘What exactly is the nature of my self?’ In order to gain a clear and proper understanding of our place in the universe and the true significance of questions of mortality, free will, purpose, ethics, responsibility, leadership, etc, it is necessary that we understand what we mean by ‘self’, since each of these notions assume a self to whom these questions apply.
The intellect presupposes a finite self at the centre of a surrounding environment. Without a self, relations could not be established among the various objects of experience. Even the objects themselves could not be apprehended from the mass of sense-date presented. This hypothetical self is the starting point from which our map of the universe is gradually built-up and around which the universe revolves. It took the development of science and math to create other maps of physical reality which do not require an empirical self as the locus. It must be remembered, however that even those maps from which the personal self has been abstracted still require a personal self to understand them. In the absence of a personal self, nothing meaningful can be made of experience, including the abstract sciences of math and logic. In addition to sensations provided through the five senses, it is the subtle aspects of human experience — feelings, ideas, abstractions, intuitions — that give rise to the sense of a personal self which is associated with, yet somehow distinct from the material body.
Our big fear is not really the extinction of the body, but rather the extinction of the self. What we are mortally afraid of is the absolute and total extinction of consciousness, because the death of consciousness means the death of the self — it means annihilation. The immortality that we seek through religion is not the eternal existence of the body, but rather the eternality of consciousness. It is consciousness that people cherish, unconsciously, above all else, but due to our ultimately mistaken identification of the self with the body we are not aware of this and believe that what we are cherishing is some form of material or energetic existence that we identify as ‘I am’.
The yoga of knowledge and the self
The ancient system of yoga, dating back at least 5,000 years on the sub-continent of India has always recognized the tenuous nature of the personal self and, by extension, the personal universe which has been built up around it. Ramana Maharshi has comment extensively on the fleeting nature of the self, describing it as merely a thought or feeling. According to Sri Ramana the ‘I-thought’ is a fleeting shadow which seems to have substance when our attention is focussed on an external object or even emotion, sensation or other idea. Whenever, however, we attempt to turn our attention upon the ‘I-thought’ itself, the thought simply disappears and we find ourselves, for a moment in a state of pure being in which there is neither an ‘I’ nor an ‘other’. He likens this to turning the beam of a flashlight upon a shadow in order to get a better view of it. When the beam is directed at the shadow, the shadow disappears revealing what is truly there. Sri Ramana stated emphatically that the personal self has neither substance nor reality, and that through self-enquiry we will come to understand — actually, know directly — our true nature, which is neither matter nor energy.
According to the classical Indian system of non-dualism (known as Vedanta), the personal self along with its world-view is a projection or superimposition on a screen of ‘being-consciousness’. It is this transcendental Self which is our true nature. Since it is not an object, nor susceptible to objective verification, it can be known only immediately and intuitively. This of course conveniently puts the Self out of the range of scientific proof, which is always involves empirical verification. Scientific materialism cannot disprove the Self, yet neither can an ‘illumined’ sage prove the Self — at least according to the rules of scientific method. As Ramana Maharshi comments, the only way ‘to know the Self, is to be the Self’. In other words, it can be known privately but not publicly.
It can be argued that in the absence of an object, the subject cannot know of its own existence. ‘I’ know that I exist because I am looking at or thinking about or feeling something. Or, to quote Rene Descartes: ‘I think, therefore I am’. If there is no ‘thing’ being experienced or thought of, then who, what and where am ‘I’? The state of deep sleep appears to support this hypothesis, because in sleep there is no object and no self-awareness. The subject requires an object in order to know of its own existence, even if that object is only the thought, ‘I exist’. Conversely, it is arguable that the existence of discrete objects demands a knowing subject. In the absence of a knower, can there be any objective discreteness? A tree is a tree because a subject — someone — knows it as such, otherwise it is a best a meaningless ‘something-ness’. We talk about trees and rocks as we know them in our perception, but at the level of pure energy — from which rocks and trees are composed – there may well be no such thing as discreteness.
An object is seen or otherwise experienced, otherwise what is it? This subject-object dyad posits two mutually dependent poles. If one pole disappears so does the other. What then is left when the subject and object are thus removed? What remains is not nothing, in the negative sense of extinction nor is it something, in the sense of a positive existence (a tree, for example). Rather, what remains is an indeterminate ‘something-ness’ which is present in consciousness and which demands neither an empirical subject nor an observed object. Such is the direct experience of this author. I have, on numerous occasions, experienced awakening from a deep sleep and being aware of a mass of impressions, yet being incapable of grasping what these impressions represented or how they related to one another. For example, I would hear the sound of my mother’s voice, but have no recognition that these sounds belonged to my mother. It was a strange sensation…as if I had been presented with a jumble of dots but was incapable of connecting them together into a meaningful picture that included not only the environment but also an ‘I’ at the centre. I was definitely in the waking state — not a dream state or a continuation of the deep sleep state. The main difference between this state and sleep was that of awareness itself. There was nothing of the insentience of sleep, but rather a clear sense of ‘being aware’. No doubt the jumble of impressions stimulated the awareness of being conscious, but there was no sense of a familiar ‘self’, or of a self that I could recognize. Rather than a sense of ‘I-ness’, there was at most an awareness of ‘am-ness’ or ‘being-ness’. The texture of the experience was impersonal. This experience happened recurrently upon awakening during a certain period of my life many years ago.
During this same period I was also initiated into a form of yogic meditation, which deepened my intuition of the nature of consciousness. At frequent intervals my normal consciousness of thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories, etc, would give way to a simple awareness of being aware. There would be no ‘thing’ of which I was aware, nor even an awareness of a mass of meaningless impressions. Consciousness would be alone, by itself and aware of itself but not in the sense of a subject being aware of an object. There was no dualism in this awareness. It was simply awareness being ‘self-aware’. This state is distinctly different from the unconsciousness of deep sleep. What I discovered through this — which was further substantiated by my study of Vedanta — is that the empirical self is no more than an overlay or superimposition on a substratum of undifferentiated awareness. Unlike sleep, in this state consciousness would be intense and clear. However, like sleep I would have no consciousness of my body; rather, I would experience myself as totally ‘present’ yet bodiless and empty of any physical or emotional sensation. Besides being profoundly peaceful and delightful, these experiences helped me to lose, or at least weaken my heavy identification with my body. I began to see my body as only one fleeting aspect of my self and this released me from a great deal of my fear of death and dying. Also, in these moments of awareness without a subject or an object, both time and space would simply evaporate. I realized that the subject-object dyad has to be present in order to experience either time or space, otherwise there was only an ever present Here and Now. In other words, time and space demanded objectivity in order to be recognized.
Our world-view begins with an awareness of ‘something-ness’, but this something-ness is not localized in terms of time and space. Such a localization demands first the creation of the ‘I-thought’ that functions as a locus. The creation of a specific ‘self’ localizes and personalizes awareness in time and space, and this is absolutely necessary in order for the intellect to be able to construct a universe from the mass of impressions presented. When ‘I’ see a tree, I see it against a background of other trees, etc, and I see it from a certain perspective. ‘I’ must be located somewhere in time and space in order to be able to have a certain perspective of a tree and its surrounding environment. In fact, the locus of perspective, as well as situation in time and space, is the body and its organs of perception. So, when people say, ‘I am on one side of the street and my house is on the other’, what they really mean is, ‘My body is on one side and my house is on the other’. For practical purposes, the ‘I’ is the body.
It is small wonder, then that human beings find it difficult to dispense of the idea that the personal self, the ego-’I’ is real. Everything we know of in this universe is predicated on a personal self. The same is true of the dream state. In order for dreams to occur, there must be a dream-state locus, an ‘I’. If there is no ‘I’, no dream can occur. If we abandon the self, our familiar waking state — or dream state — universe collapses. This is what I experienced repeatedly upon awakening during a certain period of my life long ago. Without the sense of self, nothing is comprehensible. These early experiences were deeply disturbing until I got used to them. Gradually, I stopped being afraid of them and then they disappeared. What was liberating, however, was to discover that even without the sense of a personal self, there was still awareness of something awesomely impersonal. Whatever or whoever ‘I am’, it is certainly not limited to a finite self that has the name ‘Duart’.
It may be that empirical consciousness — i.e., that consciousness which is always consciousness of something, is nothing more than a function of my biology and that this aspect of consciousness dies when my body dies. However, this does not preclude the possibility of that pure consciousness — i.e., awareness-without-an-object, is the ultimate source of my being or perhaps my very being itself; nor does this preclude the possibility that my sense of self will not be extinguished with the death of my body. Rather, it may be that my sense of self, rather than disappear will expand to embrace a deeper stratum of consciousness from which my body and its empirical consciousness arose in the first place. In other words, the materialist position that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of our biology may turn out to be its opposite — i.e., that our body is an epiphenomenon of consciousness. This is the position of the sages from whom are derived the teachings of Vedanta, as well as numerous other spiritual-philosophical traditions.
Who is the doer?
When words come out of our mouth or when our hands perform a task, people assume that we are the ones speaking or controlling the movement of our hands. Unquestionably, there is some power controlling both speech and the physical manipulation of objects. The question is, ‘what is that power and to whom or what does it belong?’; in other words, ‘what is its true nature?’. People automatically adopt the position that ‘I am the one speaking’ or ‘I am the one acting’, but they rarely ask, ‘What exactly is this “I” that is acting?’ When pushed they will answer that this ‘I’ is ‘my self’, however this merely begs the question. ‘If I am the self, then what is the self?’ Since time immemorial philosophers — both east and west — have been debating the question. And they have come up with a spectrum of possible answers ranging from ‘there is no self’ to ‘there is only the self’ at both extremes.
Since ‘doing-ness’ is naturally occurring, whether within the mind or universe or both, how do we account for it? We cannot say that nothing is happening, since the very act of saying such a thing proves that something is happening. Given the direct, intuitive certainty that ‘something is happening’ it is also undeniable that something or someone must be noticing ‘doing-ness’. In the absence of noticing ‘doing-ness’ it would be impossible to even conceive of it. It is this fact of recognition that forces us to posit a knower, and we call this knower the self. Whatever its true nature, the self is undeniable. Those philosophers who argue that there is no self are really arguing that there is no directly observable self that recognizes specific phenomena such as sounds and images. However, they cannot deny the empirical fact of recognition. We simply give the name ‘self’, whatever it may be, to that which recognizes.
The self recognizes an infinite variety of things. It recognizes externals such as mountains and people. It recognizes the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin which allow for recognition of those items which make up the world. It also recognizes internals such as emotions, thoughts, sensations, desires, pleasures, pains, memories and so forth. The self further recognizes its own intermittent awareness: it notices consciousness fading while dropping into sleep and increasing during the process of awakening –i.e., it recognizes that consciousness is experienced at different levels of intensity. It also recognizes dreams and psychic phenomena, such as precognition and out-of-body experiences. Moreover, the self recognizes both the birth and death processes as they are occurring. What we cannot know with absolute certainty is whether the self knows anything prior to conception or after the body’s dissolution. Furthermore, even if the self does continue after death we do not know whether it retains any degree of self-awareness or memory of its past life. The great religions affirm an afterlife, but for believers this is a matter of faith rather than direct experience. Just as we know without doubt that we exist because we experience things, we will also know there is an after-life if some form of experience continues after the death of our body. There is no other way we can verify our ongoing existence. And, of course, if there is no after-life there will be nothing to verify and no one to verify it.
Since we experience things we assume a self, but we do not know its exact nature. What is evident is how the externally imposed pressure to survive from the moment of our birth pushes our attention toward understanding the world rather than ourselves. The result is a vast amount of information about our environment and our physical bodies, but almost complete ignorance about the self. Generally, religion does not help people to understand themselves. It imposes a theology but doesn’t encourage genuine self-enquiry. Historically, those courageous individuals who have engaged in serious self-enquiry and had the temerity to share their experiences and realizations publicly have met with tremendous resistance from religious authorities. Man-made theologies have been used to impose conformity of both thought and behavior, as well as docile acceptance of religious authority. This has resulted in alternating extremes of passivity and timidity on the one hand and intolerance and aggressive prosyletizing on the other.
Anything that we can observe with the five senses or with instruments that are extensions of the senses, cannot be the self. If at any given moment we could truly observe the self we would immediately find ourself in a dualistic infinite regression of the self observing the self observe the self, etc. This can be illustrated by the act of placing our body between two large mirrors which are directly facing each other. In either mirror, we will see our body reflected, theoretically, an infinite number of times. But what will be observing this visual regressive series of our body-reflection is not a multiplicity of selves, but only a single self observing multiple bodies. The self is the subject which knows and observes, not that which can be known and observed. The knower may be associated with a thing (in this case the body) but, as knower it is not itself a thing. The knower is the subject of knowledge, not the object of it. It cannot be known objectively and thus is unknowable in the ordinary, dualistic sense of knowing something. Nor can it be inferred in the way smoke may infer fire. If we walk in the direction of the smoke we will eventually be able to confirm the existence or non-existence of fire. We will do this empirically by comparing objects. We do not have this option with the self. We can only infer it as a self-evident truth: something axiomatic but not provable empirically. Of course, this creates a huge problem for science and philosophy. If we can’t observe it, we can’t verify it and therefore we really can’t speak about it.* Whenever we make a serious effort to get to the truth of the self, our rational, empirical minds are left baffled and frustrated. It is one of those problems of logic for which there is no ‘logical’ answer and we are left with an unsatisfying compromise: ‘Yes, there is in some sense a self; no, it cannot be proved empirically’.
* “The Self cannot be cut, nor burnt, nor wetted, nor dried up. The Self is everlasting, all-pervading, stable, firm, and eternal” Bhagavad-Gita, ch. 2, verse 24 (translated by Alladi Mahadeva Sastry
Consciousness presents the same problem as does the self. Everyone readily admits consciousness, yet cannot actually find consciousness in order to prove it. We can’t put it under a microscope, nor can we describe it except to say that sometimes we are more conscious and at other times less. Furthermore, unless we have a direct experience of samadhi, we can only know we are conscious if we are conscious of something. In other words, ordinary experience is the touchstone of consciousness. During deep sleep we have no intuition of consciousness, except during those periods when sleep is interrupted by dreams. In the dream state, as in the waking state, there is always a subject and an object and consciousness. Since consciousness is not empirically provable this leads to the materialist argument that consciousness is purely dependent upon the state of our biology. From this follows the notion that with the death of the organism comes the extinction of consciousness, permanently. This is a frightening concept since it implies total annihilation — a possibility that most people find truly horrifying. It is so unthinkable (and perhaps counterintuitive) that it drives the majority of humanity into religions that promise eternal life to ‘true’ believers. The horror of extinction and the need to believe in the continuation of a conscious self make religion a deadly serious business, so serious that many are ready to kill and even die for it.
In our ordinary waking state consciousness we are never able to get beyond the feeling that consciousness is always consciousness of something. In the waking state the organism is constantly processing sensory data, while its intellectual faculty is engaged in sorting this data by referring it to past events and future possibilities, and placing it in context. Should the body receive a serious blow, be anesthetized or collapse from exhaustion, unconsciousness will result. These are the ways in which we know that we are presently conscious or have been unconscious. What most people do not recognize is that there are periods during the waking state when there is simply consciousness by itself without an object — during the space between two consecutive thoughts, for example. This moment is so fleeting that it is hard to catch and take note of. There is, however a longer moment between sleeping and waking in which consciousness intensifies yet is void of either thoughts or impressions. Since this moment lasts only a few seconds and registers no image, sensation, thought or memory, it is usually bypassed as if it never happened. Yet, if we reflect deeply we will remember that there was a moment of wakefulness void of thinking or sensing. We may also remember that this moment had a delicious quality about it, a quality of profound peace and comfort. This is a moment of consciousness empty of content yet full of ‘being-ness’. If the gap between sleeping and waking is sufficiently long we will have a clear, direct realization of pure, self-luminous consciousness. The first time this happens will come either as a shock or a revelation, since the direct intuition of pure consciousness totally challenges our assumptions about who and what we are. Consciousness by itself is very different than consciousness with an object, so different in fact that we wonder if they are the same thing. Yet, we are forced to admit that without empty consciousness as a basis, consciousness of things would be impossible. We need only notice that the empty unconsciousness of deep sleep cannot be the basis of perception.
Yogis who are advanced in their meditation practice know directly of the independence of consciousness from its content when they arrive at a state of pure, empty consciousness. This state is called, in Sanskrit, samadhi (absorption). There are various levels of samadhi, but the penultimate level is called nirvikalpa samadhi (consciousness without qualities or content). The emptiness of nirvikalpa samadhi is very different from the blank state induced by drugs, extreme fatigue or a severe blow. There is nothing ‘blank’ about nirvikalpa samadhi, since it is a state of intense, silent self-awareness. In yoga parlance, the supreme attainment of the meditator is termed sahaja nirvikalpa samadhi, which is described as an effortless and natural abidance in the Self (being-consciousness). For a Self-realized yogi, the Self and consciousness are synonymous throughout the three states of waking, sleeping and dreaming. In sahaja nirvikalpa samadhi the yogi is aware of the world without forgetting his essential nature as pure being-consciousness. He has the direct intuition of the Self as consciousness and consciousness as the Self. Those who have attained sahaja nirvikalpa samadhi simultaneously witness and engage themselves in activity: they lead ordinary lives and are often indistinguishable from the crowd. They know themselves as a space of pure consciousness, within which thoughts, feelings and sundry other experiences rise and fall like waves, never leaving a trace in the form of stress or addictive behavioral patterns. They have attained total freedom and awareness. Such a yogi is considered a jnani (sage).
Earlier, we referred to a third instance of pure consciousness — i.e, the gap between two consecutive thoughts — but this state is more difficult to recognize experientially. Between any two distinct, sequential points of attention there is a gap which is fleeting. It is an instant of awareness void of any object, subtle or gross. A yogi who is advanced in meditation notices that his internal dialogue or ‘self-talk’ has greatly diminished, that his mind is presented with fewer thoughts. As a consequence, the time-gap between thoughts lengthens and the yogi is able to recognize the gap. He becomes directly aware of a space of empty consciousness between thoughts. As he continues to advance in his practice there is a gradual shift of focus from consciousness as the background to consciousness as the foreground of all experience, both objective and subjective. Since yoga theory equates consciousness with the self as subject, this shift is described as increased self-awareness: an important milestone on the path of self-realization.
Not only yoga (which has its roots in Hinduism), but numerous spiritual traditions recognize the self as synonymous with consciousness. Buddhism and Taoism are two other closely aligned systems. Furthermore, some of these traditions postulate non-duality as the basis of existence, ‘otherness’ being a creation of the mind and not a true reflection of reality. They hold that there is a unitary consciousness or Self (big ‘S’) common to all organic beings. The clearest and earliest expression of this notion is to be found in India’s ancient Upanishads, a series of inspired works produced by numerous ‘seers’ (rishis) over many centuries. The Upanishads, collectively called Vedanta — meaning ‘the end of knowledge’ — express the pinnacle of Hindu metaphysics. Being-consciousness is the unifying principle that all species share, although the contents of consciousness will vary from species to species, individual to individual. No doubt worms experience very differently than humans, nevertheless the two species share consciousness and at least some capacity to experience the contents of consciousness. Pure consciousness, as understood in Vedanta is not voidness, emptiness or non-being, but rather vibrant, full Being — the very Source of the material universe.
The contents of consciousness are always some form of appearance, whether the appearance be thought, emotions, memories, dreams, sensations, images, sounds, odors, tastes, physical objects, etc. Whatever is experienced or revealed is an appearance. Consciousness itself, however can never be an appearance since it cannot be observed. Like space, consciousness is inferred. Space is inferred from observing distance between objects as well as volume within objects, it cannot be directly witnessed. We cannot see space, yet it is impossible to conceive that there is no such thing as space. As with space, we cannot see consciousness, yet it is impossible to conceive that there is no such thing as consciousness: consciousness is the unifying principle of our lives, the continuum linking the diverse elements of experience.
The world of agreement
The world we know and share is a function of collective agreements built up over time. This agreed upon world is a public space that we know privately. Our world is an interpretation or story which is undergoing continual modification, although the foundations of this story are rarely questioned. The undefined sense-data presented by the senses in themselves tell us nothing, although the body can immediately recognize the difference between comfort and pain. At a very early age we begin to build up a picture of our environment and of ourselves, and this picture is largely imposed upon us by others in our immediate surroundings, particularly our parents and teachers. The urge to live, to experience pleasure and avoid pain is the driving force from within which pushes us to understand how to survive and flourish. The body’s ‘fight or flight’ mechanism which is primitive and instinctual protects us from immediate danger, thus whenever even very young children feel threatened they automatically run the other way. The body has its own instinctual intelligence which protects us from the beginning. As we become bigger and stronger, we may choose to fight if we feel the odds are in our favour or if the flight option is not available. Our parents, of course, have learned how to survive and their primary concern is to pass this knowledge onto us. This is their first responsibility and we can observe that all parents of all species do more or less the same thing with their offspring.
Our basic assumptions about life and about ourselves are formulated before we develop the faculty of discriminative thinking, which is around the time of adolescence. Collectively, our basic assumptions function as a unifying structure which shapes how we perceive our world. This largely unconscious filter molds our identity and gives us our personal sense of self, of who we are. It is the unexamined paradigm by which we define ourselves and also assess the validity and acceptability of all new knowledge and experience. Thus, it also gives us — to a significant degree — our moral and ethical sense, as well as our prejudices, both negative and positive.
The world of agreement is not limited to psychological and cultural influences. Scientific understanding is also a matter of agreement. A rodent knows that if it walks off of a cliff it will fall. We could say that it knows this but does not understand it. The difference between rodents and humans is that we not only know about gravity, but we have an explanation for it, which the rodent does not. We call it our explanation because many people over a long period of time have come up with theories to explain the phenomenon of things falling and then tested these theories both logically and empirically. Many theories were disgarded when they did not stand up to scrutiny. The current theory of gravity has, up to this point stood up to scrutiny. Therefore we say that our understanding of gravity is scientifically based. For practical, immediate purposes it really doesn’t give us much of an edge over rodents, except insofar as we can create technologies that allow us to do things that a rodent cannot, such as send a spacecraft to the moon. Does this mean that our understanding of gravity is complete? Not at all. Our current understanding is sufficient to get a man on the moon, but this in no way proves that we understand gravity in its entirety. In fact, what we know about gravity may be just the tip of the iceberg. And, no matter how far we advance in science, we will never be able to prove that our understanding of any phenomenon is final. Why? Because our understanding is circumscribed by the limits to thought imposed upon us by both the intellect and the physical senses. As extraordinary gifts as the intellect and the senses are, they are limited powers confronting that which is limitless and elusive.
Our collective agreements about the universe and its contents are all rooted in the original sense-data which are presented in consciousness. These sense-data refer to something, but it must be clearly understood that they are not the thing to which they refer. The exact nature of what they refer to is unclear and our knowledge of what they indicate is not direct, but inferred, and at best is an interpretation backed up by continued investigation and scientific findings. Since sense-data are neither the thing they refer to nor the consciousness within which they are presented, there is serious doubt as to exactly what sense-data are. Are they real or are they unreal? Some schools of philosophy argue they are unreal, others argue that they are real, and still others — such as Vedanta — argue that they are both real and unreal or, conversely neither real nor unreal. With regard to the Vedantic view, perhaps the closest analogy popularly available is that of images being projected onto a screen in a movie theatre. Are the images real or unreal? Well, the images in the movie are real images, but they are not the thing of which they are an image and in this sense are unreal. The screen itself is unaffected by the images, yet without the screen the images could not appear –the screen representing ‘being-consciousness’, in our analogy. Whatever the truth is, there is no doubt that sense-data — whether real or unreal or both — are vitally important, because without them there can be no life as we know it. Without them, waking up in the morning and smelling the coffee simply would not happen.
At another level, our collective agreements about the universe are themselves interpretations of sense-data presented in consciousness. More precisely, my understanding of collective agreements is an interpretation of sense-data presented in consciousness — i.e., my consciousness. Words I have read, conversations I have heard, images I have seen in pictures, etc. — all presented as formulated sense-data — create the impression that there are collective agreements about the external world and its contents. But this belief about collective agreements is my agreement that it is so. It seems such an obvious fact that I assume it to be true. But is it? Since my knowledge of collective agreements is rooted in sense-data that are themselves perhaps real or unreal or both real and unreal, I am left with an existential doubt about the reality or truth of collective agreements. And these agreements are not limited to mundane things such as bus schedules or elections, they also include collective judgments about the Divine and what the Divine decrees or about science and what science decrees. All perceptions of multiplicity and all manifestations of polarity (hot-cold, up-down, etc) are held within a single unit called ‘my awareness’ or the self. Everything experienced turns upon this unit. In the absence of awareness, such as in deep sleep, there are no sense-data and no objects. When wakefulness returns, so does multiplicity. But awareness can continue without multiplicity, as in the transcendent state of deep meditation whereas multiplicity cannot continue without awareness, as when under anaesthesia. So just as a certain tentativeness is appropriate in dealing with our perceptions and beliefs pertaining to the external world, so a certain tentativeness is justified in how we relate to our convictions about collective agreements. During the 1930′s an insane but charismatic demagogue created a collective agreement in Germany that the Jews were the cause of Germany’s troubles. Millions of otherwise intelligent Germans accepted this mad fiction as truth and the result was genocide. For human beings true objectivity is an impossibility. Whatever we think or see is automatically coloured by our moods, biases and mental/emotional processes. Whatever answers or explanations we come with about the nature of things is shaped, a priori by the very questions we ask. For this reason, tentativeness is our best friend and safeguard against excess and madness.
The limits to thought
Since the Greeks, the West has given absolute pre-eminence to the intellect, which has produced science as its crowning glory. Through science the intellect has opened vast new vistas and produced an astounding range of technologies. On the downside, the intellect has attained cult-like status which often blinds us to the other non-logical, non-scientific, yet valid possibilities — what we usually refer to as the ‘right side’ of the brain. This has produced a dismissive attitude toward our intuitive side, the potential of which may contain the keys to our very survival as a race. Science has neither liberated us from our relentless assault on the environment nor reduced our violent tendencies toward our fellow humans, let alone other life forms. In fact, it has accelerated the rate of environmental destruction through technological innovation and amplified the scope of violence through increasingly sophisticated and deadly weaponry.
The term Vedanta means the ‘end of knowledge’ or, approximately, the supreme knowledge which cannot be surpassed. Such knowledge is not empirical and cannot be known objectively. It is not knowledge which falls within the scope of subject-object phenomena. Neither is it knowledge which lends itself well to description by language, since language is based on the subject-predicate structure of sentences. This knowledge with a big ‘K’ is not a thing or event which can be apprehended either directly or indirectly through the senses, and is therefore not a knowledge which falls within the immediate scope of science. Rather, it is a knowledge which transcends speech and sense-data, and which is therefore supra-mental. For the intellect supra-mental knowledge is a mystery and thus the intellect tends to dismiss it as either useless speculation or mere wishful thinking or simply, escapism. However, for those who have encountered this knowledge directly and personally, it is not something that can be simply dismissed as groundless. Since it is known directly, not in the way a subject knows an object but rather as an immediacy which embraces both the subject and the object within itself, and since those who claim to have discovered it are often individuals of great rationality and common sense, it warrants serious consideration from even the most skeptical of thinkers. The British philosopher and novelist, Aldous Huxley, researched this alternative knowledge and recorded his findings in his book, ‘The Perennial Philosophy’. Huxley studied each of the world’s major religious and spiritual traditions, analyzing the recorded experiences and observations of recognized saints, sages and mystics throughout recorded history. He discovered that, in spite of linguistic, cultural and theological differences the core experiences recorded by these exceptional people all pointed to a universal common denominator. This common denominator has been called, variously: the Self, the Clear Void, Fullness, Awareness, Pure Consciousness, The One without a Second, Nirvana, the Tao, the Spirit, the Naguel, the Holy Spirit, Om, Pure Being, Infinity, Limitlessness, the Transcendental, the Immanent, the Source, Shiva-Sakti, Pure Intelligence, the Luminous, the Clear Light, the Hidden, the Dark Sea of Awareness, That, the Great Spirit, etc. Those philosophers given to precise definition of terms, empirical verifiability, rigorous logical analysis, etc, generally avoid even discussing these possibilities, since the syntax and methodologies they use are hopelessly inadequate to either validate or disprove the reality of what these terms refer to. Sri Ramana Maharshi, a sage of very clear, pragmatic thinking underscored the problem when he commented that ‘philosophy ends where spirituality begins’.