Three concepts of consciousness
Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 12 March 2022

section 1

If you want to jump straight to the concept of consciousness used in Infinity in a Drop:

So, what is consciousness?

The differences between mainstream science as it is at present and the new approach we suggest in this text center around consciousness and its role in the manifestation. So it will be helpful to have a look at what different people actually mean when they use the word consciousness. Consciousness is notoriously difficult to define, and dictionaries tend to become self-referential when they try. The New Oxford Dictionary of English (Pearsall, 1998), for example, defines consciousness in terms of awareness, awareness in terms of perception and perception again in terms of consciousness. Professional dictionaries hardly fare better: the Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy (Mautner, 2005) escapes the problem by simply omitting the term. This ostrich-like behaviour is, strangely enough, not an isolated phenomenon: to ignore consciousness has been the general policy of science for much of the 20th century (Guzeldere, 1995). During the last 30 years or so, consciousness has again become a legitimate subject of scientific enquiry, but if one looks a little more closely, it becomes clear that most of this research has not been about consciousness itself, but about its physical correlates, which is what mainstream science knows how to research. It is only in recent years that we see consciousness more frequently described in terms of lived experience. Most of this work is, however, still in an early stage of development and, from an Indian viewpoint, surprisingly naive.

Why physicalist reductionism is not enough

The inability of science to deal in a meaningful way with consciousness is tragic since consciousness is central to our existence as human beings. Though some hard-core physicalists continue to trivialize consciousness as a more or less incidental side-effect of the complexity of our brains, it is good to realize that without consciousness, not only beauty, love, experience, and truth would lose their meaning, but even knowledge itself would not exist. Without consciousness we would neither know ourselves, nor the world. Nothing would make any sense, and it is not clear whether or in what manner anything could exist. There is an Upanishad which expresses it well:

"Matter or object is related to spirit or subject, and the subject or spirit is equally related to the object or matter. If there were no object, there would be no subject, and if there were no subject, there would be no object, for on either side alone nothing could be achieved."
Kaushitaki Upanishad, III, 8.

A common sense approach

While it is difficult (and perhaps impossible) to define consciousness in a fully satisfactory manner, most people still feel that they know what it is, even if only in a somewhat implicit manner. Our consciousness is what gives us our awareness of the world as well as of ourselves, and since it is so close to the very core of all we know and all we are, people tend to feel that whatever they happen to think about consciousness must be what it actually is. This is, however, only very partially true. One reason is that in the ordinary waking state, our consciousness is transparent to us. Just as we normally see the outside world but not the interior of our own eyes, we are aware of many things in great detail, but of our own consciousness we only know the simple fact that it exists. What is more, in our ordinary waking state we tend to identify with the activities of the brain, and so we confuse our consciousness with whatever our brain does, things like thinking, sensing and modelling our surrounding. As different people do these things in different ways, they end up having different ideas on what consciousness is, and when, in the beginning of last century, science realised it had no objective means to choose between these different ideas, it gave up on consciousness and all that happens "inside of it".

As we'll see, the Indian tradition has figured out ways to study the subjective inner domain rigorously,1 but before we get to that, it may be useful to start with a simple, common sense exploration of the issues involved. In us, human beings, consciousness is the subjective half of reality. It is the center from where we deal with ourselves and the world around us. In this sense, consciousness has been described as the light within which everything we are aware of takes place, or as the pool in which the Moon is reflected. Though these are catching images that appear at first sight to be right, they do not tell the whole story.

The reason is that consciousness is not only awareness. As we have already alluded to, consciousness is, at least in us, also the very core of our identity. In a very deep and essential sense, consciousness is simply what we are, and what we are has a passive and an active side to it. And so, on the passive side, consciousness is, indeed awareness, and it is this which has been captured beautifully in the images of the light and the pool. But we are also active, creative creatures. We are not only into being, but we are also into doing and creating things. This dynamism is part of the ordinary "common sense" view of our own human existence, but in mainstream science there are many who think that this is an illusion. They hold that the physical world is a causally closed system and thus that consciousness has to be "epiphenomenal". In other words, they hold that consciousness is only awareness, and that it can have no influence on anything in the physical world. While amongst the later Indian traditions, there are some which also hold that consciousness is only awareness, in the more integral and comprehensive understanding of reality of the older texts, like the Ṛg Veda, we find the idea that consciousness is not only awareness but also power. As Sri Aurobindo says:

Consciousness is not only power of awareness of self and things, it is or has also a dynamic and creative energy. It can determine its own reactions or abstain from reactions; it can not only answer to forces, but create or put out from itself forces. Consciousness is Chit [awareness] but also Chit Shakti [conscious force].
— Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga – I, p. 15

While many in the Indian tradition accept the dynamic, power aspect of consciousness only on the level of the divine consciousness that created the word, Sri Aurobindo holds that even on our small human scale, our consciousness is not only the passive witness, but also the sanctioner, and ultimately the initiator and master of all we do. If we compare our lives with a play enacted on a stage, consciousness is then not only there in the audience, the lighting, or the stage itself, but also in the actors, the stage director, and, perhaps most crucially, in the author of the play.

But still, all this is not enough: we cannot even begin to understand consciousness as long as we hold it to be limited to the type of consciousness we humans happen to have. Somewhat in the same way that the hard sciences could only begin to understand gravity and the other physical forces once they realised that they work in exactly the same manner throughout the cosmos, in order to understand consciousness, we have to accept that consciousness is an essential constituent of the very stuff of everything in existence.

The role of consciousness in reality as a whole

It is possible to think of a largely unconscious universe in which conscious beings like us are the exception, and at present this might well be the majority view in the field of Consciousness Studies, but still, it is not very convincing. It is hard to imagine how a huge, unconscious, and thus inherently meaningless, dead machine suddenly, after billions of years, in an almost inconceivably tiny corner of itself, could produce not only consciousness, but embedded in it, truth, love, and beauty — qualities that in spite of our own puny size and life span, never fail to give us a sense of eternity, of infinity, of connectedness. One of the great strengths of modern science is that it presumes that its laws and constants are universal and unchanging throughout the entire immensity of space and time. It is hard to conceive why comparatively small and unimportant details like most of the known physical laws and constants would be universal, while the fundamentals of truth, love, and beauty would suddenly pop-up ("emerge") out of nowhere in an otherwise chance-driven universe due to nothing more than the complexity of our tiny, fragile, and exceedingly short-lived human brains.

Though perhaps not entirely impossible, the prevailing view which limits consciousness to human brains, or at most to those of a few other mammals and/or human-made machines looks suspiciously like the flat-earth theory in medieval astronomy. Just as the flat-earth view took the little patch of land on which we stand as the centre of the physical universe, so the mainstream, medical2 view of consciousness presumes that consciousness is dependent on (and limited to) how it occurs in a functioning human brain. And just as the geocentric understanding of the solar system stood in the way of understanding the physical cosmos, so the anthropocentric view of consciousness stands in the way of our understanding of consciousness, and with that, of our selves, of who we are in our deepest essence, and in fact of our very existence.3

The concepts of consciousness that go with physicalism, exclusive and integral spirituality

To arrive at a better understanding of what consciousness actually is, we will compare in the next three sections three concepts of consciousness that belong to three very different worldviews: those of physicalism, exclusive spirituality and integral spirituality.4

Physicalism is widely held to be an essential constituent of the scientific worldview. It holds that everything that exists, or at least everything that can be known reliably, is ultimately physical. Its understanding of consciousness tends to be limited to the types of consciousness we humans have in the ordinary waking state, and it takes it for granted that our consciousness is produced by the brain.

Exclusive spirituality has been part of some of India's most influential spiritual traditions for over two millennia. It holds that there is ultimately only one type of consciousness that is worth having: a consciousness that is entirely empty of content and intent, and as such completely pure, kaivalya. It has played a major role in the creation of some of the most powerful techniques of yoga and meditation.

Integral spirituality, the third, accepts and values what the other two have contributed, and adds the power aspect of consciousness. As Infinity in a Drop hopes to show, it may create the conceptual space needed for the kind of quick cumulative progress in the subjective domain that humanity already has made in the objective domain. The integral approach has its origin again in India, where it predated the more exclusive spiritual traditions by several centuries if not millennia.

Though there are exponents of all possible views in the West as well as in the East, in the present West, physicalism appears to be dominant, while in India pure physicalism has been extremely rare. The various schools of the Indian tradition tend to locate themselves between the poles of exclusive and integral spirituality.

We will now look at these three approaches in some more detail.


1.   The basic idea is that to get a sense of what consciousness is in itself, we need to empty it of content (or at least separate it out from its content) and for most people this is not easy. We'll discuss how to do this and how to use the silent mind for psychological enquiry first in the chapters on cognition, and then in the chapter on yoga-based research. We'll come back to it again in the chapters on self-development.

2.   This concept is called medical because it is used extensively in medical practice. We'll have a closer look at it in the next section.

3.   It is worth noting that the anthropocentric idea that consciousness is a product of a working brain — and as such limited to humans and at most a few other animal species — is a relatively new development. Virtually all other civilizations, and even the vast majority of pre-modern Western philosophers, took it for granted that consciousness exists throughout the manifestation, and even beyond it.

4.   The basic idea of these three major positions is derived from the second and third chapters of Sri Aurobindo's The Life Divine. Sri Aurobindo differentiates here between the “Materialist Denial” and the “Refusal of the Ascetic” and then advocates an older, more integral approach.



Guzeldere, G. (1995). Consciousness, what it is, how to study it, what to learn from its history. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2(1), 30–51.

Mautner, Thomas ed. (1997). Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy, London: Penguin Books.

Pearsall, Judy (1998). The New Oxford Dictionary of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.