Three concepts of consciousness

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 19 February 2024

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.

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.

In us, 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. One of the reasons is that consciousness is not only awareness. As we have already alluded to, our consciousness is the very core of our identity, the center from where we deal with ourselves and the world around us. And so, 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. 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.

It is in the more integral and comprehensive understanding of reality of the older texts, like the Ṛg Veda, that 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.

Three concepts of consciousness

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. The first two are, to quite an extent, mirror images of each other, the third is an attempt at integration of what is best in the first two and gives in the process a deeper meaning to our human lives.1

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, but not their exclusivity, and adds the power aspect of consciousness. As Infinity in a Drop hopes to show, this creates 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.

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.


1The 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.


For the physicalist concept of consciousness: