Consciousness is Rooted in Inner Conflict

This post discusses how choice arises from conflict, in the act of conflict resolution. The nature of this conflict, how conflict resolution leads to compromises in which one side goes dominant and the other subordinate, and how the dominant-subordinate structure is later reversed, producing a cyclic change, are interesting consequences of this idea. This also leads us to think of matter as the cause of inner conflict, and consciousness as the resolver of these conflicts. It helps us understand matter in a new way, as something that is always inconsistent rather than logically consistent. To describe matter as the substratum of conflict requires a fundamentally different way of thinking than is prevalent in modern science; logic doesn’t forbid the existence of opposites, but it forbids the simultaneous choice of opposites. It is a limitation on choice, not a limitation on nature. For example, nature can allow liberals and conservatives to exist simultaneously; but you cannot be both at once without creating an inner conflict in which one of the tendencies will dominate at one time.

The Three Notions of Self

If we examine our ordinary language, we use “I” in three different ways.

First, we use “I” relationally. Common occurrences of this use are “I am a father”, “I am an employee”, “I am a citizen of this country”, “I am the son or daughter of so and so”, “I am married to so and so”, etc. These are the ways in which we express our identity in relation to something or someone else.

Second, we use “I” materially and causally. Common examples of the material expression are “I am white”, “I am black”, “I am tall”, “I am short”, “I am fast”, “I am intelligent”, “I am fat”, “I am thin”, “I am a little slow today”, etc. These are all the ways in which we describe our mind, our intelligence, and the body as an identity. Common examples of the causal expression are “I am running”, “I am reading”, “I am talking”, “I am writing”, “I am sleeping”, etc. These are all the types of actions we perform.

Third, we use “I” emotionally. For example, we say, “I am happy”, “I am jealous”, “I am in love”, “I am angry”, “I am disliking this”, “I am enjoying this”, “I am desirous of such and such”, etc. These are all the ways in which we describe our feelings, desires, likes and dislikes, and emotions.

These three notions about the “I” are material manifestations of the three tendencies of the soul as described in Vedic philosophy. These three tendencies in the soul are called sat, chit, and ananda. However, they also have material counterparts in relations, cognition, and emotion. So, by understanding the soul, we can understand matter in terms of these three categories.

Understanding the Three Notions of Self

The sat represents our consciousness and existence. The nature of consciousness is to be directed toward something, by which we say we are conscious of something. But this consciousness also defines us, and hence becomes our existence. In other words, by being aware of something, our identity is changed in relation to that thing. This relational existence arising out of awareness is called sat. It is the origin of notions such as “I am father”, “I am employee”, “I am a citizen”, etc. This idea of existence is like the postmodernist notion of the self which is socially-constructed. The post-modernist argues that the “self” is nothing other than the collection of all the relationships one bears to others. This idea about the self is not entertained in classical physics, because the identity of each object is supposed to be independent of the other objects. But this notion of identity exists in human relationships. If this idea is applied to matter, then material objects would have different identities in relation to other objects. This would radically change the notion of identity, because it would now be relationally defined.

The chit represents our knowledge and action. For example, when you become aware of an external object through your awareness or sat, you then perceive some sensations such as taste, touch, smell, sound, and sight. Subsequently, you have a conceptual cognition of the object, such as a table or chair. The chit is this material cognition which exists in the observer. But in Vedic philosophy, the way we cognize the world can also potentially be the way the world is. For example, the material world objectively has taste, touch, sound, sight, and smell. It is not merely our perception that creates these sensations, but these sensations are objectified in matter. Our senses interact with this objective representation of these properties and produce what people call qualia or sensations. Similarly, the material world is constructed through our actions, and we can perceive how it was created. For example, if you are an expert cook, you can guess the recipe by tasting food. The sensations tell us the current state, and the actions indicate the process by which this state was attained.

The ananda represents our feelings or emotions. For example, after you see some chair or table, you may be happy, unhappy, jealous, or neutral. No experience is without an emotion, so we always have some emotion after we have some cognition or action. In fact, sometimes, we seek a certain type of emotion, which drives us toward a certain kind of cognition, which then pushes us toward a relation, which then results in some type of action. For example, if you want to have the feeling of love, then you would like to see and interact with a beautiful person, and then you will seek to establish a relationship with someone you find beautiful or attractive, and if you find such a person you will talk to them. Science doesn’t consider emotions as a separate category. Science believes that emotions are produced by matter, which means they are effects of matter. But in Vedic philosophy, emotions are material, but they can be causes. Since they can be causes, they are treated a separate category of matter, not merely an effect of the matter (i.e. they are not epiphenomena). We will return to this issue later.

The Three Notions of Self Exist as a Possibility

At this point we should distinguish between the three aspects of “I” and conscious experience. These three aspects of “I” can exist independently, and in this independent existence, there is no experience. Conscious experience is created when the three components combine. So, in every conscious experience, there is a relation to something, a cognition and action toward that thing, followed by an emotion about it. The order of these three things can be changed. For example, we might have an emotion such as anger, which will drive us toward a relation to something, followed by some actions under the influence of anger, followed by the cognition of the changes caused by action.

So, basically, any of these three aspects can become the cause, and the others will become effects. In different situations, one of these three components of experience can be the cause, while the other is the step toward the effect, and the third component is the effect. What we call conscious experience is the combination of these three components, or the combination of sat, chit, and ananda. The chit has two further parts—knowledge and action—so sometimes they are counted as four instead of three.

Individually, before this combination, each of these three things exist as a possibility. For example, when I say that “I am a father”, it doesn’t mean that I am always exhibiting the behavior of a father or I’m always conscious of my child. My being a father is a potentiality. In fact, we have the potentiality of many relationships, such as father, son, employee, citizen, etc. But these potentialities are realized occasionally. So, in the workplace, I’m acting like an employee. At home, while interacting with my child, I’m a father. In relation to my wife, I’m acting as a husband. If we take away all these interactions, then all these relationships become potentials. And these potentials become real one by one.

Similarly, my body is also a potential. We call these potentials abilities. For example, I can read and write, but that doesn’t mean that I’m always reading and writing. Similarly, I can eat food, or walk, but that doesn’t mean I’m always eating or walking. So, the body is a collection of abilities which lie dormant and become active. When they become active, they need to be active in relation to something. For example, if I’m going to eat some food, then there must be some food. And once I eat the food, there will be either some feeling of satisfaction or dissatisfaction. So, what we call our body is not some material stuff. It is rather a collection of potentialities which become active when they contact other potentialities. This is not difficult to understand if we think of the body as many abilities.

Finally, my emotions are also potentials. Various types of emotions such as love, anger, jealousy, fear, happiness, sadness, etc. exist in me in potential form. Of course, I can feel some emotions more than others. For example, people suffering from depression feel unhappiness more than happiness. Similarly, some people are more often angry than others, and other people are more often jealous than others. But that doesn’t mean that they are always feeling a kind of emotion. So, these emotions are potentials.

The fear, love, anger, jealousy, etc. exist in us in a potential form, and becomes manifest sometimes. The emotion is not derived from an external perception or cognition of the world. It is always created within the person. Therefore, one person can feel happy and the other can feel angry from the same observation. The feeling of happiness is a self-creation. Hence, it is possible to remain happy always even if the situations are adverse. Likewise, it is possible to remain unhappy even if the situation is good. So, this feeling lies in us in a dormant form, and excited into an experience occasionally.

So, when we talk about conscious experience, we are speaking of the combination of these three things—a relation of a certain type, a cognition and action of a certain type, and an emotion of a certain type. This is how Vedic philosophy deconstructs conscious experience into three components. It is possible according to Vedic philosophy that these three components are left alone separately, and then there is no conscious experience. For instance, it is said that when the universe is annihilated, then the soul remains in a state of deep sleep or without any experience. The creation of the universe is the creation of conscious experience. Experience is created when these three components combine. So, in the annihilated state of the universe, the three components exist, but they are not mixed. In that sense, these three components are eternal, but they can be mixed or unmixed. Different kinds of conscious experiences are the temporary mixing of these eternal but unmixed potentialities.

The Dominant-Subordinate Structure in Experience

We noted earlier that sometimes our emotions drive us toward a relation and cognition. At other times, we come across something, have a relation, then cognition, then action, and then the emotion. Similarly, our past cognitions can create emotions in us, and then drive us toward relations, and actions. So, each of these can be causes and effects. This is described by saying that one of these components become dominant and the other two become subordinate. When emotion is driving us toward a cognition, action, and relation, then emotion is dominant, and the others are subordinate. When relation is driving us toward a cognition, action, and emotion, then relation is dominant, and the others are subordinate. This dominant-subordinate relation keeps changing all the time. So, neither of these is always dominant or subordinate. You cannot clearly say which one is the cause and which one is the effect in a timeless manner. You can however identify the cause and effect at a given time.

This is a contrast to modern science where we suppose that if there are many material objects, they are causally active all the time. We assume that they are all ‘real’ rather than a possibility. But when matter exists as a possibility, one of the possibilities becomes active, and excites other possibilities. So, the cause of change is that possibility which becomes reality first and converts other possibilities into reality. This is way the thing that becomes reality from possibility first, is the dominant cause.

The Creation of Conflict

Now, when one of the components goes dominant, and the other go subordinate, often a conflict is produced. This conflict is not necessary, and if there is no conflict, the experience remains stable and unchanging. But if a conflict is created, then change ensues. For example, you might be interested in watching a movie rather than sitting in a class and listening to a lecture and learning about a new subject. But you may be forcibly sitting in the lecture because you don’t want to fail the exam of that subject. So, your primary desire is to not fail the exam and a secondary desire is to watch a movie. The primary desire has subordinated the secondary desire, but the conflict between the two is simmering. Similarly, you might end up in a bad situation you are unable to get out of. You hate the situation but can’t avoid it. In this case, there is a conflict between your emotion and your relation. You tell yourself that this situation will pass and then you will get what you want, but the conflict keeps simmering. If the conflict intensifies beyond a certain threshold, then a change is automatically created. For example, if you really dislike the lecture, you will get up and walk out of it. Or, if you are in a bad situation and unable to tolerate it, you will struggle very hard to somehow escape the situation.

The basic point is that when the three components are combined, they don’t necessarily overlap completely. Some parts may overlap and that creates stability. But other parts don’t overlap, and they create a contradiction. In this contradiction, there is a tendency to change, but if one component is dominant, it holds the others together in that situation temporarily. For some time, this works fine, but soon enough, the dominant component becomes weak, and the subordinate component becomes stronger, and then the dominant-subordinate relationship is reversed. Depending on which component goes dominant, a different kind of change occurs. The driver for change is conflict.

In modern science, we think that nature must always be self-consistent. There cannot be contradictions in nature because contradictions would prevent us from using logic and mathematics to describe the world. But if we examine how our conscious experience evolves, then an inner conflict, which is like a self-contradiction, becomes the cause of all changes. We develop this inner conflict due to the different aspects of our experience remaining inconsistent, and that contradiction drives change.

The model of change in science is fundamentally incapable of describing subjective evolution, because it is driven by contradictions rather than consistency. This means the way we describe matter in science will remain incompatible with the way we can understand subjective evolution. The only way to remedy this situation is to change the model of material evolution in science, and describe change as arising out of contradictions. Contradiction produces a state of instability, and if this contradiction is resolved, a new state of consistency is produced, which may be contradictory in another way. Thus, we jump from one contradictory state to another, and this state change constitutes evolution. This requires us to think about a new kind of logic and mathematics, which does not exist at the present. So, this idea of how the subject evolves has tremendous ramifications for material science once we understand it.

The Role of Choice

Now once we recognize that there is inner conflict between these three components of experience, and we recognize that this conflict must be resolved, we come to the question of how the conflict is resolved. Conflict resolution involves choice. There are many ways you can resolve a conflict, and you choose one of these possible ways. For example, suppose that you are stuck in a job that you don’t enjoy, and you don’t have the ability to do it well. You feel unhappy because of that. But you can resolve this conflict in two ways. First, you can begin enjoying whatever you are doing, and develop the abilities to do the current job very well. Second, you can quit this job and find the job that you are most suited for, based on your current ability, and enjoy that. So, the choice is whether you prioritize your ability and happiness and change the opportunity or accept the opportunity you have right now and develop the abilities and happiness working yourself out of whatever you have right now.

In one case, you have prioritized emotion and ability over the relation (opportunity), and in the other case you have prioritized the relation over cognition and emotion. This prioritization of one or more aspects over the others constitutes choice. Choice is not adding anything materially to the world. Everything already exists as the three components of experience. However, it is changing the dominant-subordinate structure. Therefore, if you are going to look for some material counterpart of choice or soul, you will never find it. You must look differently and understand that matter allows many possibilities and only one of them becomes real. This conversion of possibility to reality is often predicated by the nature of the possibility itself—i.e. the nature of conflict. In that sense, often, possibilities themselves can force choice, but even then, there is a role for choice.

There is a common saying regarding choice—you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Choice means you cannot have everything, and therefore you must choose. But why can’t we have everything? The reason is that the alternatives to choose from are logically contradictory. If there were no contradiction in the alternatives, we could choose everything simultaneously, and choice would not exist. So, choice rests upon the existence of a logical contradiction between the alternatives. And you pick one of the many contradictory alternatives. So, logic puts a restriction on choice—namely, you cannot choose logically contradictory alternatives at the same time. But, logic also creates choice, because contradictory alternatives create room for choosing. Logic and choice are compatible, not contradictory.

Now most people today think that choice interferes with the laws of nature governing matter, and matter is just one thing. And matter has no contradictions. All these ideas are false if one understands the nature of the self. The self is always conflicted; you can examine yourself and see the conflicts. Vedic philosophy just helps us understand the nature of this conflict theoretically. Once we understand that matter is not one but three different kinds of things, and that these three things are often in a conflict, and that conflict drives change, then we see the role of choice in conflict resolution.

The Theory of Balance

As we have noted before, the nature of conflict keeps changing. So sometimes if our emotions have been suppressed in favor of dealing with the circumstances, then the conflict leads to a revolt in which the circumstances are ignored or rejected, and the emotion begins to rule again. While it is a given that some persons have naturally dominant tendency toward giving priority toward emotion, relation, or cognition, in general, we understand that we must balance these tendencies. This gives rise to the idea that we cannot always remain in one or the other extreme. We must balance. So, choices must give roughly equal opportunity to each component and provide it a dominant status. In fact, if one of these components is suppressed, the person becomes ill or a material system develops problems. So, the idea of balance naturally emerges from the idea of conflict and the resolution of conflicts. You cannot have one side winning always. You must strike a natural balance between the winning sides.

When this balance is not actively pursued, then the system or the person oscillates from one extreme to another. This is typically seen not just in humans, who go from one extreme to another if they don’t strike a balance, but in every natural system that retaliates by creating its own opposite. If one side has been suppressed, it revolts and becomes dominant again. The side that was previously dominant now becomes subordinated. This process of oscillation in nature emerges from the conflict. In fact, now, the observation of cycles in nature is the phenomena but its cause is the underlying conflict. If we understand the nature of this conflict, then we can also explain the cyclic behavior.

The Consequences of Choice

Every time you make a choice, you produce two other things. First, you create a habit by which making the same choice would become easier next time. Thus, doing something for the first time tends to be tougher, especially if it is different from your previous choices, because your previous choices have become habits. But once you make a choice, making the same choice next time becomes easier. Second, every choice brings a consequence, depending on the morality of the choice. Morality is essentially the rules by which we must resolve the inner conflict, and these rules change with time.

These two things—the habit of choice and the moral consequence of choice—are called guna and karma in Vedic philosophy. They are both consequences of choice. So, if you have been making a certain type of choice over a long period of time, it has become a habit, and we start calling that habit our nature or prakriti. Factually, that nature can be changed if we change the pattern of our choices, but that change is slow and incremental. Therefore, most people say that we are compelled by our own nature and we don’t have free will. This is mostly true because our habits are deeply formed and changing the patterns of our choices is very difficult. These habits determine our patterns of choice. Similarly, many people say that I want to choose differently but my circumstances are not allowing me to do so. This is also mostly true, because these circumstances are outcomes of karma.

So, due to guna or past habits, and karma or consequences of choices, it seems that we have no choice. But if we recognize that our choices are forced by habit, and consequences of previous choices, then it is possible to gradually exercise choice. It is a slow and incremental process, but it is real.

The guna and karma are two additional types of matter, besides what we call ‘matter’. What we consider ‘matter’ today is the cognitive and causal matter, associated with the chit of the “I”. The guna is also another type of matter, which is associated with the ananda or the habits of making choices. It represents what we like and dislike, what we enjoy and suffer. Naturally we are inclined toward pleasure, so our habits of past pleasure drive our choices. Karma is also another type of matter which is associated with the sat of the “I” and it creates opportunities for relationships. Thus, due to karma we contact different kinds of things in the world, including human relationships. Whether we enjoy or suffer through these relationships is due to guna but the relationship is caused by karma. And both guna and karma are produced by choice. So, if we change the choices, then guna and karma change.

A typical pattern in guna and karma is that if you do good deeds, you get more freedom or opportunity. The greater freedom makes the person immoral, which then produces lesser freedom and opportunity. Under this lesser freedom, the person learns the moral lesson, and starts doing good deeds. So, nature is designed in such a way that good deeds produce good opportunities which result in bad choices which produce bad outcomes, and the cycle of change perpetuates endlessly. This cycle of good and bad deeds is a different kind of cycle than the one we saw previously—namely one of change in dominant and subordinate tendencies. It doesn’t emerge out of a conflict; it is just the tendency in the living entity to misuse the freedom which produces this cycle. If this tendency to misuse the freedom is corrected, then the cycle of good and bad naturally comes to an end, and the person is liberated. This means that due to inner conflict, the world will keep going cyclically but we don’t have to be part of it.

The Nature of Matter

The “I” or the self has lots of similarities with matter, and one main difference. The similarity is that the three components of experience are present in matter too. Therefore, matter can be studied in terms of relations, cognition, and emotion. The difference is that the “I” or the self has the ability for self-relation, self-cognition, and self-enjoyment, which matter doesn’t have. Thus, you can say that I will establish a relation to myself, I will know myself, and I will love myself. But matter cannot do that. Barring this relationship to the self, matter too has relation, cognition, and emotion.

So, in one sense, matter and consciousness are very similar, because they have the same three aspects. They are also similar because there is conflict between these three, there is a dominant subordinate relationship, there is the need for balance, and without this balance a conflict is created.

The difference is that choice—by which a conflict is resolved—only exists in the “I”, not in matter. Therefore, matter can produce conflicts, and the self can also be conflicted. But the self can resolve the conflict although matter cannot do so, because it doesn’t have choice. In a very simple sense, matter can be defined as conflicts and the soul is the resolver of these conflicts. Since the soul can both be conflicted and resolve the conflict, it is independent of matter. But because matter cannot resolve the conflict, it depends on the soul for conflict resolution. Recall that this conflict resolution drives change—perhaps toward lesser conflict or even toward greater conflict—but away from the present type of conflict into a different type of conflict. When we are tired of a certain type of inner conflict we substitute it with another type of inner conflict. This change involves a choice. Choices may be automatically made due to past habits or due to the force of circumstances, but these are still choices. The choice of picking a different alternative—against the force of habit and contrary to the best path decided by the current circumstances—exists in us. It might seem ‘irrational’, but it is a choice.

This means that by studying the soul, we can understand matter and its evolution. The self-awareness of the soul isn’t present in matter, but relation, cognition, and emotion are material. Of course, we need to redefine the nature of science in many ways to understand this ideology. First, we must understand that there are three kinds of matter, rather than one. Second, we must understand that all these three types of matter are possibilities which combine to create an experience. Third, we must recognize that this combination produces a conflict and contradiction, and choices are used to resolve it. Fourth, we must understand that this conflict resolution through choice produces habits and moral consequences, so we must be careful in how we choose, or we would be enmeshed in a cycle of good and bad changes. So, this is a fundamentally different theory of nature and change, and it forms a different kind of science. It is based on the idea of conflict rather than consistency, on choices rather than determinism.