The Scientific Study of Consciousness

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Vedic texts divide experience into the seer, the seen, and the seeing. We can also call these the knower, the known, and the knowing. What we commonly call ‘consciousness’ is the process of seeing or knowing. This seeing or knowing is a property of the soul—the seer or the knower—but it operates under the knower’s control. Thus, the knower is distinct from consciousness, by which it knows. Then, the knower is called the ‘enjoyer’, the known is called the ‘enjoyed’, and knowing is called ‘enjoying’. Based on this, we can understand the technical nomenclature of sat, chit, and ānanda. The ānanda is the enjoyer, the chit is the enjoyed, and the sat is the enjoying, or consciousness.

I use the terms ‘emotion’, ‘cognition’, and ‘relation’ to describe these three aspects. The enjoyer is the emotion, the enjoyed is the cognition, and the enjoying is their mutual relation. Thus, what we call ‘consciousness’ is the relationship between the knower and the known. I will use this post to delve into the different kinds of relations. The study of these relationships constitutes the “science” of consciousness.

This “science” is different from the modern “scientific” study of consciousness, which is a euphemism for trying to explain consciousness based on some material reality and the forces governing it. Vedic philosophy doesn’t think in this way. It considers the knower, the known, and the knowing as three fundamental categories out of which everything is constructed. We cannot reduce either of these to the other categories, but if we try, we will either get contradictions or incompleteness.

By the combination of the knower, the known, and the knowing a fourth category called ‘knowledge’ is produced. Thus, the reality is also described as knowledge, which has three aspects—the knower, the known, and the knowing. This primordial ‘knowledge’ initially divides into three aspects, each of which divides into many further aspects, creating an immense variety of knowers, knowns, and knowing. Then the ‘ingredients’ of various kinds of experiences combine. One example of a combination is that there is an apple, a knower, and the knowing of the apple. Each of these three has separated out of a primordial ‘knowledge’ and then combined into an experience.

The fact that they prior existed as part of ‘knowledge’ is oneness or non-differentiated nature called Param-Brahman, also called “God”. But since they have separated, there are numerous knowers, knowns, and relationships of knowing. Therefore, there is the realism of the components of the experience. The effect of their recombination—to create an experience—is both real and unreal. It is real in the sense that it earlier existed as the undifferentiated reality; it is also unreal in the sense it that is a phenomenon rather than reality.

In this post, I will focus on the relationships of knowing. Let’s start with the intuition about observations. Suppose you are observing an apple. The apple is the known, you are the knower, and what we call ‘consciousness’ is the relation between the two. In this relationship, there is always aboutness—we say that my experience is about the apple. This aboutness (Franz Brentano called this ‘intentionality’) creates the simultaneous sense in which you and the apple are distinct (i.e., real) and yet inseparable (as part of knowledge). The existence of ‘knowledge’ requires that there be a knower, a known, and a knowing. Since this knowledge exists, therefore, we cannot separate the knower, the known, and the knowing. And yet, despite this inseparability, we cannot equate the knower to the known to the knowing.

Thus, consciousness creates a relation between the knower and the known, and these relations come in many varieties. One such relation is that of self-awareness, in which the knower, the known, and the knowing are the same thing, and this process can be understood if we say that there is knowledge of the self, but it is comprised of three aspects—the knower, the known, and the knowing. Thus, sat, chit, and ānanda are three components of self-awareness. Similarly, when we are aware of an apple, then the knower, the known, and the knowing still exist, but they are not the same thing; you are the knower, the apple is the known, and the relation between the two is knowing.

In this way, we can describe both self-consciousness and world-consciousness by the same three principles. And this means that if we study the world as experience or observation, then the theory of world-experience can also be used to understand self-experience, or the “I-ness”. As a result, separate theories for the soul and matter are not needed, if we have the correct theory of experience.

Let us now briefly turn to how relationships can be modeled in science. Modern mathematics models these relationships as functions. In set theory, these functions are classified into three broad categories, called injective, surjective, and bijective relationships. A relation R: A → B is called injective if every element of B has at most one corresponding element in A. Similarly, a relation R: A → B is called surjective if every element of B has at least one corresponding element in A. If a relation is both injective and surjective, then every element in B has one and only one corresponding element in A, and it is called bijective. Typically, an injective relation entails that B is bigger than A. A surjective relation means that A is bigger than B. And a bijective relationship means that both of these sets are equal-sized.

Vedic philosophy replaces big, small, and equal, with superior, inferior and equal. The notions of big and small are quantitative, and the notions of inferior and superior are qualitative. A relationship of superiority S: A → B means that A is superior to B. A exerts control over B, therefore, in some sense, it is ‘bigger’ than B. And yet, it is not physical bigness that we are talking about. Likewise, a relationship of inferiority I: A → B means that A is inferior to B. B exerts control over A, therefore, in some sense, it is ‘bigger’ than A. The relationship of equality E: A → B means that A and B exert control over each other, so they are not superior or inferior to each other.

Now, let’s consider some examples. The relation of superiority exists in the parent-child and boss-subordinate interactions. The parent is in control of the child, and the boss is in control of the subordinate. Therefore, when they are conscious of the other thing, the consciousness is also of being a parent or a boss. As a result, we now no longer describe consciousness merely as some ‘awareness’ but in terms of a type. The relation of inferiority can be grasped by seeing the same thing from the perspective of the child or the subordinate.

The relationship of equality is seen between friends; they can control each other, so they are not mutually superior or inferior. Therefore, we say that friendship is a relation of equality. It is also a bidirectional relationship, similar to the bijective relations between two sets.

This sense of ‘equality’ leads to a problem if the equality is interpreted as identity. In the case of knower and known, a sense of equality can lead to the knower identifying itself with the known. We can call this the identity relation, in which two things that are equal to each other are considered to be identical to each other.

This relation appears when the soul perceives the body and then finding that everything in the soul can exist in the body, and everything in the body can exist in the soul, sees a relationship of equality. Very quickly, however, this equality relation becomes the identity relation and we start saying that “I am the body”, “I am in love”, “I am in pain”, “I am a man”, “I am a woman”, “I am hurt”, “I am old”, “I am young”, “I am rich”, “I am poor”, and so on. Each of these is an attribute of the body. The soul is observing this body quite like the body is observing the apple. But while observing the apple, the relationship is that of superiority—“I can control, own, eat, or throw the apple”. However, while observing the body, the relationship is that of equality. The relation between body and soul is quite like a bijective relationship but it is not identity. There are indeed two separate things—the body and the soul—which have a one-to-one bijective relationship. However, when the bijective relationship is misinterpreted as the identity relation, then the illusion of the soul being the body arises.

Factually, the soul also has a bijective relationship to itself, and this bijective relation is also the identity relation, in the sense that there is the knower, the known, and the knowing, and these are the aspects of the same thing—the soul. Hence, there is a basis for converting the bijective relation to an identity relation, and that basis exists in the case of self-awareness. If that identity relation is mistakenly applied to the body, then the soul identifies with the body, as equality is interpreted as identity.

The process of liberation is freedom from this illusion, and it means that we look upon the body like the body sees the apple. This is the relation of superiority in which I am in control of the body. This liberated soul stops identifying with the body and gains control over it.

If the soul identifies with the body, it comes under the inferiority relationship in which the body demands food and the soul says “I am hungry”; the body demands sleep, and the soul says “I am sleepy”. Thus, the process of material entanglement involves the conversion of the superiority relation to a relationship of equality, which then becomes the inferiority relation, and by identifying with the body, the body gains complete control over the soul. Now, the materialist, under this inferiority relationship says: There is nothing other than the body.

The process of liberation is therefore very simple, and yet subtle: (1) I am not controlled by the body, (2) I am not identical to the body, and (3) I am the controller of this body. In short, we transform the relationship between soul and body from inferiority and equality to the relationship of superiority. In that condition, we have an identity relation to the self, and this process is called self-realization.

The idea that we are controlled by the body is called ‘materialism’. The idea that I am identical to the body (and there is no soul apart from the body) is called Buddhism. And the idea that I am identical to myself, and nothing else exists (other than the self) is called self-realization.

Thus, just based on the ideas of superiority, inferiority, and equality we can identify three kinds of consciousness—the materialist consciousness, the voidism consciousness, and the self-consciousness.

The materialist says that there is indeed consciousness, but it is produced from the body, or that consciousness is an effect or epiphenomena of material interactions. The voidist says that there is no such thing as body and consciousness; there is just conscious experience and we call that the body. The materialist is a realist, while the voidist is an idealist. In materialism, if you stop experiencing, the world still exists. In voidism, the end of the experience is the end of the world. Therefore, the voidist tries to end experience, which is called the end of reality.

Vedic philosophy goes beyond these three states and identifies two more types of consciousness, which are paradoxical in nature.

The first type of consciousness is that which constitutes the neither superior, nor inferior, nor equal relationship. This relation is sometimes called śānta or “silent appreciation”. For example, the liberated soul, after gaining self-awareness and distinction from the body, directs its awareness toward God—the source of everything. He doesn’t consider himself equal to God, or inferior to God, or superior to God. He merely acknowledges the existence of God as the source of everything. Just as a fan might appreciate a great person, without saying that I’m equal to that person, that I’m a subordinate to that person, or I am superior to that person, similarly, in this state, God’s existence is recognized, somewhat dispassionately. This recognition of God—from a distance, and silently—constitutes the Brahman realization.

Then there are many other types of relationships that vary upon the neither superior, nor inferior, nor equal relationships, but they are not as distant as the silent appreciation. We can compare these to the relationships between citizens, neighbors, colleagues, and distant relatives.

For example, the sālokya liberation is just like the affection between two citizens, but living far off. The sāmipya liberation is like being neighbors. The sārsti liberation is just like being professional colleagues. And the sārupya liberation is just like being distant relatives. In these relations, there is more affection than silent appreciation. But there is an absence of intimate relationships like those of lovers, friends, parents, or servants. Finally, there is also a relationship of equality which is confused as identity. In this relation, the soul merges into God and loses its identity. This is called the sāyujya-mukti. All these types of relationships are considered mukti or liberation from matter.

Then, there is a second type of paradoxical consciousness, which is simultaneously superior, inferior, and equal. This kind of relationship is one of romantic love between the Lord and His devotees. The lovers control each other, the lovers are controlled by each other, and the lovers are equal to each other. So, each lover is superior, inferior, and equal, and they are simultaneously superior, inferior, and equal.

Apart from this, there are relationships of superiority, inferiority, and equality, in which the simultaneity of the previous (romantic love) is absent. These are pure relations of superiority, inferiority, and equality. The relationship of superiority makes the soul a parent of the Lord. The relationship of inferiority makes the soul a servant of the Lord. And the relationship of equality makes the soul a friend of the Lord.

Thus, immense variety in relationships is created from the basic three types of relationships as superior, inferior, and equal. The study of this variety is the “science” of consciousness. A true “theory” of consciousness requires a discussion of superior, inferior, and equal relationships which are about control rather than merely size or quantity, as the relations of injection, surjection, and bijection are in mathematics.

Unlike the physical and quantitative relationships of mathematics, the qualitative relationships create roles of lovers, parent-child, master-servant, friend, colleague, neighbor, distant fan, citizen, etc. Each role creates patterns of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. In the material world, the concept of duty (or dharma) arises from the roles, which depend on the relationships. When someone indulges in unacceptable behaviors, there is karma, and the laws of nature then change the relationships—e.g., put us from a position of power and control, into a relationship where we lose the power of control. Thus, the description of relationships, roles, duties, and laws of behavior form a continuum of a new kind of science that lies beyond modern science, but it can be rational based on everyday intuitions.