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Consciousness vs. Content Distinction

One of the hardest problems in the scientific study of consciousness is to distinguish consciousness from its contents. In the simplest sense, consciousness is the knower, and content is the known. However, in an experience, we cannot distinguish the knower from the known because the two are combined.

Hence, when philosophers and scientists are talking about “consciousness” they are not talking about the knower. They are talking about “experience”,  which doesn’t distinguish knower from known. Hence, we find the philosophy of consciousness talking about qualia (or sense perception qualities like taste, touch, smell, sound, and sight) although qualia are not consciousness. They are just one of the many contents. Likewise, some philosophers talk about “feelings” as consciousness—e.g., “What is it to be like a bat?” Again, they are talking about content—the experience of being a bat—and not consciousness. There is not a single philosopher who talks about consciousness per se, as distinct from its contents.

The Prakṛti vs. Puruṣa Distinction

The distinction between consciousness and content is made in Sāñkhya by distinguishing prakṛti from puruṣa. Prakṛti includes emotions, cognitions, and relations. Cognitions include objects, sensations, concepts, and judgments. Judgments include truth, right, and good. But none of this is puruṣa—the knower, controller, and enjoyer—of prakṛti. Effectively, whatever modern philosophy of consciousness calls “consciousness” has everything to do with prakṛti and nothing to do with the puruṣa.

Moreover, prakṛti is known during the states of waking, dreaming, and sleeping, while the puruṣa is transcendent to these experiences. The philosophy of “consciousness” restricts itself mostly to the waking stage and neglects the more important forms of prakṛti involved during dreaming and sleeping. Modern science further restricts the waking phase to the study of the brain—the observable correlates of private experience—akin to the observation of tears produced due to the feeling of sadness. Just as tears are correlated to sadness, and yet, tears are not sadness, similarly, the observation of bodily states during the waking experience is such a limited portion of prakṛti as to be of very little consequence.

Quantifying the Consciousness Problem

Prakṛti is generally divided into eight layers—the unconscious, moral values, ego, intellect, mind, senses, sensory properties, and sense objects. The unconscious corresponds to the sleeping state; the next six properties are present during dreaming; and the last layer of sense objects is what we experience during waking. The puruṣa is beyond these three states. Effectively, the “scientific study of consciousness” is the study of 1/8th portion of the 1/3rd portion of prakṛti, completely excluding the puruṣa.

Now, if we are truly interested in quantification, then each of the 7 inner layers is far more complex and diverse than the outer layer. As a crude example, various types of feelings of hurt, pain, sadness, loneliness, betrayal, humiliation, and others, can produce tears. If we see someone crying, we can know that they are unhappy. But we don’t know what kind of feeling they are having to produce tears. Likewise, when a person speaks a few sentences, the things that are unsaid, but lie behind what is said, and should sometimes be inferred by “reading between the lines” are far greater than what is said.

Hence, if we speak about the 1/8th portion of the 1/3rd portion, we don’t mean the 1/24th part of prakṛti numerically, because the inner portions are significantly bigger. How big the inner portion is depends on how sophisticated and mentally developed a person is. There is not much to be read between the lines of a lion’s roar or a goat’s bleating. There is a much richer inner life of a human, and that richness and complexity grow by orders of magnitude as someone advances in internal development. The body however doesn’t grow in size with mental development. The body of a mentally developed person is roughly the same as that of a mentally underdeveloped person. Therefore, if we cannot see how the inner and outer are not related proportionally, and the inner reality can be orders of magnitude bigger than the same outer reality, then we haven’t even formulated a strategy for studying the inner.

The Problem Gets Bigger and Bigger

If we then include the 8,400,000 species of life found across 14 planetary systems then the diversity of prakṛti becomes unimaginable, and what people like to call the “study of consciousness” begins to seem insignificant in comparison. If we then include the varied species of life across infinite other universes, whatever science calls “consciousness” would be completely irrelevant. And yet, even this variety is still prakṛti and not puruṣa. We can begin speaking about the puruṣa only when the person transcends the dualistic experience of the material world into the non-dualistic experiences, which are infinitely greater than all the dualistic material experiences, including those of all life forms across infinite universes. These non-dualistic experiences constitute the true domain of consciousness, rather than the study of the prakṛti, let alone the outermost layer of prakṛti, on a few species, in one of the universes.

Then again, even if we restrict ourselves to humans, where exactly is the mind? Biologists now talk about a “second brain” in the stomach. Since time immemorial there has been talk of the “heart” as the seat of consciousness because brain-dead people are still alive but a person dies if the heart stops. Yoga philosophy teaches us that there are 7 primary centers of the mind along the body’s spine. If science focuses on the brain, it is tapping into only one of the 7 centers. Equating neuronal activity itself to the mind completely fails to account for the other well-known and lesser-known centers of the mind.

Therefore, a huge misconception about consciousness is created when (a) consciousness is equated to content, (b) content is minimized to the outermost layer of prakṛti, (c) the study is restricted to the brain of one species, (d) on one of the planets, in one of the infinite universes, and (e) the nature of puruṣa—which is far greater than everything in the material prakṛti—is disregarded. And yet, science would have us believe that their study of the brain is the study of “consciousness”. It takes unimaginable hubris in a hugely unimaginative mind to claim that the limited study of the brain is the study of consciousness.

Generalizing the Abundant Scenario

Since the beginning of modern science, the most common scenario—within our limited perception—is standardized as the cardinal case under study. Exceptions to the common case are handled by making minor adjustments to the model that describes the cardinal case. Science never takes the exceptional cases as the goals for its theories at the outset because theories are built by “simplifying assumptions”.

The exceptional cases are discussed much later while trying to fit the extraordinary within the scientific conception of the ordinary. The hope is that we would be able to build a rocket by adding more gears to a bicycle. After all, there are many more bicycles in the world than rockets. Therefore, a rocket must have been developed after the bicycle, and the rocket must therefore be an extension of the bicycle.

Simplification is the method of science. Under its effect, people try to model the smallest and simplest parts of nature, and then build complexity from simplicity bottom-up. If a bicycle is the simplest thing we can find, then we must build a rocket by adding more gears to it. In theory, a bicycle can go as fast as a rocket if it had enough gears. And that’s all that matters. People don’t have to think that adding gears to a bicycle is inefficient. If the bicycle was built with gears, and rockets are built after bicycles, then they must be bicycles with more gears. Someone will be compelled into thinking about a rocket in a new way only if the bicycle with more gears can be logically proven to be incapable of working as a rocket.

Change Follows Spectacular Failure

The frog in the well thinks that the ocean could not be bigger than its longest jump. We cannot convince the frog that the ocean is trillions of times bigger than the well. For the frog, the well is itself the ocean. Calling the study of the human brain the study of consciousness is that frog ideology. It is not different from calling the microscopic examination of tears rolling from the eyes the study of sadness.

And yet, until the limited approach fails spectacularly, it is not abandoned. At every juncture, someone will talk about adding more gears to the bicycle. This works well for science as long as the benefits of adding more gears are financially more rewarding than the cost of the gear.

But there comes a point where the cost of a bigger gear just doesn’t solve the problem because we need better roads, the bicycle has to be redesigned to go faster, the tires of the bicycle have to be changed to run faster, and the engine that can drive the bigger gear also has to be rethought. A paradigm shift then occurs because we cannot build a rocket by adding gears to a bicycle. At that juncture, decades of effort spent in building a better bicycle are ruined and people have to start from scratch all over again.

Rational and intelligent people can see that this scientific study is not studying consciousness. That they are not even methodologically equipped to do that study. But the academic system will not allow anyone to tell the truth. Even if someone tells the truth, it will have no real consequences. When intelligence is not used, then the result is the shame of spectacular failure. That hopefully brings change.