Three concepts of consciousness

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 19 September 2023

section 4
the integral concept of consciousness as used in Infinity in a Drop

If you haven't read the earlier sections,
you may like to read them first:


Integral Spirituality

In the debate about consciousness, the poles of materialism and exclusive spirituality both have their strengths and greatness, but both deny part of reality. As quoted earlier, Sri Aurobindo wrote almost a century ago:

In Europe and in India, respectively, the negation of the materialist and the refusal of the ascetic have sought to assert themselves as the sole truth and to dominate the conception of Life. In India, if the result has been a great heaping up of the treasures of the Spirit, — or of some of them, — it has also been a great bankruptcy of Life; in Europe, the fullness of riches and the triumphant mastery of this world's powers and possessions have progressed towards an equal bankruptcy in the things of the Spirit.
— Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, p.11

So how do we combine the deep love for the material world that has given the West its strength, with the lofty aspiration for the spirit that has given the Indian tradition its wisdom? The answer is certainly not in some half-baked compromise, with materialism guiding public life during working hours and religion private life after five and on the weekend. It isn't either in leaving the science of psychology to do evidence-based, statistical studies based on superficial self-observations by the general public, while private practitioners follow whatever guru or practice they happen to feel comfortable with. The real solution has to come from a deep integration, for which we need an ontology that is based on a complete acceptance of both matter and spirit and research methods that combine the rigour and open-mindedness of the hard sciences with the deep understanding of the spiritual realms and the effective use of intuitive knowledge that developed in the Indian traditions.

The absolute, impersonal emptiness of pure consciousness described in the previous section plays a major role in almost all spiritual traditions, especially in India, and there are elements of it even in streams that are normally considered dualistic and theistic. But still, it is not the only form, aspect or type of perfect consciousness, and the oldest and most authoritative Indian texts point to something else that at least in some respects can be seen as going beyond even the purest forms of pure consciousness.

There are different ways in which the "extra" has been formulated. In the Gitā, for example, one finds the concept of the puruṣottama, the absolute Person, the parāpuruṣa, the Being who exists beyond the dualities of saguṇa and nirguṇa, kṣara and akṣara (manifest and non-manifest, moving and unmoving). With a different stress, there is the idea of sarvam Brahma, the ultimate who is all. More abstractly, there is the concept of saccidānanda, the absolute oneness of true being, consciousness and delight that is seen as the source of all there is in the universe. This all-inclusive integrality which has been expressed with such exquisite beauty throughout the oldest scriptures of the Indian tradition, is so central to Indian thought that even the māyāvādin schools, who deny the reality of the physical world, still, somewhere in the background, have to accept that ultimately everything has its origin in Brahman. As we will see in more detail in the chapters on the application of Integral Indian psychology, it may well be this ability to link absolutely everything in existence up to the Transcendent, that gave India that unique "secret ingredient" which was responsible not only for its spiritual depth, but also for the legendary wealth that brought in the previous millennium so many plunderers to its shores.

As I alluded to in the previous section on exclusive spirituality, if one begins by excluding things in one's quest for purity, one may find the Absolute, but one risks remaining stuck in a limited understanding of it. The good news is that one doesn't need to. It is also possible to persist in one's search till one reaches — at the other end of absolute emptiness — another space and time, a "world", or way of being, which includes absolutely everything while avoiding the usual egoïc limitations and distortions. There are two interesting conceptual consequences that follow from the integral realisation one can arrive at in this manner: the first is that consciousness must be everywhere, even in seemingly unconscious matter; the second is that consciousness cannot be limited to awareness, but that it must also have power. We will now have a look at both.

Consciousness in inorganic matter

For most of the twentieth century, physicalist monism was taken for granted in science, but before that most famous philosophers, even in the West supported "panpsychism", the position that holds that consciousness exists throughout creation, even in physical things. When at the end of the twentieth century consciousness became once again a respectable subject for philosophical debate and scientific research, panpsychism was extremely rare, but gradually it found more and more supporters and at present it can almost be called mainstream. The consciousness and knowledge embedded in inorganic physical nature can, of course, not be of the same type we find in the human mind, but the fabulous beauty, order and lawfulness of matter does suggest that there must be some kind of built-in intelligence, some kind of subconscious know-how supporting the world. To recognize the inner structure of matter as the result of some kind of consciousness, one might look at the knowledge-constituent of matter as a subconscious habit of form and function, a tendency to act in harmony with the basic dharma, or inner law, of the physical entity in question: an electron needs to “know” how to behave like an electron, a hydrogen molecule how to behave like a hydrogen molecule, a rock like a rock, and a river like a river.

There are two interesting consequences of this line of thought. The first is that just for the sake of symmetry and logical coherence it seems plausible that if matter turns out to have a basic modicum of consciousness embedded in it, consciousness might also turn out to be some kind of extremely subtle "stuff" explaining its power over physical processes. The most promising venue to determine whether there is some truth in this, might well be research on the neuroscience of anomalous, parapsychological phenomena: for example if we could determine where and how telepathically conveyed information enters and influences the brain. Though extremely interesting, in this text we will limit ourselves to the other, psychological pole of the enquiry.

The second one is that the knowledge aspect of inanimate matter is not as small as it may appear at first sight. Since matter makes no mistakes, every part of it needs to have the know-how required to act perfectly according to the laws that guide its movement. As the laws of physics are supposed to be interrelated and derivable from each other, this may well mean that in some extremely involved way, matter has to know all the laws that the science of physics tries to discover. What is more, as matter’s movements are influenced, to whatever small degree, by everything else that occurs in the universe, each part has to be perfectly aware, in however minute a measure and implicit a manner, of everything that has any bearing on it. Together this amounts to a special kind of subconscient omniscience which in a fully utomatic fashion self-limits itself to the very simple set of dumb but perfect actions that are proper to each portion of reality however small.

In the chapters on knowledge we'll discuss how this is related to Sri Aurobindo's claim that all human knowledge is ultimately based on a similar deep, intuitive inner knowledge in our own being which can be trained to come more routinely to the surface. He argues that the information that comes to us through our sense organs is far too limited to lead to the detailed and well-organised knowledge that we humans have about reality, and that once one is sufficiently clear inside, one can observe that sense-input and logical thinking do little more than trigger, evoke and give form to an already existing inner knowledge, which — if the right methods are used — can be cultivated to such an extent that it can take over from all ordinary mental functions and become one’s normal way of knowing reality. From this perspective all human mental activity is no more than an exercise to make our physical brains capable of expressing our pre-existing inner knowledge in a detailed and accurate manner.

Our human consciousness

Looking at consciousness as an integral part of everything that exists explains why neurologists tend to think that our ordinary human awareness of the physical world cannot exists without a healthy nervous system. The reason is that under normal circumstances, our ordinary waking consciousness is as much embedded in our brains, as the consciousness of a rock is embedded in a rock. In other words, we can look at the brain as an incredibly complex multidimensional, constantly self-adjusting biological model of reality, a kind of replica, and what we humans are normally aware of is not the world outside, but our own internal representation of it. In this limited sense, Dennet is not entirely wrong when he says that we are our neurons [REF], but it is not the whole story. First of all, it is probably more accurate to say that what we are is not so much our neurons, as the way our neurons are connected to each other, and, not to forget, to the rest of our body and the world outside. Second, even within the nervous system, we have some freedom, and we can, for example, choose to identify with different parts of the model it makes: we can center our consciousness in our head to think, in our heart to feel love and compassion, or in our body to feel where and how we are physically. We can even become aware of things that are not part of our model through means that are not dependent on our physical sense-organs. And finally this whole wide world does not contain only physical stuff, but to all that, we'll come back later.

Consciousness as power

Another crucial element of the integral view of consciousness is that it holds that for the consciousness in things to determine their qualities, consciousness must have power. To use an argument by example, there is no effective difference between the quality of "being yellow" and the power to reflect (or radiate) yellow light. In other words, if it is the consciousness in things that gives them their different qualities, then that consciousness must also give them the power to express these qualities.

This needs saying as not only modern science but even many spiritual traditions take consciousness purely as passive awareness. Science does it because it has found that within the range of "ordinary" phenomena, the physical world appears to work as if it is a closed system. The spiritual schools do it because it is easier to find the Divine in absolute, silent purity than in action. But as we will see throughout this text, doing so stands in the way of a comprehensive understanding of how the world works, and it has disastrous consequences. The materialist prejudice against the power of consciousness in science has saddled humanity with an educational system in which the constant use of "objective tests" as motivating factor corrupts the innate value system of students (since it replaces their inner motivation by opportunism and the quest for secondary, external rewards) while it, at the same time, by design, disenfranchises half of humanity as "below standard". At the other end, an overdose of spiritual aloofness led in India to a neglect of the physical world and a failure to defend itself against foreign invasions.

The need for integrality

One could well argue that all the major disasters that threaten humanity at present, are in the end due to a failure of integrating our inner, spiritual endeavours with our outer actions. To use a Christian metaphor, if we "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's", Caesar will end up destroying the world. If, on the other hand, we combine the idea that our individual consciousness is ultimately one with the Consciousness of the Divine, with the idea that consciousness is also conscious-force (cit = cit-śakti or cit = cit-tapas), then we open the road not only to a more integral understanding of who and what we are, but also to a new kind of individual and collective action which is in perfect harmony with the whole.

Putting this intergal understanding of reality into practice is however not easy. Realising in one's direct personal experience the absolute purity of spirit in its aspect of passivity and receptivity is presently well within human reach. This is not easy either, but it is doable because it does not necessitate a complete transformation of one's nature: one's nature has only to get out of the way so that one can receive the splendours of the Infinite in the silence that one is in one's innermost essence. But if this world is not an illusion or an imposition on the Divine, but a progressive manifestation of the Divine itself, then the kṣara, the changing, must be as true as the akṣara, the unchanging, eternal. The dynamic becoming must then be as much divine as static being; the absolute Delight can then manifest itself dynamically as a perfectly divine, all-powerful Love. If our consciousness is in its essence still one with the consciousness of the Divine, then it should be possible for the individual to learn how to identify, at least to some extent, with the dynamic as well as with the passive consciousness of the Divine.

It may be clear that this is much more difficult than the purely passive identification, as it needs for its manifestation not only a liberated self but also a, far more difficult to attain, perfect, ego-free, "divinised" nature. If we accept this as our ultimate aim and destiny, then the spiritual evolution of humanity has only just begun. Traditional mokṣa is then not the end of our search, but rather an essential pre-condition, a first step towards the greater dynamic realisations of the future, realisations that will transform the whole of life into a powerful, dynamic expression of the truth, love and delight of the spirit.

Just as one may accept the dualism of Sāṁkhya not as a statement of the ultimate reality, but as a helpful step on the way to a higher realisation, so also the absolute oneness of the Advaitin and the śūnya of the Buddhist may then be accepted not as the ultimate reality but as essential steps towards the still greater realizations that are hinted at in India's most ancient texts, but that for their full consummation are still awaiting the future.

The oldest and perhaps most powerful expression of this possibility, is given in the Vedic concept of integrality, pūrṇa, which stems from the more ancient and heroic period in Indian history when the highest ideal had not degenerated into the wish "not to be reborn" but had still the simple strength of "True Being, Light, and Immortality". One could look at the coming together of the materialist intellect of Europe and the spiritual intellect of India — after so many long centuries in which they developed in opposite directions — as a sign that the manifestation of the Vedic concept of integrality, pūrṇa, has finally become a realistic possibility. In the field of psychological knowledge, this might lead to developments compared to which the immense achievements of the physical sciences we are now witnessing may just be the first beginnings. As Sri Aurobindo says:

The first necessity is to know the One, to be in possession of the divine Existence; afterwards we can have all the knowledge, joy & power for action that is intended for our souls, — for He being known all is known, tasmin vijnate sarvam vijnatam, not at once by any miraculous revelation, but by a progressive illumination or rather an application of the single necessary illumination to God's multiplicity in manifestation, by the movement of the mahat [the vastness of the supramental consciousness] & the bhuma [the largeness of the manifest world], not working from petty details to the whole, but from the knowledge of the one to the knowledge of relation & circumstance, by a process of knowledge that is sovereign & free, not painful, struggling & bound. This is the central truth of Veda & Upanishad & the process by which they have been revealed to men.
— KU, p. 429

Before we have a more detailed look at the concept of integrality, it will be helpful to first study in more detail how the power of consciousness manifests in nature. This shows itself most clearly in the fact that the embodied consciousness on our planet appears to have evolved over time. So, in the next section, we'll discuss the idea of an ongoing evolution of consciousness, while looking at it as a background meta-narrative for psychology.

For those who would like to go once more in a slightly different manner through what these three different concepts of consciousness have to say, there is in the Appendix an issue-wise comparison between these three concepts of consciousness.