Three concepts of consciousness

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 24 March 2024

section 5
Synopsis: an issue-wise comparison between the physicalist and integral views

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


This last section offers a short summary of the main differences between the physicalist concept of consciousness as used in mainstream science, and the integral concept which we will use in Infinity in a Drop.

The concept of consciousness that I have called "mainstream" is the physicalist concept that most academic psychologists seem to take as the accepted standard, and that authors within the interdisciplinary field of Consciousness Studies tend to use to differentiate their own views from. It is also the concept which medical staff uses in an emergency ward to determine whether a patient is conscious or not.

Traditionally, most Indian knowledge systems that deal with consciousness appear to have been somewhere on a continuum between pure and integral spirituality. Over the last 50 years, however, there appears to have been a marked shift towards a more integral world-view, especially amongst the urban middle-class. So, for simplicity's sake, I'll focus for this summary on the difference between the mainstream physicalist and the integral view. There is in the appendix a more detailed issue-wise comparison between all three concepts of consciousness. For the integral view, I am basing myself on Sri Aurobindo's writings.

  1. The mainstream view is based on the appearance of consciousness in the ordinary waking state.
  2. The integral view is based on the spiritual experience of consciousness in which self and world are seen as one in essence with the divine Absolute.

  3. As a result, the mainstream view identifies consciousness with the small portion of the mental processes of which we are aware in our ordinary waking state.
  4. The integral view sees consciousness as a core-element of all of reality, and it sees our mental consciousness as just one particular way of being conscious.

  5. In the mainstream view, which is limited to the ordinary waking state, matter looks unconscious and spirit superconscious.
  6. In the integral view, our mental way of being conscious is a middle term, approximately halfway in an extensive hierarchy of different types of conscious existence ranging from spirit to matter.

  7. In the mainstream view, consciousness is an exception, occurring only in the complex nervous systems of mammals and perhaps a few other types of animals. (Some restrict it to humans; others extend it even to sufficiently complex machines; a slowly increasing number supports panpsychism.)
  8. In the integral view, consciousness is pervasive throughout existence and is better visualised as a field than as a property of discreet "things".1

  9. In the mainstream view, consciousness is a late entrant in the play: it is a difficult to explain result emerging from an essentially chance-driven evolution.
  10. In the integral view, consciousness is there from before time; it is the guiding principle behind the evolution of increasingly complex biological forms in which it gradually emancipates from the stupor of consciousness in matter.

  11. In the mainstream view, consciousness is basically one-dimensional and limited. The only way of being conscious is the one we humans have in our ordinary waking state. Dream, animal consciousness, sleep, and coma are looked at as diminished forms of that same type of consciousness.
  12. In the integral view there are many different ways of being conscious, which form together a complex spectrum of different worlds, each representing a different relationship between puruṣa and prakṛti.

  13. In the mainstream view, consciousness is centred in the ego and identified with the mind. As such it is intrinsically intentional: it always maintains a difference between subject and object.2
  14. In the integral view, consciousness can be centred in the ego, in the ātman, the Brahman or even nowhere at all; as such it can be dual, biune, unitary, or even "empty". In the Transcendent, consciousness is there as an integral part of the indivisible unity of sat, cit and ānanda (existence, consciousness and joy).

  15. In the mainstream view, consciousness is limited to awareness.
  16. In the integral view, consciousness is also power: cit is also cit-śakti (or cit-tapas).3

  17. In the mainstream view, consciousness is nothing more than an epiphenomenon "emerging" from physical processes, but without any possibility of affecting the physical world.
  18. In the integral view, consciousness belongs to the essence of reality. As long as our consciousness is limited to its physical embodiment, we are the puppets of the seemingly unconscious processes of nature. However, when we free ourselves from those bonds, we can attain the state of a pure witness, or go even further and identify with higher ranges of consciousness from where we can affect events out of a genuine freedom, not from without, but from within, in perfect harmony with the whole.

  19. If the world is purely physical, love, truth and beauty would be no more than subjective illusions. A purely physical life (if that could exist!) would be intrinsically meaningless.
  20. In the integral view, the little, narrowly embodied consciousness we presently identify with, is slowly growing and on its way to embody the perfect truth, love and beauty which it already is in its essence.


As mentioned before, considering these differences one could get the impression that naming both concepts "consciousness" is a mistake, but looking closer it becomes clear that the mainstream conceptualisation of consciousness covers one amongst the many forms of consciousness recognised in the integral spiritual view. In the rest of this text I will use the word "consciousness" in the wider, more comprehensive, integral spiritual sense unless it is obvious from the context or specifically mentioned.

We can put the same points in a table:

mainstream view

integral view


view derived from mind as experienced in the ordinary waking state

view derived from cit as experienced in transcendent and cosmic states of conscious being


consciousness less than mind;
only a few mental processes conscious

consciousness more than mind;
mind only one type of consciousness


only the ordinary waking state fully conscious;
matter unconscious
the spirit ineffable

the ordinary waking state a middle term in a long range from spirit to matter


an exception

pervasive, in and beyond space


a late arrival

from before time



manifesting in many diferent ways of being


centred in the ego

centred in the ātman (Self)


only awareness

awareness as well as power:
cit as well as cit-tapas


an epiphenomenon

the essence of self and world


life is the product of chance

life has as an aim and is on its way to embody pure truth, love and beauty

Mainstream vs integral concepts

For those who are interested, there is in the Appendix a much more detailed issue-wise comparison between all three concepts of consciousness.

What next?

I hope to have shown that for a comprehensive understanding of the whole of reality we need an integral understanding of consciousness, including its omnipresence and its aspect of power. But this is not enough. We cannot understand our own little lives if we don't understand where the world as a whole is going because we are part of that whole and we want to participate. We are, even biologically, physically, forward looking. What is missing in our description of consciousness so far is the dynamism, the large scale, long-time involution and evolution of consciousness, and it is this that gives us a legitimate hope that

[Our] tread one day shall change the suffering earth
And justify the light on Nature's face.

— Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, p. 344


So this what we will have a look at in the next chapter.


1Sri Aurobindo's integral view comes in this respect close to Kashmiri Shaivism, in which Śiva and Śaktī imply and include each other. This is radically different from the Sāṃkhya view which takes its division between puruṣa and prakṛti (Self and Nature) as almost absolute: it sees consciousness as the essence of the puruṣa, and nature as empty of consciousness.

2Searle (2005) acknowledges that there are non-intentional states of consciousness even in the waking state, but in this he seems to be the exception.

3There are other schools of Vedānta that limit consciousness to its witness aspect. In Sri Aurobindo's view this is a useful, even necessary device in the earlier stages of sādhanā, but it cannot be the ultimate truth, as the manifestation could not have come into existence unless power was an essential element of the ultimate nature of the consciousness of Brahman, with which our own consciousness is still one in its essence.