Three concepts of consciousness

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 19 September 2023

section 1

So, what is consciousness?

The differences between mainstream science as it is at present and the 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). Towards the end of the century consciousness became again a legitimate subject of scientific enquiry, but, at least in the beginning, most of the research was not about consciousness itself, but about its physical correlates, since this is what mainstream science knew 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.

Why physicalist reductionism is not enough

As we saw earlier, 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 vague and implicit manner. So we can start with a simple, common sense exploration of some of the basic issues involved.

Our consciousness is what gives us our awareness of the world as well as of ourselves. In this sense, consciousness has been described as the light within which everything we are aware of takes place, as the pool in which the Moon is reflected, or more recently as a stage on which the action takes place. 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. It can also be experienced as the subjective, inner half of reality, which houses the center from where we deal with ourselves and the world around us. 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 in us 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. Interestingly, amongst the later Indian traditions, there are also many who hold that consciousness is only awareness, but they thought so for a different reasons to which we'll come back later.

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. In the later traditions some accept it only on the level of the divine consciousness that created the world, others, like the Tantrics accept the power aspect of consciousness even here in our complex physical world. Sri Aurobindo agrees with this and 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. He writes:

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

In the image of the 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.

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 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.

The view which dominated the first few years of Consciousness Studies at the end of the twentieth and the early years of the twenty-first century limited consciousness to human brains, some other mammals and, possibly, dangerously, to human-made machines. Though perhaps not entirely impossible, this 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 this "medical"1 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-physicalist 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 because of that, even in our more superficial, outer existence.

As we will see, we simply 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 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.

Physicalism is still 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, or at least "emerges from", the brain. Though science is supposed to be philosophy-neutral, research proposals and articles that do not fit within the physicalist paradigm tend to encounter substantial resistance and require extra effort that is not needed for research that stays within its confines.

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, though not their exclusivity, 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. As mentioned before, Sri Aurobindo is its main representative in modern times. 2

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.


1This concept is called medical because it is used extensively in medical practice. We'll have a closer look at it in the next section.

2The 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. We'll come back to how he expanded this older view in the chapter on the evolution of consciousness.